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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Family-style or restaurant-style?

How do you serve meals?

I've been thinking about the pros and cons of each style. I grew up with a mother who always plated at the stove. When I set up our kitchen, I dedicated a strip of counter space to plating up dinner plates every night. It's something that feels ingrained in my approach to meals. But even old habits can be changed, if warranted.

So, I wanted to think through the pros and cons of each style of serving meals.



Ease of serving supper, especially if cooking vessels can go stove to table.

Everyone takes however much they are hungry for. Presumably less waste, combined with opportunity for "seconds" if someone's hunger is greater.

Everything can come to the table hot.

Family-style could serve as incentive for stragglers to get to the table on time.


If cooking vessels can't go to the table (amount of space on table in relation to size of pot/pan/casserole dish), then foods must be transferred to serving dishes, negating some of the time savings of family-style.

For me, I have a motley collection of hand-me-down pots and pans. They wouldn't be attractive on the table in their current state.

Potential for more scraps of leftovers to deal with.

Some individuals might not take the proper-sized portions (whether too large or too small), or take unbalanced meals (more starches, fewer veggies, or mostly meat and nothing else, or to the other extreme, only salad).



The total amount of food can be divided between all the plates, as the cook deems appropriate.

Leftovers can be minimized, or purposefully reserved for lunches or a future meal (important when trying to cook for two meals, and save enough for the latter meal).

The table can look more visually appealing and less cluttered.

If not everyone eats at the same time, individual plates can be filled, and kept warm in the oven for late-comers, meaning no one gets stuck with just the leftover bits.


It takes time to serve each individual plate, time that is mostly performed in isolation by the cook. Whereas, time spent serving selves could be considered part of "family time".

Serving all of the plates at the stove requires a "station" for plating. Kitchen counter space could possibly be put to better use, particularly in small kitchens.

The hybrid approach

Serving meals doesn't have to be one style or the other. There are hybrids. For example, my grandmother often set up a buffet, on her kitchen counter. We would file through her narrow, galley kitchen and each fill our own plates. My own mother filled dinner plates with the main entree at the stove, but we passed a salad bowl at the table. And of course, one day, meals could be served restaurant-style, but the next be served family-style. There's no rule that says things must always be done the same way.

Does one serving style reduce food waste, and therefore save money? It could be argued that serving oneself at the table lessens waste, as individuals only take what they feel hungry for. But then again, by my plating each person's supper, I can make just exactly how much I feel we will all eat, then divide it all up fairly. So, maybe neither method is superior in reducing food waste.

Does one method save time over the other? Well, it would appear that serving family-style would save my time, up front. But if extra serving dishes had to be used (other than the cooking vessels), than that saved time in plating meals would be used in cleaning up extra dishes.

How about the happiness factor in mealtimes? It does make a person feel taken care of, to have their plate served to them. But then again, it is such a cheerful image, a family gathered around a table, sharing their stories of their day, as they pass the food items around the table.

I guess the answer is which method fills the most pertinent needs, in general, and at the moment. What pros and con have I overlooked? If you prefer one method over the other, why?


  1. My mom typically served family style, though admittedly she just put trivets or potholders on the table and mostly just put the pans right on the table unless we had company.

    Maybe because we started out in a house where we ate in the kitchen, we just plated in the kitchen and still do. And some of that may also be due to the fact that we still have younger children and I dish to be sure they take at least a little of each item. It's also harder to mindlessly eat if you have to physically get up to get seconds.

  2. This is a really good question.

    When the kids were little it is obvious that plating for them was the way to go but hubby and I always got to fill our own plates. When the kids got older, I let them choose how much to fill their plate which was often done at the table. They still do that today always. I do not choose for them what they should eat by plating for them. Sometimes someone wants more veggies and no meat or that extra scoop of scalloped potatoes and very little veggies. I can't feel for them what they want. With all that said, I often do a buffet where they pick up a plate and fill it in the kitchen which is only a few steps from the dining room. Sometimes I put the pots on the table or I might transfer the food to "prettier" serving platters.

    If I know that the pot of mashed potatoes had only four potatoes and might not give everyone a portion I would introduce the dinner by saying "take a smaller portion of potatoes to start with to make sure everyone has a scoop and then you can always go get seconds if there are any left". Another thing I do if I serve buffet is that after prayer at the table I introduce what dinner is and if there will be dessert I tell them that too so they "save room" for dessert.

