Stop the power struggles at meals – why I like buffet style meals

Thank you for the awesome response to my last blog post on “dessert after dinner?”, the Facebook post had 24 shares and over 4000 views – this is obviously a topic parents want to talk about. so I promised you a sequel to the post – weekend meals.

Often called “family style serving” in America and “buffet style meals” in Australia – the premise is the same and this is one of my TOP recommendations to parents with children with fussy eating issues.


So what is buffet style meals?

no pre-plating: all of the components of the meal placed in separate bowls on the table: 1 bowl for mashed potato, 1 bowl for chicken etc

– Everyone serves themselves using tongs, including children. Now some children especially young kids will need your help, but they also need to participate in serving themselves a portion

– everyone has to take a serving from all the bowls – it doesn’t have to be big – one bean will do!


Before you jump in and tell me why this won’t work in your family, here’s some info that helps all my patients:

1. The underlying premise comes back to your “division of responsibility” by Ellyn Satter –

Parent’s responsibility: you decide what time the meal is going to be, you decide where ( ie the dinner table) the meal will be and you decide what to serve (think back to my last post – always make sure there is a safe food – in our photos above, it is bread and chicken)

Child’s responsibility: they decide if they will eat it and how much – so whilst they have to take a serving of everything (make it achievable eg 1 pea, 1 green bean), they don’t have to eat it, they can “learn about it”. To stop them overloading their plate with the safe food, I always ask parents to tell children to take “one serving” – they can always come back for more of their safe food – and you need to honour this.

2. Buffet style meals stops power struggles. If you are plating food prior to meals and placing the predetermined servings on a child’s placemat and they then have a meltdown because they don’t want to eat the “broccoli” – you have already lost – the meal is not fun, there are tears, you have increased their adrenalin (fight-flight response) and decreased their appetite. Buffet style serving means they have some control with the meal and the “mood” around the table has suddenly changed.

3. Yes, it’s time consuming serving everything in separate bowls and then having to wash up all the bowls is a lot of work and as a mum, I agree! But make it easier for yourself if you need to, use takeaway plastic containers or even cheap paper plates and then throw them out. Or buy cheap colourful containers from the $2 shop so you don’t have to invest in expensive fancy bowls that could break.

4. One more convincing point? Buffet style eating helps children learn about their own appetite cues, some of the research is saying that this helps long term with the fight against obesity.


Do I practice what I preach?

In the last post, I told you that during the week we have separate meals (adults and kids) but yes, on the weekends, I definitely serve meals “buffet style” and we make it super special – the kids get the special tablecloth out, set the table, we light candles and we all sit down at the table. I buy different coloured tongs and they absolutely love being the “adult” and serving themselves. It does work too – because the mood is different (the focus is off the food and on the family’s conversation). I also find that when they serve themselves, they often eat more and try foods that they would have probably made a fuss about had I pre-plated (like roasted beetroot in the photos above – the boys loved it).

Now for some kids with significant restricted eating issues, we definitely adapt and slowly work up to buffet style meals but this is where you need a feeding therapist to set specific small step by step goals. But my premise is still the same: we need to eat with our kids and we need to eliminate the mealtime battles that cause tears and tantrums on both sides.

I hope I have convinced you to try this approach for at least one meal a week. Most parents understand that they need to plate up some of the family food on their child’s plate even if they don’t eat it but buffet style meals takes it one step further, rather than your child ignoring the family food on their plate, they are motivated to interact with it by looking at it, incidentally smelling it and touching it using utensils – it increases their exposure much more than pre-plating which increases those small steps up to actually eating the food. They can’t just ignore the serving on their plate – they put it there – love love love it!

I would love to hear your experiences – do you use family style/buffet style serving at home? Do you do it on the weekends like us?

Happy Eating


This website and information on this blog post is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant or intended to replace Speech Pathology assessment and management nor medical or nutritional care for a child. It is recommended that you discuss any concerns or questions you might have with your Speech Pathologist and managing Doctor and develop an individualised team plan specifically for your child