“You need to finish your vegetables before you can go outside and play,” says the dad to his little boy. “I want you to take two more bites of your meat,” says Grandma to her preschooler granddaughter.
The “clean plate club” has roots in the days when food was scarce and the next meal was questionable. It’s hard for us to remember those days, because most of us weren’t alive during the Great Depression. But many of our grandparents were, and they knew that when money was tight, or reserves were uncertain, you had better eat when the food was on the table. Our parents, who may have been raised this way, carried on this approach with their own children.
As a result, the “clean your plate” rule continues to thrive in our culture. Yet there’s good reason to think this is doing more harm than good. We face historic numbers of children with weight and obesity problems. Researchers have shown that the Clean plate club and other strategies don’t encourage healthy eating. In fact, these are encouraging practices that reflect an authoritarian feeding style. Here’s what we know.
Parents may disregard their child’s appetite—Babies and young children are born with a natural ability to regulate their food intake, letting parents know when they are ready to eat (hungry) and when they’re ready to stop (full). This leaves the parents with a simple job: to decide on the balance of foods to offer and support their child’s eating as needed. When eating everything or asking for extra bites becomes routine, children learn to ignore their natural appetite signals and eat based on external cues. Research shows that children who eat according to their appetite (called self-regulation) tend to be better at eating the right amounts of food, and those who eat for other reasons (rules, boredom, and others) may overeat or make poor food choices.
Overeating—Polishing off the baby food jar or nudging your toddler to eat three more bites when he or she is showing they are finished eating may teach your child to overeat. We know that overeating can lead to excess weight gain. What parents may not realize is this clean plate club approach can do more harm than good to a child’s health down the road.
Dislike of food—Requiring a child to eat all of his or her vegetables may cause unintended consequences. Rather than helping children like a particular veggie, it may encourage a child to dislike that vegetable.
Dislike of eating—Even worse, if a child is expected to eat certain foods or amounts at the meal table, he or she may learn that the table is an undesirable place to be, or at least a stressful one. Your child may even develop a dislike of eating. Researchers who study picky eating note that picky children who are forced to eat food they don’t like may end up being pickier and less agreeable to eating.
While the clean plate club may give you an assurance about your child’s eating today, it may be undermining his or her own skills and enjoyment with eating, not to mention encouraging later eating habits that may be problematic.
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- “Revisiting a neglected construct: parenting styles in a child-feeding context.” Appetite, 2005, 44, 83-92.
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- “Just three more bites: an observational analysis of parents’ socialization of children’s eating at mealtime.” Appetite, 2007, 48 (1), 37-45.
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