    But Lili, I really see the point in plating at the stove and I might try that this summer when the kids are home. We have never been a snack eating family so the meal has to keep us filled until the next morning. I have noticed that my son in college has gained a lot of weight due to the wide array of foods offered. I need to limit his food to healthier portions and plating at the stove might be helpful. The problem is that he is an adult and can buy whatever snackies he wants. He never was this overweight when he was younger and lived at home. It all started at college. I think this will also help to keep the budget in check this summer.

    Some very good things to think about here so thank you.


  3. We are a family-style family, much like Cat's mother--unless we have company, I don't bother with serving dishes. I plop the pot or pan on a potholder and serve it from there. But ... I often do partial plating at the table, especially if we have a limited amount of food available. It's just easier than passing around heavy pots and pans. I do think that if we ate buffet-style, it would require the effort of getting up to get seconds, and that might be a healthier thing, but ... to me, the biggest pros to both styles is that the food is prepared at home and people are sitting down to eat together as a family. I have a small kitchen so eating buffet-style would get on my nerves if I had some last-minute food prep to do--all those people in my way!!!

  4. I always plated in the kitchen with the kids with me telling how much they wanted when younger. Now that they are older they get their own food. My dh will slice the meat (Turkey,ham, roast beef) and then fill his plate in the kitchen. He will come in to see how much he wants at time, other times so I just plate his. He is trying to lose weight so I try giving him less and he never takes seconds any more. I always plate for myself last. Cheryl

  5. Very thorough, thoughtful analysis, Lili!! I think it is worthwhile taking a good hard look at any and all repetitive habits, as to whether they serve a purpose. Lots of savings in time and money over time, if I can challenge every mindless habit I can think of...of course some habits are harder to break than others.

    As for us, we eat so informally, and don't eat together...what? We see enough of each other, that we actually prefer eating by ourselves and reading/watching videos on the computer as our "break" from being together all day. Sometimes, we plate for each other, if the other person is busier. Sometimes, we have to dig deeper into the recesses of our fridge/freezer to look if there is anything to eat on those DIY forage your own meal days, when we decide ahead that no meals will be prepared and we each have to find our own food. I love those days the best, because we can stray and eat what we want, leftovers, freezer foods or make our own simple meal. Sometimes, my husband will ask if I care to eat what he's going to prepare and make for two of us. Every day we generally do what we want in the kitchen, and do just a small amount of coordination of what to cook next. Maybe this is a lazy habit that needs to be broken, and meal planning and dining properly is better for a lot of reasons. Then there is the issue of our own personality type and preference to contend with.

    I think of when we were away on a trip, and the question every day was whether to eat buffet or restaurant sit down. I'm always happiest when I can see the food in front of me and sample first, then go back and have buffet is always my choice.


  6. Hi Lili,
    I was brought up with family style and kept up with that as the children were growing up (plating for them at the table when they were very young). Now it is just DH and me and I find myself plating from the stove more often, with the exception of salad and veggies, which we should eat the most of anyway!
    I like to do a buffet when we have company.
    Jo Ann

  7. After the kids were old enough to know what/how much they wanted to eat I quit plating their meals, but would offer not so subtle suggestions that vegetables were not optional. Now that it is just us TheHub and I plate our own meals from the kitchen directly from the pans they were cooked in, so it is more like a buffet without the pretty serving dishes. When we have company, depending on the numbers we either have a buffet or family style service from the dining table

  8. Very interesting post and comments. When I was growing up, I was exposed to both styles. My mother always plated things for us, but with my dad and step-mom we always ate family style. I think it sorta depends on what your priorities are.

    Plating certainly gives more control to the cook - which could be good in certain situations. Plus, you'll inevitably end up with fewer serving dishes etc to wash. Even if you put most things out on pot holders, you'll always end up with a few serving dishes to wash that you wouldn't otherwise have.

    But family style definitely promotes more of a sense of sharing and family togetherness. It gives more control to the "eaters" which, in my experience, people seem to appreciate. There's also a certain subconscious negotiation process that goes on over who gets which pieces, and how much of each thing people take. I always enjoyed that give and take because it gives people opportunities to be polite and kind to each other.

