Unless your child is a hearty eater, most parents find themselves cajoling their little ones to make a big dent in their dinner, or at least eat their vegetables. But some parents push their children to polish off everything on their plate in an effort to make sure they’re properly fueled or to prevent food from going to waste. But can encouraging your child to join the “clean plate club” backfire?
The vast majority (85 percent) of parents try to get their children to eat more food at mealtime through reasoning, praise, and food rewards, according to a 2007 study published in the journal Appetite. In some cases, parents have to be persistent: Another study in the same journal found that parents may need to try 14 times to get their child to eat a vegetable they didn’t like in the past.
But there’s a difference between encouraging your kids to have a bite of broccoli and pushing them to clean their entire plate. In fact, the latter can have negative health consequences, and backing off is generally best. A September 2015 preliminary study noted that parents who are overly controlling about their child’s eating habits — such as getting them to eat more even though they feel sated — can increase the likelihood that their child will become overweight. The study suggests that putting less pressure on kids to eat may reduce the child’s risk of obesity.
The lead researcher of the study told CNN that 50 to 60 percent of parents surveyed required their kids to finish all the food on their plate at mealtime and that up to 40 percent encouraged their children to keep eating even after their kids said they were full.
Other research supports the link between clean-plate eating and obesity: A study out of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that preschoolers who are told to clean their plates are more likely to request larger portions of food when eating outside of the home, which may make them more likely to become overweight or obese.
A 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that parents of normal-weight kids were more likely to pressure their adolescents to clean their plates when their kids said they weren’t hungry, compared with parents of overweight and obese children. The study also found that fathers were more likely to apply pressure and that adolescent boys were more pressured to eat by their parents than adolescent girls.
Fifty to 60 percent of parents require their kids to finish all the food on their plate at mealtime. (Photo: Getty Images)
What the experts say
“In the 1950s, cleaning your plate meant something different,” Katie Loth, a registered dietitian, doctoral candidate, and research assistant at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, told HealthDay. “Portion sizes have gotten bigger over time, and if you encourage kids to rely on environmental indicators, like how much food is on their plates or the time of day, they’ll lose the ability to rely on internal cues to know whether they’re hungry or full.”
“Parents need to allow their children to have freedom when eating,” Loth added. “Parents can control the types of foods that are on the table, and you can bring lots of healthy food to the table. Then let your child choose how much they want to eat. Let them regulate their own intake.”
Other experts recommend being a role model at mealtimes. “Children will eat like you do,” Michael Hobaugh, MD, chief of the medical staff at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago, told HealthDay. “You have to model portion control and good food choices. The whole family needs to make a decision together to increase the amount of fruits and veggies and to reduce empty calories from drinks.”
What the parents say
“My kids are super picky. So we have to push them to eat more at dinner or else they will be asking for snacks later. It’s a constant negotiation.” —Evan K.
“My wife often encourages our kids to finish eating the food on their plates despite cries of satiety. When I look down at a 12-inch plate, I see almost 114 square inches of food. That seems like a lot! Our portions in the U.S. seem [huge] and inconsistent with a healthy lifestyle. I remember putting little bits of food on my kids’ high-chair trays when they were little. They would eat until they were done and then throw it back at me. Maybe they had it figured out.” —Jason M.
“I was assured by my pediatrician that kids will eat what they want and need. Sometimes my daughter will eat so much and other times she eats like a bird. If she asks for four pieces of shrimp and only eats three, I’m not going to get nutty. Eating should be pleasurable, and forcing a kid to clean his plate may lead to bigger issues in the future.” —Stephanie K.
The bottom line
There’s a difference between encouraging and pushing. Some children need encouragement to have a stalk of broccoli or to take another bite of their sandwich so they won’t get hungry an hour later. But pushing kids to clean their entire plate can lead to overeating and may teach them to ignore their own internal hunger and fullness cues — both of which, in turn, increase their chances of becoming overweight.