Before becoming a mom, I had visions of serving beautiful, family-style meals with grand roasts and colorful salads at the center of the table. In my daydreams, my well-mannered kids gathered around, politely passing dishes and sharing stories about their day. When I actually became a parent, I realized that reality didn’t quite mirror my fantasy. Not even close. Instead, family meals involve tantrums over not liking my offerings, food being flung onto the floor, frequent trips to refill water cups (is any meal complete without at least one full cup spilling?), and a table decorated with scattered crumbs and wet napkins. Meaningful conversations? Yeah right. I know you’re probably tensing up just thinking about this and yes, managing meals with three small children is hectic and challenging. And yet, despite the chaos, I still prioritize family-style meals because I believe they help kids build a better relationship with food and feelings of connectedness at mealtime.

So, what exactly are family-style meals? Simply put, it means placing food in the middle of the table for self-serving rather than individually plating it. The concept behind family-style eating is to grant kids more autonomy at the table and expose them to a variety of foods in a pressure-free environment. While this idea sounds wonderful in theory (as I once believed), implementing it as a consistent routine can prove challenging, often leading to chaos, rejection, and more time cleaning in the kitchen. But if you simplify the process and keep at it, your entire family will come to enjoy mealtime a whole lot more. Here are some tips and tricks to make family-style serving work.

1. Include accepted foods

More than anything, we want our kids to actually eat the food we serve—and they won’t always jump on an adult-friendly dish. When preparing for family-style meals, be sure to include some foods that you know your kids enjoy, especially when you’re first introducing the routine. Serving these ‘accepted foods’ can work wonders in creating a comfortable atmosphere at the table. Try to incorporate options that aren’t too different from the main meal, like plain pasta if you’re serving lasagna. As a bonus, they’re more likely to be open to trying unfamiliar foods when they feel at ease. 

2. Serve smaller portions

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the mess. Though spills are inevitable, there are ways to minimize them. Don’t fill cups to the brim (toddler parents learn this fast) and don’t pile serving trays with too much food. This way, there’s less volume to spill onto the floor. You can always refill a platter if your kiddos gobble it all up (dreams), but at least you know if that serving bowl of rice topples to the ground you won’t be picking up the pieces for weeks to come.

3. Opt for effortless dishes

What’s more frustrating than seeing the food you spent hours preparing rejected by all three of your kids or splashed onto the floor? Successfully implementing family-style breakfasts, lunches, or dinners requires ensuring that it’s mentally and physically manageable for you. Opting for no-fuss dishes means you won’t be toiling in the kitchen for hours, so you’ll likely care less if your kid start a revolt against corn niblets from a can versus your homemade corn casserole. Other ideas include frozen veggies, canned beans, or easy-to-prepare dishes like microwave cheese quesadillas or breakfast for dinner.

4. Invest in splat mats

Another strategy for managing the mess is to streamline the cleanup process. Lay down splat mats or disposable tablecloths under tables, chairs, and highchairs to catch any spills. This not only reduces cleanup time but also allows you to enjoy your meal with the kids without stressing about the aftermath.

5. Select finger-friendly foods

As your kids navigate the learning curve of family-style meals, offer them straightforward options that they can serve themselves with minimal need for utensils. Think choices like chicken nuggets, fish sticks, mini pizzas, and sandwiches. They’ll feel empowered and you’ll have even fewer drips and drops on the table and floor.

6. Try a hybrid

Depending on what you’re serving, sometimes it makes more sense to only offer certain dishes on serving platters. For example, if you’ve made saucy meatballs with roasted broccoli and couscous, plate the meatballs and let the rest be served family style. You can choose your own adventure based on what works for your meal and your family.

7. Ease into it

Not every meal needs to be served family style. Begin with one per day, or even just one meal each week if that’s more manageable. And don’t beat yourself up when it just doesn’t work. Because sometimes it won’t, or you’ll have had a particularly gruelling day and won’t have it in you, and that’s just fine.

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