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Let Your Children Serve Themselves

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Who puts food on your preschooler’s plate?

According to  the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, it should be the children themselves. Serving meals “family-style,” in which each diner dishes what he wants onto his own plate, is considered best-practice in child care centers. If classrooms of 10 to 16 children can do it, certainly so can you.

There are lots of advantages. Children learn motor skills involved in scooping and pouring and in using serving spoons, tongs, and pitchers. They learn to estimate their own hunger and control how much to serve themselves. Children are more likely to eat what they’ve actually chosen but they are less likely to overeat. Children in child care centers who eat family-style are less likely to be obese.

We don’t believe children can do it. We think they will make a mess. And, of course, they might. Kids do need to be guided in how to use serving utensils and they need help to make certain they don’t knock over a cup of milk while scooping up some macaroni. Like any other skill, we have to show our children what to do and give them plenty of opportunities for practice.

We don’t believe children will do it. We worry that they will serve themselves too little or nothing at all. Keep in mind that children will not starve themselves. Given a chance to choose from the good food you put on the table, they will pick what they are likely to eat. They are actually likely to eat more and waste less than if grownups fill their plates for them.

We think it takes too much time. Well, what’s the hurry? Mealtime should take whatever time it needs. With practice, children will become more adept, even as adept as you.

Parents spend a lot of energy worrying what their children eat and how much. It’s time to let children take charge. Free yourself from insisting your child clean her plate – a plate you dished up – and invite her to sit with you and eat what looks delicious.

If nutritionists don’t worry, why should you?


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.