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Weeknight dinner: how do you serve?

I recently just purchased a dining room table that seats more than 4, so for the first time ever I have the option of family-style serving rather than making plates for my family. I also have small kids (3 & 1), but the 3-yr old serves himself family style at school so I know he's capable. Here's my dilemma: I love the idea of family style and everything I read says it's better for kids to serve themselves (learning good eating habits) rather than be forced to eat what's given, but I hate the idea of washing serving bowls on top of the pots & pans and plates! My husband and I both work full time, so most nights I'm home with the kids at 6:00 trying to get cooking and eating done by 7:00 for bedtime at 8:00. Extra cleanup does not appeal. Are any of you making these trade-offs, or have pros/cons I didn't consider?

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  1. We eat together as family at least 5 nights a week but never "family style". The main reason is as you said clean up. Most food goes from the pan to our plates. Why dirty another dish if I don't need to? Even things like a large steak or roast chicken that needed to be sliced on a cutting board will stay on the board in kitchen.

    Obviously there are a few exceptions. I might put the salad bowl on the table as I like to eat after meal not with it on the same plate. if there are rolls/bread I will serve them in basket with my warming stone to keep them warm.

    Honestly? kids benefit from the family being together no matter how or what you are eating. They will learn good eating habits, portion control and manners simply by watching you and your husband. Save yourself some dishes and instead get the kids involved in the kitchen to help cook and let them serve themselves from there. Soon you will get a break as they can eventually start cooking for you!

    2 Replies
    1. re: foodieX2

      Totally agree about involvement in cooking. My 3-yr old pulls his chair up to the counter most nights to be my "sous chef" (or "shoe chef" as it sounds when he says it!). He measures and sprinkles and pours into pots. I definitely see him eat better when he's helped in the prep.

      1. re: foodieX2

        FX...exactly what we did...this way it was their choice and how much they wanted. And generally it was never a problem, unless say they did not feel well. Further, we found that it gives an outlet to express themselves, and we noticed over a period of time, that we got their input into our family meals. This was the start of our family time, and it works well today, with five ranging from 35 down to 20.

      2. we eat together. mostly i plate from the stove, but I do "decant" somethings into serving pieces.....salad and condiments, mostly. i have a dishwasher, though, so i don't really give much thought to clean-up. i have a three year old, too.

        1. Same story at my house, late dinners due to work/sports and we are 4 people, small table. We usually plate the food right from the cooking vessel(s) but then I put salad or side veggies on the table for seconds. For a more leisurely weekend meal, I might put everything in serving dishes for family style.

          1. Until the children are 5 - 6, you should serve them but allow them to express quantity preferences - just 3-bites to more, please.

            For us, "family style" is using the pots/pans as the serving platters.

            How ugly are your pots/pans or containers for leftovers? With "just us", we most often place the pans on the nice trivets on the table and serve from them. Alternatively, we move the food immediately to the containers that will hold / store the leftovers, serve from those then just lid & refrigerate.

            1. We always eat as a family and my group prefers to be served family style. Like you, the idea of extra pieces to wash did not appeal at all.

              Because we like leftovers for lunch the next day, I always cook more than we need for the one meal. It occurred to me that rather than using serving pieces and then putting the food into storage containers, I could just put the food into the storage pieces and use them as a serving piece. After dinner, I just snap on the lids and put in the fridge.

              It helps that I recently purged my kitchen of plastic and bought a glass set of storage containers from Costco. They look a little prettier and that makes me happy.

              1. Sometimes we eat family style, sometimes I serve on plates from the stove. But even when I put a "platter" on the table, it's the dish/pot/tray that the food was cooked in. My family (kids ages 8 and 6) is not that fancy that they require (or would even notice!) proper serving dishes for a weeknight dinner. Often times, I will serve everyone from the stove but then if they want more, they can take it themselves.

                If we have company, that's a different story.

                1. I like the idea of upgrading my already-worn-out plastic storage containers and using them to serve, then store leftovers. Thanks MidwesternerTT and baseballfan for that idea!
                  Not sure I'd want to put pots/pans on the new table, both for risk of damaging my new furniture (even with trivets) and because I don't want hot pans within reach of my still small kids. But it's not an aesthetics issue, and probably a good option in a couple more years.

                  1. We both work but try to make dinner at least a couple nights a week during school nights. Typical table set up requires oldest son to set the table. Place mats, plates, silverware and glasses. Food goes onto serving platters and we all serve ourselves. If a particular platter is hot because its been in the oven to keep the food warm while rest of the food is being prepared, the person sitting closest to that serving dish will serve the others. Youngest son then clears the table. Last night, we had a platter with the main course, a sauce dish, a serving dish with rice and a salad bowl. Everything then goes in the dishwasher. Don't feel as though using serving dishes adds much to the work. Dog even helps out by cleaning the platters of any leftovers. ;)

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Bkeats

                      Do you run the dishwasher every night? Mine only runs about twice a week now, though usually the top rack is full of baby bottles and the bottom is still half empty, so I guess I'd have room for serving pieces that were dishwasher safe.

