Should You Force Kids To Clean Their Plates?

September 12, 2018  |  
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kids eating healthy feeding her child

I have to hand it to my parents because they actually raised me to have a rather healthy relationship with food. It could be because my mom is European and, in a lot of Europe, you don’t really have things like the “kids menu.” If you do find one, it’s often just smaller portions of the same things the adults are eating. I wasn’t reared, from a young age, to have the understanding that I was subject to different eating rules than adults. I ate the things they ate. I wasn’t really presented with chicken fingers and grilled cheese sandwiches. Furthermore, my mom diversified the menu in our home a lot. So, even if I didn’t like this or that healthy recipe she made, she had a 20 more she would try that month. Slowly, we discovered the healthy foods I was happy to gobble up, and my mom adjusted the menu accordingly. It was a seamless process but I understand that some parents feel at a loss when it comes to feeding kids, and they resort to just forcing them to finish what’s on their plates. Unfortunately, that may not be the best method.

kids eating healthy spends time together making cookies

It can be a waste of food

If your child is actually full, and you force her to eat her food, then you are just wasting food. The idea behind forcing kids to eat food can be that it’s a shame to waste it but, if they don’t need more food in that moment, then eating in excess is also a waste. Box it up and save it for later. That’s the real way not to waste food.

kids eating healthy girl eating spaghetti bolognese

They can develop a complex

Children can develop an extreme guilt complex by which, when they simply listen to their bodies, they wind up feeling guilty. They can cry, and punish themselves for not finishing their food, and that feeling of guilt can stay with them for life, essentially destroying mealtime.

kids eating healthy descent grandmother or mother and daughter work together in their home kitchen to prepare vegetables for making a healthy salad. They toss ingredients in glass bowl.

They should learn their own hunger cues

We should teach kids to understand their bodies and learn their own hunger or fullness cues. They should focus on asking themselves, “Am I full?” and “Am I still hungry?” rather than “Is there still food on my plate?” Being in rhythm with their bodies will be important for their overall health for life.

kids eating healthy American mother (20s) and daughter (5 years) at the park, little girl frowning.

It can make them fear mealtime

Children can wind up dreading mealtime. That’s a shame since dinner is an important time for families to connect, catch up, and hear about each other’s day. But if your child is trembling in terror for that moment when she’s forced to finish her food, she won’t be very present.

kids eating healthy students eating lunch in school cafeteria

They may have a food sensitivity

It’s very possible that your child actually has a sensitivity or intolerance to a certain food you are feeding her. But if she is consumed with guilt and fear over being chastised for not finishing her plate, she won’t speak up about her symptoms. And while parents have different views on nutrition, it is always important that your child feels comfortable telling you if a certain food upsets her stomach.

kids eating healthy a hot day in the suburbs, Mom sprays garden hose while kids playfully run through it.

Not all kids need the same calories

Not all kids require the exact same amount of calories as their peers. It’s true for adults so, why don’t we believe it is true for kids? Children have varying activity levels, heights, and other factors that can affect how many calories they need each day.

kids eating healthy woman

They can become overeaters

Children who are forced to finish their plates as children are at a higher risk for developing obesity later in life. Think about the portion sizes offered at restaurants. If someone were to finish their plate each time they dined out, they’d probably put on quite a bit of weight.

kids eating healthy child

It can lead to nausea

When forced to overeat, kids can become nauseous. But then that memory of nausea, surrounding food, can make them nauseous at the sight of future meals. This makes it hard for them to even eat a normal amount.

kids eating healthy eating sandwich on crate on kitchen floor

It takes away their sense of control

We should teach children from a young age that they are in control of their bodies and have the option to stop eating when they’re full, or to eat when they’re hungry. Encouraging that sense of command from a young age can prevent eating disorders later.

kids eating healthy American girl refusing vegetables at table

They could forever hate that food

In all likelihood, parents forcing kids to finish their food want them to finish healthy food, like vegetables. But the force-feeding method can actually make the child dislike that food forever.

kids eating healthy eating cookies

You teach that sugar is a reward

A second portion of the force-feeding method is usually this: “You don’t get dessert until you finish your plate.” But that encourages the idea that sugar and sweets is some sort of reward for a job well done, and can encourage emotional eating later.

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Black family eating salad at dining room table

It’s better to offer alternatives

Rather than force a child to finish what’s on her plate, offer her other (healthy) alternatives. Don’t focus on being the boss here, and making her do what you say. The focus should be on finding healthy foods she’s excited to eat.

kids eating healthy boy eating lunch at school

And praise them when they eat

Instead of yelling when the child doesn’t finish her food, praise her when she does. People respond better to positive reinforcement than fear of punishment—especially children.

kids eating healthy and kids grocery shopping

They’ll grow and learn

You have to remember that there isn’t anything wrong with your child for being a picky eater. That’s just how kids are. Your kid will grow up, and she’ll learn things about nutrition that interest her. She’ll discover that eating this or that food helps her feel good, or this one causes weight gain. We have to remember that there are some things kids figure out on their own because, well, they don’t stay kids forever.

kids eating healthy American mother preparing lunch for children

They may under-eat at school

Force-feeding at home can often lead to under-eating in other scenarios. So at school, daycare, or even at a friend’s home, your child may skip meals because she knows she’ll have to overeat at home.

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