Day care centers may want to take some feeding cues from Italian “family-style” restaurants, scientists say. Passing bowls around the dining table and allowing children to serve themselves may be one way for children to develop a healthier relationship with food and, by extension, help combat childhood obesity.

"Family-style meals give kids a chance to learn about things like portion size and food preferences,” said study author and University of Illinois researcher Brent McBride in a statement. “When foods are pre-plated, children never develop the ability to read their body's hunger cues. They don't learn to say, okay, this is an appropriate portion size for me.”

In an article published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics last October, McBride and colleagues reviewed the feeding practices of child-care providers across the country. There are lots of ways for teachers and parents to encourage healthy eating – and it isn’t about forcing kids to eat their vegetables. Research shows that childhood eating patterns can shape a person’s attitudes about food for life, and that being forced to consume food makes people refuse to eat it later on. Thus the Academy’s guidelines are more focused on guiding children to the right foods, not forcing them.

"Instead of asking ‘Are you done?’ teachers should ask children, ‘Are you full?’ Or they should say, ‘If you're hungry, you can have some more,’” co-author Dipti Dev said in a statement. "Asking the right questions can help children listen to their hunger and satiety signals.”

Dev, McBride and colleagues found that federally funded Head Start programs, designed to provide education, support and nutrition for children of low-income families, set some of the best examples among the day-care programs they studied. Not only did Head Start staff provide more family-style meals, they also tended to sit with children during meals and eat the same foods as the children.

“Possible reasons for this compliance might be attributed to Head Start nutrition performance standards and increased nutrition-training opportunities for Head Start staff,” the researchers wrote in their article. “Head Start programs can serve as a model in implementing the Academy's benchmarks.”

Head Start’s own guidelines outline additional benefits for serving meals family-style. Children may be more willing to try small bits of unfamiliar foods if they see others trying it, rather than if it’s pushed on them; they can also practice table manners and sharing.

SOURCE: Dev et al. “Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics benchmarks for nutrition in child care 2011: are child-care providers across contexts meeting recommendations?” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, October 2013.