Funded Projects

Research that shapes the future

The Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families & Schools is an interdisciplinary research center in the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Family Style Dining: An Approach to Improve Healthier Meal Choices in Preschoolers

Project Information

Principal Investigator: Dipti Dev
Co-Principal Investigator:
Funding Agency: USDA
Award Date:
Theme: Early Education & Development
Project URL: N/A

For more information please contact Dipti Dev at


USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provides reimbursement for nutritious meals and snacks for over 3.3 million low-income and minority preschool children daily in childcare, with the goal of promoting healthy child development. However, most research in childcare has focused on the nutritional quality of meals served but not feeding strategies to improve food choice, creating a knowledge gap between food availability and food selection.

A promising but untested approach to improving food selection in the childcare setting is family style dining (FSD). FSD is characterized by preschool children selecting their own portions and serving themselves from communal dishes and pitchers. Further, Ecological Approach To Family Style Dining (EAT-FSD), developed by the project PI, incorporates tenets of Social Cognitive Theory. Using this approach, teachers sit and eat meals with children, modeling healthy eating behaviors without using controlling feeding practices.

National policies for childhood obesity prevention recommend FSD; however the impact of FSD on preschoolers’ healthy food selection and consumption in the childcare setting has not been determined. CACFP recommends the FSD approach, but permits providers to choose between FSD and pre-plated meal service. In a recent study, we found that 34 percent of CACFP providers serve meals family style as compared to 97 percent of Head Start (HS) providers. Further, working in HS predicted teaching children about nutrition and modeling healthy eating, which required providers to practice FSD.

HS and CACFP providers highlighted that FSD created pleasant mealtimes, was easy to implement and provided opportunities to model healthy eating. The objective of the proposed study is to examine whether EAT-FSD improves preschoolers’ healthy food choices and consumption during lunch, compared to pre-plated meal service in CACFP-funded childcare settings. The results of this study can inform USDA-CACFP policy makers, researchers and childcare providers about the impact of EAT-FSD on preschoolers’ eating.