Restaurant Style vs. Family Style: The way you serve food to your kids matters.

I love to eat out.  I love good restaurant menus and having someone else prepare yummy food for me and clean up afterwards.  I love trying new things or new spins on old things.  So this blog is not in any way intended to put down eating out or restaurants.  But I want to compare and contrast the restaurant style meal with that of the meal served ‘family style.’  Because it is in this comparison that the beauty and benefits of serving family style really stand out–you’ll see why family style service is so conducive to helping children grow in their acceptance of new foods.

So let’s look at how things flow when you eat in a restaurant.  When you order food in a restaurant you have basically one shot.  This one shot really makes ordering the ‘right’ entree critical.  More so if you like things just so. I know that sometimes both my husband and I can take an awfully long time to decide what to order.  So many choices!   Some people are more adventurous and easy going with food, but with a myriad of options, it’s easy to feel indecisive and pressured.  Then the waitstaff makes its way around again and you have to pick something.  Even though you have no chance to see what the dish looks like (usually) or smells like in advance.

Once you place your order, you get what you get. It might be just what you’d hoped for or something completely different.  But, practically speaking, you don’t get another chance.  Once your food arrives, you’re stuck with it.


Which might be fine.  Your chosen entree will probably be delicious and you’ll probably be pleased and satisfied.  But unless your dining companions like to share, you won’t get to experience one of the myriad of other dishes possible.

This is not a problem in and of itself.  But, let’s look at this from the perspective of a child.

Even adults don’t like to be pushed into making a quick decision about what to eat from a menu. But a young child?  Children are notorious for wanting to stick to what’s safe.  They also don’t usually know what they want to eat…they only know if they want to eat what’s right in front of them.

There’s a saying “the confused mind always says “no”.”  So when confronted with lots of foreign options, and a brief time to decide, most kids won’t want any of it.

Once again, not a big deal in the short term.  Eating out at a restaurant isn’t going to hurt your child or ruin them in any way.  If you order something foreign for them and they don’t like it, no big deal.  If you order something safe that they do like, also no big deal.

But, the restaurant style of serving meals is very similar to how some parents feed at home.  They make up a plate of already-accepted edibles and place it in front of their child.  Or, knowing her child doesn’t already like the entree she’s serving the rest of the family, Mom cooks up something special just for the picky one.  All of these ways of serving a meal have one major thing in common.  Feeding in this way gives your child only one choice: the food currently on his plate.  If you’re struggling with your child’s food acceptance, you may have more success doing things in a new way.

Enter “family style” meals…


Leftover black beans, leftover sweets/yams, broccoli, bread & butter.


Veggie stir fry, rice, tofu and individual frozen blueberry cups for dessert.

The dynamic changes 180 degrees when kids eat meals served family style.  In family style service the entree and sides are all on the table and each person may pick and choose from those selections.  Kids may eat more of some and less or none of others.


Vegetarian ‘meatloaf’, mashed potatoes, salad, toast, apple slices.


Fish sticks, leftover mashed potatoes, boiled peas, steamed carrots.

But, here’s the critical thing:

All of the family food is there, available for learning, the entire duration of the meal. 

It’s visible.

It’s smell-able.

And children can see you eating and enjoying it.

They can sneak up on it, put some on their plate, get to know it, smash it with their fork, maybe even try a taste.

What they turn down at the beginning of the meal, they might muster up courage to try during the last 5 minutes.


Thai lime coconut soup with tofu, buttered toast, apple cake dessert

The options don’t vanish once their plate is in front of them.


Taco soup & tortilla chips, salad, bread, butter, Romanian massaged onions (I was trying an old childhood favorite).

I think it’s a beautiful thing 🙂


Haystacks (Taco salad fixings)

Going out to eat won’t damage your child’s food acceptance.  You should feel no guilt for visiting your favorite restaurant with your children.  But if you want a pressure-free, simple way to help your child learn to like the foods your family eats, consider serving meals “family style” at home.  Serving meals in this way isn’t an instant recipe for turning picky kids into foodies overnight.  But it does support their natural desire to learn and grow in their food acceptance and to learn to like what your family eats.  With family style meals, kids have dozens of opportunities to accept foods during the meal.  They can accept and try a food that they have already mentally rejected several times at that very meal.  Just because they saw someone else eating it and enjoying it.  And even if they don’t choose something new at any given meal, they have had important exposure and it was still a valuable learning opportunity.

For more on the benefits of family style service, see my original blog post on this topic: Family meals and the picky eater.

What about you, how do you like to serve meals at home?  Have you tried family style service?  Got questions about how to make it work with your lifestyle?  Feel free to ask in the comments, I’m always happy to brainstorm with you.

* I want you to know that my husband is behind this post.  He encouraged me to write about this topic–the comparison was his idea 🙂


Posted by Adina
September 14, 2014

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