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Will One Small Change at Meals Influence How Children Eat? Four Families Take Our Challenge

Getting an entire family around the dinner table seems harder lately with all the different schedules (work, meetings, school activities) and food preferences, and while it seems impossible in theory, it really is not impossible and is very rewarding to the family unit as a whole, including:

  • Parents can be more involved in the meal and the time with their children instead of having to jump up and down to get more food;

  • Meals become more fun because families can eat together; and

  • Parents get a change to act as a role model in modeling the behavior of serving yourself and controlling your portion size.

To prove these points, we have started a three week long family style dining challenge with 4 families who volunteered to change their dinner time routine to sit down with the whole family, and allow the children take an active role in the meal time experience by serving themselves, and determining their own portion sizes.

To prepare for this challenge we asked the families simply to:

  • Talk to your kids and explain what you’re doing. Have a conversation about how dinner time will go from now on and give them an opportunity to ask questions and to understand the change. Explain to them that they will now get the chance to serve themselves and decide how much they need to eat.

  • Evaluate your dishes (serving bowls, pitchers, appropriate serving utensils etc.) In order for children to serve themselves, they need dishes and spoons that they can pass or use without much help. You may not need to purchase anything new, rather be mindful of what you have and how you use things. Instead of putting a hot pot on the table, transfer the dish to a bowl. Use a small pitcher for milk or water so young children can easily pour it themselves. Use serving spoons that are big enough and easy enough for a child to maneuver. Use dishes that are made of a material that will not easily break.

  • Be prepared for more mess. While little ones are learning to use the serving utensils or to appropriately pass the dishes, pitcher etc. there may be spills. Be patient, over time these spills will reduce with more practice.

  • Be prepared for waste. It does take time for children to learn how much they need to eat and, especially in the beginning, they may take more than they need. Always encourage them to take a small portion and remind them that they can take another portion, if they are still hungry, and that they need to share with everyone. Don’t encourage or force them to finish what is on their plate. Serving food family-style helps teach children to stay in touch with their own hunger and satiety cues.

  • Put all the food being served in the middle of the table where everyone can reach and have access to all of the foods. With family style dining, everyone serves themselves from the food in the middle and may take as much or as little of each food available (keeping in mind that there must be enough left for others and that they may come back for seconds if their first portion was not enough). The only exception to this is dessert. Give everyone who wants one serving of dessert and let them eat it whenever they want.

As a part of this three week challenge, the families send us weekly feedback based on their experiences, and so far the results have been very encouraging. One mom said that her children “love using a water pitcher to refill their own glasses, not only is it fun for the kids, but the family is drinking more water!” another mom mentioned that while she was worried her son would not eat vegetables given the option to serve himself, he has been serving himself vegetables and has even tried some new foods. While there have been reports of more mess, one mom mentioned that this has actually turned out to be a good thing for her family because now her family pitches in to help her clean up after meals and it further continues the family time togetherness that they were looking for.

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With the final week approaching, we are excited to learn more about how changing their dinner time routine effects these families and to hear if they choose to stick with their new routine or return to their old dinner time habits.

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