Feeding Children: Health versus Freedom? Part 2: The Solution: Family Style Meals

In Part 1 on feeding children, I described some problems that developed with feeding my 3 year old: He only wanted milk and starchy items; some health problems resulted from this; and he didn’t want to eat at dinner time, leading to wanting to eat after being put in bed. I abandoned all pressure tactics (which amounted to just one in the morning) and got to reading to learn about theories on how to present food to children and learn more about proper nutrition for children.

Based on Amazon reviews I read Help Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating. I wouldn’t call my son’s case “extreme,” but it was the most well reviewed book on the topic. This book advocates serving food family style, where all food is put in the center of the table and each person can serve themselves. This, family style meals, single handedly changed everything related to food for our family, for the better.

The authors describe their system as the STEPS+ program. Adults decide “what, when, and where” for children to eat and the child decides “if and how much.”

The adult decides “when”: The authors advocate regular meal and snack times, what they call “opportunities to eat.” For children aged 5 and under, food is offered every 2-3 hours. For children older than this, every 3-4 hours. The adults decide “where:” At the table, family style. And the adults decide the “what,” but this means putting out a variety of food on the table for the child to pick from, which includes at least one food that you know the child likes, a “safe food.” The child then decides “if and how much”: They serve themselves and, while they are eating, no pressure whatsoever is put on them to eat this food or that or to eat anything at all.

I will just get right to when I implemented this: I decided the next day, after reading about this method, to try it. I was getting breakfast ready. Normally I would have just asked my son what he wanted, or assumed he wanted Cheerios, and just gave that to him. That morning I put out hardboiled eggs (they were already made and ready), broccoli, Italian dressing, and Cheerios. I served myself and asked him to come to the table. He saw the food out and said, “But I want scrambled eggs!” I know the parents are supposed to decide the “what” and are not supposed to make food on the fly, but the book says to also “go with your gut” on occasion, especially when first starting out. I was happy to make scrambled eggs: It’s exactly what I used to try to pressure him into eating! So, I made the eggs and set them out, family style. He piled the scrambled eggs (with my help) onto his plate. Then he put Cheerios on top. Then Italian dressing. He ate almost half of this huge helping. He told me while eating, “I love eating.” This was a super success!!

The next day, the same thing: He again took a huge helping and ate almost all of it. He told me while eating (breakfast): “I love eating dinner” and “Mommy, I love eating eggs, Cheerios, and dressing.” My heart! It smiled! This is exactly the kind of relationship with food I want for him: to pile on healthy food and love it.

Here is my son eating eggs, what I used to try to pressure him into eating, with milk sitting right next to him, what I used to offer as “dessert.” He willingly chose the eggs!



The virtues of this style of eating are many and I feel the need to sing them. There are some thinkers who say to offer children limited choices, such as asking “do you want scrambled eggs or hardboiled eggs?” I tried this and it didn’t really work. What if the child says, “I want Cheerios!” With a family style meal, they have many choices, much more than two, to choose from. Unbelievable trust is given to the child, as the authors say to even put out dessert at first, and let the child choose what to eat. And there is something about having the food out that helps. The food tantalizes them. They can watch other adults eating and enjoying the food. It is not an abstract question when asked what they want to eat; the food is right there. I am reminded of the Montessori quote to zip your lips, say nothing, and model things for the child. I find also, with my one year old, that I am much more likely to put a wider variety of food on her plate, because the food is simply there.

It is an act of love to eat with your children. Part of the power of this is that you sit with them to eat. They are much more likely to eat heartily with you sitting next to them. When we go out, instead of grabbing fast food and eating it in the car, we bring food with us and make it a point to eat with my son, even if on the curb of a road. It has warded off the requests for milk while out by doing this.

He asked that his monkey come to the table with us once,


I think this method of serving meals is in line with Montessori philosophy. It’s true that too many people try to say something is “Montessorian,” ranging from how to toilet train to how to praise, when Montessori is really only a theory on how to educate very young children. But let me make my case. In a Montessori classroom, high quality, educational materials are out on open shelves for children to get at any time and use, to their heart’s content. In a family style meal, high quality, healthy food is presented in abundance in front of the child for them to take what they want of and eat to their heart’s content. We also set the table now, which we never did before, which is an activity that Montessori involved children in.

It is true that meals are on a schedule, and food is not out at any time for the child to get, but I’d like to address just that.

There are some books that say to have “healthy” snacks out for the children to pick whenever they want. I have grown to disagree with this. Hunger is a very complex issue. People eat for more reasons than they are just hungry. If they eat because the food simply looks good or for comfort, then, when it is meal time, they aren’t hungry. The book actually advocates that it is important for the children to come to the table hungry, so they understand what this feels like. They then decide how much they eat, so they can learn what it feels like to be full. The authors argue that knowing to eat when hungry and stop when full is a skill to develop.

I am now opposed to grazing, which I used to be guilty of, and I am especially opposed to people who leave junk food out for their kids to get at any time, role model terrible behaviors, then tell the child it’s your job to manage your health and if you eat unhealthily, it’s your fault for making poor decisions. No. Just no. Hormones are serious business and bad habits are hard to break. Healthy behavior needs taught and modeled in loving ways.

