Starving kids in India notwithstanding, it’s a bad practice to teach kids to clean their plates. 

OK, so that example dates me.  Maybe these days parents use a different country’s starving kids to pressure their own children into eating, but no matter where they’re starving (even if it’s down the block) teaching kids to clean their plates is simply not the solution.

Putting yourself in charge of how much your children eat teaches them to heed external consumption cues — instead of their own tummies — and that’s a dangerous lesson to learn. 

Researchers who study why we eat as much as we do have concluded:

  • Portion sizes continue to grow and the bigger the bag, the plate, the serving bowl… the more we naturally eat.
  • Once we get used to eating a certain amount of food, that amount becomes our “set point,” an amount we strive to replicate every time we eat.

Of course, parents aren’t trying to teach their children to ignore their own internal signals of satiation when they ask them to finish their food, but that’s what most kids are learning.

Kids are also learning that eating is an arena for control.  Who needs more of that? Read Curbing Your Kids’ Craving for Control.

Add this to the fact that research shows parents aren’t very good at knowing how much their kids should eat anyway, it’s clear that “Clean Your Plate” isn’t an effective strategy to pursue.  Read The 2-More-Bites-Tango: How YOU Can Take the Lead.

Rather than fight with your children over how much they eat, identify what you’re really trying to teach your kids, and teach that lesson instead.

For instance, many parents ask their kids to finish their food as a way to…

1) Teach their children the importance of vegetable eating.  Try serving vegetables more frequently.  The more kids see vegetables on the menu the more seriously they’ll take them.  And, one or two bites throughout the day really do add up.  Read 10 Ways Improving Your Kids Snacking Will Improve YOUR Life.

2) Encourage their kids to eat at meals, instead of 20 minutes later.  Try eliminating after-meal snacks, especially those that are preferable to your kids (cereal anyone?), and then read The Upside of Hunger.

Sometimes, parents who have given up trying to shape what their children eat, focus on how much their kids eat instead.

This is particularly true when kids are both picky and small eaters.  Try cutting back on portion size because this leads many kids to eat more.  Read When Less is More. Then refocus on teaching your children how to eat a variety of foods.  Learn how to do this without introducing new foods by reading House Building 101.

Isn’t it ironic that we spend our children’s first few years encouraging them to eat more and the rest of their youth hoping they’ll eat less?

Remember, early lessons last a lifetime!

 ~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Sources: Wansink, B., 2006. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. New York: Bantam Books.