Making Your Child ‘Clean Their Plate’ Is Not A Great Idea

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shutterstock_147784202__1375630142_142.196.156.251Not only is obsessing over our children “cleaning their plate” stressing us out, it is sending them the wrong messages about nutrition and possibly setting them up for a future of disordered eating.

Nutritionist Maryann Jacobsen gives some great advice in regards to our child’s nutrition in her NYT Motherlode blog this weekend: “ As a family nutrition expert, I don’t make my children eat more when they say they are done, and there is no order in which they must eat their food.” I think it is normal for parents to be concerned over whether their child is eating enough. But we may have the wrong idea about what is “enough” and be instilling some unhealthy habits in our children by pushing them to eat a certain amount in a certain way:

Pushing food is not always about getting children to eat more — it’s also about the quest to get them to eat healthy. For example, caregivers may insist children eat fruits and veggies before other items, or reward children with dessert for eating more healthy food. Unfortunately, this strategy makes children less likely to (intrinsically) prefer healthy foods while making sweets even more desirable. And with all the negotiations at the table, children lose sight of their internal signals of hunger and fullness. By the time they are adults, the “shoulds” of eating rule over their body’s own wisdom and they don’t even know what being “full” means.

This makes a lot of sense. I can say that in my own experience my child eats better when left to his own devices. He is a toddler. I don’t even try to negotiate with him – but if I leave him alone with a book while he is eating I am always pleasantly surprised. I find that if I give him the time and the space to eat his food – he eats really well.

Seeing parents negotiate with their children at the dinner table isn’t uncommon. Seeing them trying to force children to eat their veggies or bribe them with sweets isn’t uncommon either. Are we training our children to hate their veggies by implying that they need to be forced down, while also training them to love sweets even more than they already do by offering them as a reward? Oops.

Jacobsen says that when she leaves her daughter in the care of others she instructs them to “please allow her to decide when she is done eating and to eat her food in any order she likes.” Maybe this is advice we should all follow.

(photo: Africa Studio/ Shutterstock)