Almost every bit of nutrition advice says it is ideal for people to eat 5 or 6 times per day. Setting this routine for your children helps them learn this happy habit. For myself, I can tell you I lost a lot of weight by learning how many calories I should eat in one day and sticking to an eating schedule such that I ate that amount. For instance, a healthy schedule may be eggs at breakfast, fruit as a snack, a 350 calorie lunch, soup for an afternoon snack, then about a 700 calories dinner. Knowing exactly how many calories I want to eat then plotting it ahead of time, then sticking to the rough schedule helps me stay within what I should calorically be eating. If I strayed from this and started “grazing,” which is what happens if you have snacks, even if “healthy” ones, out, I would (and have) sabotaged my diet. As I write this, I think to times of difficulty in my life, such as being pregnant or taking care of a newborn or dealing with health problems, and how much a regular eating schedule would have helped me stick to a diet through these times.

I find this style of serving is very respectful for me as a parent too. I often don’t eat lunch, because I am busy with the children. But if the rule is we all come to the table together, then I eat too. People sometimes see routines as restrictive but this one is quite benevolent. I get to eat before I become starved, hormonal, and desperate for anything.

The books on Positive Discipline describe often the power of a routine. At bedtime, the children might have a routine, drawn on paper, of, say, reading 2 books, brushing teeth, talking about your day, then lights out. The routine, not you and not the child, becomes the boss of what happens. This method is in alignment with this positive discipline tool.

It is nice with this method that parents have some “control” over how children eat, especially when and where. It is nice to have some influence over the “when”: This method resolved many problems for us. We no longer get asked for more food or milk after lights out at bedtime. Mealtimes are mealtimes. I find my son eats a lot more with this method than he ever did before, when I would let a sandwich, chickpeas, or cheerios be out all day. Before this, he was genuinely still hungry at bedtime. Now, he is not.

And it is nice to have some influence over what children eat. This is a source of much confusion and anxiety for many parents. When I let go of all pressure tactics, I didn’t want to influence the “what,” except obvious things like sugary snacks, until I got scientific advice over what a proper diet should be. For the health problems that arose from his past diet, I visited a pediatric urologist. To prevent constipation, they recommended to limit him to 2 glasses of milk per day; to limit rice, cheese, and bananas; and, unsurprisingly to increase other fruit and vegetables. From the book Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, most children more than get their daily protein—many parents try to pressure kids into eating more protein. With solid information underneath me, I did immediately begin limiting how much milk he got. But, I always had water out and available for him to have at any time. I also place water on the table, again sticking with the principle that if it is out they are more likely to drink it.

Before using this method of feeding, I had lined up some kid friendly meals to try, including cauliflower “tater” tots and zucchini “pancakes.” I don’t think I will make them. I think the effort required to make special meals for kids will eventually cause people (or, rather, me) to stop doing it. If the food is what the family makes anyway, the child is much more likely to be exposed to it and learn to like it. Also, when we put out a large amount of food in front of my son, he can then arrange the food as he likes. And it stuns me what he does. He once ate chicken with cheese with a spoon … !? If I made a special food, I would simply be guessing as to what he might like, and then hoping it is what he wants at the moment that I serve it.

Similarly, with my one year old, I am getting rid of any table food that we buy just for her. For instance we bought canned peaches and apple sauce. First, apple sauce is advised against, as it is binding. Second, we, as a family, don’t eat canned peaches (or apple sauce). Instead, I am going to give her fruits and vegetables that we normally have in the house.

I had mentioned in Part One that we did Baby Led Weaning with our 2 children. Using BLW, a child around 6 or 7 months is given table food and jar food is skipped. I was thrilled with this method and I think it transitions very smoothly to family style meals. When the child is ready to have a say, simply give them one.

This method also makes it really easy to get other adults in the child’s life to back off with their pressure tactics, which has been a source of major stress to me in the past. Many people love the idea of a family style meal, where the child eats at the table. So all of the people who think “good” parents “make” their child come to the table to eat and “bad” ones don’t will still judge, but judge positively. And it’s very easy to say to other adults, “We are following the STEPS+ program. We don’t pressure our children what to eat or how much.” I find I have to remind people to wait until everyone, especially me, is ready to sit down at the table, before asking my children to come to the table. The idea is that you sit down as a family, not when you managed to set the table. Part of the power is that my son gets to sit down with his mother to eat, so, if I am not ready, it doesn’t work. And I never use language of coercion. Instead, I make sure he hasn’t grazed in the past few hours, put a feast out, set his plate, sit down myself, and I say, “I would really enjoy your company at the table.” He comes every time.

My favorite part is how often my son tells me “I love eating” or “My food is delicious!” It is just great. This is exactly how food should be seen: as delicious fuel that happily satisfies hunger, not as a source of battles or frustration.

I could sing the praises of this style forever but I will stop for now. If still unconvinced, please read the book or just try it. You might turn into what I am like: Wanting to go up to random strangers to tell them how awesome it is!


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