Do you remember the first time you were allowed to make your own meal?
I clearly remember the night I switched our family dinner experience to a family-style service.
Family-style is a way to serve food, usually with meal items on platters and in bowls, centered on the table. Kids and other family members serve themselves. My daughter looked up at me at the end of our meal and asked excitedly, “Mommy, are we going to eat like this all the time?”
She loved having all the food on the table and the freedom to choose her meal. I loved knowing that all I had to do was select the menu and prepare the food.
I knew I was onto something.
Why You Should Try Make-Your-Own Meals
Over the years as a mom and pediatric dietitian, I’ve come to see the value in letting kids make their own meal (or snack). Aside from the smile at the end of a meal, there are some real benefits to taking this approach.
1. Autonomy Fosters a Sense of Capability
When I teach about child nutrition, I always include the topic of child development. I believe it gives parents priceless information about what motivates some the typical behaviors we see in children, like picky eating or asking for specific foods that peers eat.
We know from studies in child psychology that school age children are developing their sense of capability. In fact, experts call this phase the Industry vs. Inferiority phase. If a child learns a new skill, she’s more likely to view herself as a capable human being. If I child fails to learn, or, someone does the skill for her (such as making food choices, or assembling food, for example), she may learn she’s inferior, or incapable.
When kids learn they’re capable, they can grow into independent, autonomous individuals. This feeds into their self-esteem, as well.
Letting kids make their own meals provides an opportunity to cultivate autonomy in everyday life.
2. Self-Service Encourages Learning about Appetite, Food Preferences, and a Balanced Plate
Kids are born learners. In fact, they’re learning about food, what they like and dislike, how much to eat, and how to make a nutritious and satisfying meal. And all this can happen during mealtime!
Letting your child serve herself gives direct feedback so she can keep learning about food and her body. For example, when your child puts too much food on her plate, she learns to take less and come back for seconds. If she doesn't serve herself enough, she learns to take more next time.
She may learn to take small amounts of new foods so she doesn’t waste it. And, by watching you, she’ll learn what a balanced plate looks like.
3. Kids are More Likely to Eat It
I remember watching my kids make their own plates at parties. After giving some loose guidance such as, “pick a fruit or a veggie,” and “choose a good protein source,” I let my kids pick and choose what they wanted to eat. And they’d eat a good meal.
No big surprise. Some research indicates that when kids can be “hands on” with food and in charge of their selections, they’re more likely to eat what they’ve chosen. Plus serving oneself may lead to less overeating and being open to new foods.
4. Family-Style Meals Cultivate Fine and Gross Motor Skills
Cutting a piece of lasagna with a fork and knife, and pouring a glass of milk may seem easy for you and I , but for a child, there’s a big learning curve to climb. Yes, of course, you need to be there for support (especially for the safety aspects of using a knife!), but you’re letting your kid figure it out.
The table is a great place to cultivate the fine motor (cutting or sprinkling shredded cheese onto food) and gross motor (passing bowls or spooning food onto a plate) skills all kids need to learn and develop.
At Sunnie, it’s important that all kids are supported in their developing autonomy and skills with food. Our lunch kits its are designed with this in mind.
If your goal is to raise an independent, healthy eater, you can start cultivating her independence now. Just let your child assemble lunch.
Shine on, friends!
Jill Castle, MS, RDN