    Maybe this is crazy, but there's something about serving family style that promotes the idea that this is "our food" rather than "my food", which is what you get with restaurant style serving - and I think that's a healthy process.

    Anyhow, when CatMan and I were first together I always plated our meals - just because it seemed easier for only two people. But at some point I started serving family style and he liked it so much that he made a special point of thanking me and telling me that it felt really special to him. So now we always eat family style and it makes for a really enjoyable time together.

  9. I always plate in the kitchen. It is just the two of us so I figure it saves washing the serving dishes. If hubby or I want seconds then we can just get it. If we have company then I do serve family style so that everyone is free to choose how much & what they would like.

  10. Very interesting and helpful comments. You all have such great insight, and views that I wouldn't have considered. And you have given me "how to handle" info for certain circumstances. I had wondered just how you deal with a limited amount of one food item, with family-style. Alice, your way of announcing everyone to take small portions (when something is limited) just makes sense. And Cat, I like the thought that serving family-style is also a learning to share opportunity. I was surprised that you said CatMan actually preferred family-style. Good that he gave you that feedback. And Cat ( other Cat), good point on the how easy it is to graze if it's all just laid out on the table in front of you. I have noticed that in myself, that I will eat more than I'm actually hungry for, on the occasions that we do serve family-style. I will continue to pick at whatever is sitting in front of me. I guess I could make sure that the vegetables get put in front of me instead of the potatoes! There is a control thing with plating at the stove. Sometimes that control can be a helpful thing, such as when someone needs to be eating a specific amount (whether larger portions or smaller portions), or when trying to maintain a lean grocery budget. But sometimes it seems that control should be given over to individuals. Anne, I like the "not so subtle suggestions" about serving oneself veggies. Kris, I used to have a tiny kitchen that was U-shaped. It was so small that if even one other person were in there, let alone the whole family, it drove me nuts. The kitchen was originally billed as a step-saver. I could turn around from the stove and dump a pot into the sink without moving my feet, and I only had to take 1 step to get to the cupboard with the dishes. A step-saver, indeed. But too cramped to have the family in there helping themselves to dinner.

    I'd never really thought about everyone helping themselves from the pots/pans on the stove. That's yet another option.

    I am thinking of maybe following my mom's example, for this summer at least. And plating up the main course, but passing the salad at the table. That would ensure that enough of the heartier part of dinner was on every plate, but begin to give my daughter some opportunities to serve herself some of her meal. I have occasionally had a salad bowl on the table, but not done it as a usual thing. So this will be a new dining experience for us. I have another question, for any of you following the comments -- how do you deal with family members whose schedule is later than the rest of the family? When they do come home later in the evening, do you direct them to the fridge to help themselves from containers, or do you plate up their meal and leave that for them? I'm thinking I would probably pate up those individual meals, and leave them out for them, as I currently do. My son often works a late schedule and doesn't eat his dinner until around 9 or 10.

    I never would have thought there could be so many different thoughts on how to serve meals.

    1. I put things in containers in the refrigerator and whoever needs to eat is welcome to put a plate together and zap it. After dinner is cooked and the kitchen cleaned I am off kitchen duty for the day. (Although if I decide to have a late cup of coffee I will offer to make one for TheHub also.)

  11. As usual, I'm late to the discussion, but I have definite ideas. I don't like it at all when people plate for me. I am a person that eats many times a day and only eats a little at a time including meal time. I always get served too much and am then often questioned about what's wrong with my food. You just learned one of my pet peeves.

    I plated meals for my kids when they were younger, but stopped when the got to grade school age. I too followed what my mother had done because it made sense to me. This was all done family style.

    My mother's rules were as following:

    You had to try a spoonful of everything, but no more if you didn't like it.

    There were limits to some things like meat. There was usually one piece for everyone and if there were any leftovers, we offered them to my father first. He did hard physical work for a living and was often more hungry. After that, we negotiated among ourselves.

    You could serve yourself however much you wanted (within reason) and if you couldn't finish it all, it was saved for the next time you ate. You didn't get anything else to eat until it was gone, but you could finish it a few hours later. So we didn't eat when we were full just to finish something, we didn't waste food, and learned portion control.

    When my kids got older and schedules varied, the food was either left on the stove in the pot or casserole dish or in the fridge if that was needed. Then when someone got home and was hungry, they would just zap whatever they wanted to eat. It was understood that you had to save some for whoever wasn't there. When we could, we had a family style meal around the table or a buffet.