                      1. re: jboeke

                        Usually run it every other day at least. Sometimes everyday if there have been a bunch of kids hanging out at our place and they've been snacking and drinking. If we don't run it every other day, it begins to stink so we want to run it even if its not full. I know that's not green, but I don't want to be growing green things in the dishwasher.

                        I think it will be easier when your kids are older and can help out. But that's also when its most important to be sitting and having dinner with them.

                        1. re: Bkeats

                          My mom swears by the rinse cycle if you are not running the dishwasher daily - should keep it from getting stink without doing a full wash.

                    2. Day in and day out it's buffet off the stove etc. Easy, quick clean up.

                      1. I do a combination, depending on what's being served. If it's something big like lasagna or enchiladas, we serve from the stovetop/counter, so the tray doesn't take up a bunch of room on the table. If we make rice in our rice cooker, I leave the cooker on the counter and serve the rice from there.

                        Most other items are put into Pyrex serving dishes and kept on the table. I try to use serving dishes that I can store the leftovers in (I always cook a little extra for lunch or to eat the next day).

                        We run our dishwasher almost every night, between breakfast dishes, a hubby that works from home, and dinner, plus the kids' lunch containers. I just throw the Pyrex containers in the dishwasher when we clean up, unless they are going into the fridge.

                        1. It's only 2 of us and I will occasionally pull out serving bowls but mostly only for special dinners. Otherwise we plate from the stove.

                          1. Just the two of us. I usually plate off the stove. Condiments and extras at the table for self serve preferences.

                            1. I raised my children without working outside the home.
                              Every single night that passed, as I stood and washed a billion dishes and pots and pans from the family style dinner I'd serve, and exhausted as I did them, I would wonder how mothers could possibly do what i did and work full time on top of it. My deepest respect for you, truly.
                              My belief is that it's great to sit, as a family, and eat together. It's the talks and the togetherness that matters, not the amount of serving dishes on the table.
                              Be easy on yourself. From my experience, if I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I wouldn't worry about all the extra work I created for myself and I would have been easier on *me*. Your children will remember the great food you cooked, the fun they had talking and sharing and the time they got to spend with you, their mother.
                              Your children will learn about good eating habits as they evolve. During the week, as you're working, I would suggest you give your family the food on their plates. On the weekends, or the nights you don't work, make it 'family style'. You sound like a very loving, thoughtful mom.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: latindancer

                                What an unexpected compliment! You just made my morning! I couldn't ever do it without my husband, who washes dishes while I sit with the 3-yr old slow eater and try to get him to finish in under an hour...

                                1. re: jboeke

                                  Indeed, if I ever have a family this will be my goal. I miss family dinners from my childhood although meals with SO on the couch aren't that bad but it's so nice to wind down with a proper dinner, tablecloth and all.

                              2. I also plate the dishes from the stove for every day dinners. I just don't have it in me to dirty and wash extra serving dishes and platters. I love feeding my family and I love having time with them in the kitchen. But yeah, as a full-time employed mom with a couple of significant volunteer commitments, my time is precious and I cut corners where I can. Extra dishes is one of those ways.

                                1. Personlly with small kids (3 and 7) we find it easiest to eat in our kitchen which is barely eat-in for 4 (making use of a fold-out table and folding chairs). I find it much easier to help the kids with cutting their food, pouring milk etc when I don't have to get up to get to their place setting! Also the stove and fridge are close at hand for refills, any condiments that have been forgotten, etc. So much easier this way. We rarely sit down for more than 20 minutes so making a big production of serving plates and bringing everything to the dining room is not worth it to me. I do think family dinner is important as well as eating the same food but I am not hung up on the details. We have guests often enough that they know "how it's done" more formally in the dining room.

                                  1. It's been a long time since my own children were 3 and 1; and I was suddenly single when they were both in elementary school. We at meals at the table, together, several times each week. We plated from the stove; each person could decide what quantity s/he wanted to eat, and everyone chose "some" of each food offered. I frequently accommodated food preferences in the offerings, but not always. Our small ones learned to make their own sandwiches if the dinner was completely off the charts on dislikes (diplomatic menu design... 3 out of 4 votes wins on choosing the main course).
                                    And... sometimes we would put the cooking dishes on the table with trivets. If someone happened to brush against a warm casserole, s/he would be more careful next time. None of us has scars (from the dinner table).

                                    1. I grew up with family-style, and always considered it a PITA, regardless of dishwashing. You can't eat until all the food has been passed to everybody, getting colder. Or you ignore this rule, and one child has finished his first portion before Dad gets his first bite (Errr...that would be me). Much better to plate in the kitchen, run plates out two at a time, and start eating *together*---which is a major point of family meals. IMHO.