One reason for the national obesity epidemic is that parents teach kids to clean their plates.  And the portions on those plates are both larger, and more calorie dense, than ever before.

How else can we explain the fact that almost all adults finish all the food on their plate, regardless of how much food there is or how hungry they are?

  • In a recent study 91% of adults reported they had eaten every bite of their last meal.
  • 28% of the adults said they had finished their food even though they had been full.

There’s no research I know of that has tracked the connection between these parenting techniques and the adult habit of plate cleaning, but it’s the only feasible explanation. Parents have to be teaching kids this trick.  By telling our kids to clean their plates, take two more bites, or pressure them to eat more than they would without a little intervention, we’re producing adults who follow our advice: they gobble up all the goods.

Plate-cleaning is planned behavior.

Most research shows that people unconsciously eat more when confronted with big portions.  Read Size Matters and How Big is that Bag? Eating in the Age of Portion Distortion.

What’s surprising to me about this research is that it shows that most people set the intention to clean their plates before they sit down to eat.

  • 86% of the people in the study said they planned to consume the entire meal from the outset.

This has got to be learned behavior.

Even the folks who ate past the point of satiation didn’t blame their over-consumption on unconscious eating.

  • 77% of the people who continued eating past the point of fullness said they did so to avoid wasting food.

That’s parent logic if I ever heard it!

Once learned, plate-cleaning is a hard habit to break.

  • All but 18% of the people who planned to clean their plates stuck to their mission. And most of the people who revised their plan did so by taking another helping.  In other words, they revised their plan by eating more than the original portion size.  Only 7% ate less than they planned because they were full.

I’m really not interested in pointing the finger at parents. (Though I wouldn’t blame you if that’s what you took away from this post.)

But I think we can use this study as a wake-up call, to show us that sometimes we teach our children unintended lessons—even when we have the best intentions.

Today, in this age of portion distortion, when a sandwich at Panera packs in almost half a day’s worth of  calories—a Sierra Turkey on Focaccia with Asiago Cheese has 920 calories and a kids’ size macaroni and cheese delivers almost 500 calories—we have to ask ourselves: Is finishing their food really the habit we want to teach our kids?

Habits learned in childhood last a lifetime.  Unless your adult children deliberately (struggle to) unlearn them. 

So rather than push children to eat more, I suggest we teach kids to:

We also can:

  • Reduce how much food we put on our kids’ plates, so at least they consume less when they do clean their plates. (Offering less food also has the unintended benefit of enticing reluctant eaters to sample the offerings.  Read When Less is More.)
  • Believe our kids when they say they’re full.  Read The Dinner Dance: When is Enough Enough?

I know, this approach won’t solve the problem of getting your kids to eat their veggies—but there are habits more important  than veggie-eating— and it won’t get your toddler to sit still long enough to stave off a meltdown.  These problems can be solved in other ways though.  For ideas read Playing For Peas,  Why Won’t My Child Eat Dinner?, When Playing is More Fun Than Eating, and The Upside of Hunger.

Remember, it’s not what you feed, but what you teach, that matters.

 ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


Source: Fay, S. H., D. Ferriday, E. C. Hinton, N. G. Shakeshaft, P. J. Rogers, and J. M. Brunstrom. 2011. “What Determines Real-World Meal Size? Evidence for Pre-Meal Planning.” Appetite 56: 284-89.