    Everyone does what works best for them and it may take a little tweaking if you try new ways. Good luck as you explore a change. But I think, in the end, you will be happy with some changes (or at least on the days you are really tired.)

    1. live and learn,
      Your response reminded me of a time DH and I were guests and were served plated meals that were HUGE. We both felt that if we did not finish (or come close to finishing) it would have been considered an insult to our hostess. The food was delicious, but we were both miserable for quite awhile afterwards.
      That is why I never plate food for guests.
      Jo Ann

    2. Hi live and learn,
      okay, you brought up a significant issue with plating someone else's food -- the amount can be overwhelming or not enough, when done by someone else. And I like how your mother handled someone taking more than they could eat, just saving it for later for them. We've always done this when someone didn't finish what I served them, just put it into the fridge, and they ate it later, sometimes the next day at lunch, or night with a smaller portion of whatever dinner I made. It is hard to gauge someone else's appetite. One of my family members is just not as hungry these days, so I find that person's plate in the fridge, often.

    3. Thanks live and learn for sharing your mom's rules...makes very good sense. I never had problems plating my children's food, even up to high school. They always ate exactly what was on their plate and never wasted any food. However, our grandkids are a lot fussier, three boys, and they each have very different food preferences, so it is a challenge to not waste food. I think the problem has been, we plated their food, therefore it was difficult to enforce that they eat their leftovers before taking more food at the next meal. The change we will make is to ask that they taste at least a bite of everything, and then serve themselves with the admonition that they have to eat all they take or it will be saved for them to eat later. That way they will have control and responsibility for the food they take, not us, so enforcement will be possible. Ha...hope this makes sense lol


  12. I have a large kitchen. The serving bowls , pots and pans are in one section close to sink , range and fridge. Everyone serves themselves. My husband has never eaten with us . He arrived home after the evening meal. We always ate at the kitchen table( children and I). As a family we eat a meal all together in the dining room most Sunday evenings. We set up holiday meals buffet style on kitchen table and then move to the dining room. My children would walk around loading the plates of my in laws as they viewed the food and chose what they would eat and the portion size. The children would carry the plates for my elderly in-laws to the table. I could do with losing some pounds. I always say if I just modelled my portion size on what my children take and eat I would.
    One family member has a developmental disability. They have always had their meal plated for them. One of our goals is for them to be able to both physically maneuver utensils (scooping,flipping,scraping, cutting). While also learning portion control.

  13. One other benefit of serving family style that I forgot to mention is that it makes it easier to introduce new foods. If left to his own devices, CatMan would eat the same thing at every meal - it's not really that he's terribly picky, but he has some sort of an irrational fear of being served something that he doesn't like and then feeling obliged to eat it. So serving family style lets me try out new things as "extra" side dishes so he can taste them and decide if he wants it again or not.

    Actually... while part of me thinks that he's a little silly with this sort of thing, just think what it would be like if you weren't the cook and had very little control over what you got to eat all the time.

  14. At home growing up, we generally fixed our own plates in the kitchen and ate at the kitchen table. On Sundays, holidays and rare weeknights, we would eat family style.
    Now that I have two very young children and a picky husband (and we both work full-time), I fix the kids' plates and depending on what we eat, I plate my husband's. If it is a food that he does not care for, I'll ask how much or which foods he wants (he usually is sitting at the table with the kids while I am serving up the plates. I usually will serve a bit of everything to everyone to model healthy eating for the kids, but I try to portion it in favor of the foods we prefer.
    My grandmother's house is always family style except for holidays, then it is buffet-style.
    In short, we do what works with the space we have, who is eating, and allow for space and time constraints.

  15. We eat together as a family every night. We do a hybrid serving style. I don't bother with putting all of the food in serving dishes (except when company comes). I have everything on the counter/stove. I usually serve up my husband's plate as a courtesy to him, as he's worked hard all day. Then I have the big kids serve the little kids. Little hands are clumsy and often little ones have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs. So we eliminate as much food waste as possible by serving the little ones. The bigger kids serve themselves. Of course Daddy and I do sometimes have to encourage that someone eat more veggies or that they eat two more bites of a certain food, so that they may have seconds on whatever food item they liked. Melissa


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