Do You Make This Mistake at the Dinner Table?
When I was in 2nd grade, my mom and I lived with her parents—my grandparents.
My most vivid memory of that year is one night when my grandma made dinner for everyone: salmon pie. With salmon from a can. Pink, slimy salmon from a can.
We all sat down to dinner, and I was not impressed. I just stared at that monstrosity of a “pie” on my plate. I could NOT bring myself to eat it.
But in my grandmother’s world, children did not reject what they were given for dinner. They ate it, and they were grateful. Not only were children to eat what was placed in front of them, but children were to finish everything on their plate.
So my grandma made me eat that salmon pie.
I took one bite and gagged.
She said I had to clean my plate. Clean my horribly pink, slimy plate.
I took another bite, and another.
It felt like my throat was slowly closing in on itself.
And then I puked. Pink, slimy…you get the idea.
The thought of that night nearly 30 years ago still causes a physical reaction in me. I start swallowing rapidly, and my throat tightens again. Since then, I’ve never let another piece of salmon cross my lips.
That Was Then
Times have changed. Or so I thought.
A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found that two-thirds of parents still encourage their kids to eat everything on their plates. In another study, 85% of parents admitted to trying to get their kids to eat more using reasoning, praise, and food rewards.
So what’s the big deal? Whoop-dee-doo, I developed an aversion to salmon. Not the end of the world.
But it turns out that pressuring your kids to eat more doesn’t help them maintain a healthy weight. Why? The habit destroys a kid’s ability to read their body’s own internal hunger cues and to know whether they are hungry or full.
That’s one thing when you’re a kid with a relatively high metabolism, but as you get older and your metabolism slows down, that “clean your plate” mentality can mean an extra 5-10 pounds you can never seem to lose. Or more.
And breaking that mentality as an adult takes hard work.
Surely I Don’t Do That
We don’t talk about the Clean Plate Club in our house. We don’t force Abby to finish everything on her plate at dinner.
But if I’m being honest with myself? We have definitely pressured her to eat more after she says she’s not hungry anymore. And on the occasion when I see that she has in fact, cleaned her plate, I have to admit that I get a feeling of satisfaction—like I’ve done my job as a parent.
5 Reasons We Pressure Our Kids to Eat More—And Why We Should Stop
After reading about those recent studies, I reflected on why I’ve pressured Abby. What are the situations where I find myself doing that? And should I break the habit?
You can find a TON of information out there about how to raise healthy eaters, so in my research I focused on advice from nutritionists or other experts as well as advice based on research findings—as opposed to what one random parent thinks you should be doing.
Before you move onto the tips below, a caveat: As I did this research, I constantly caught myself thinking “Well, but…” Changing your thoughts and habits when it comes to food is HARD. Those habits have deep, deep roots. But if you want to teach your child to honor her body when it says it’s full, give these tips a try. If you read one and think “Well, but…” just try it for a week. Then come report back how it went for you. I’m battling my own “Well, but…” here, so I would love to hear what works for you!
1. To Get to Dessert
The author of Fearless Feeding explains the problem with this approach:
We know from research that using palatable foods as a reward makes them even more appealing to kids. And on the opposite end, using healthy food as punishment, to get the reward, makes kids less interested in the healthy food.
The more frequently parents use food as a reward or punishment, the more likely it is their kids will grow into adults who eat in the absence of hunger.
How to Fix It: Serve dessert with dinner.
Make sure to serve a child-sized portion of dessert, and no seconds on dessert after they finish it.
Uh…that sounds completely CRAZY to me. Dessert with dinner? But the beauty of this approach is that it puts all food on a level playing field. At first, your kids will likely eat the dessert first. Then eventually, they’ll learn to enjoy the whole meal—without asking how many more bites they need to eat before they get dessert.
Here’s what one parent said after she tried this:
“I have noticed that if I go ahead and add a small sweet to their dinner plates, both of my girls will eat a more balanced meal instead of ‘holding out’ for dessert.”Ramona, a mom of two young girls
2. To Try New Foods
If I’d let her, Abby would eat mac-n-cheese for every meal. Kids’ reluctance to try new foods is called “food neophobia,” and it is actually a biological instinct to keep kids safe. Knowing that, plus the fact that kids may have to taste a new food 15-20 times before they start to like it, what’s a parent to do?
Forcing kids to try a new food doesn’t work. 72% of adults who were forced to eat a food when they were kids said they permanently refused to eat that food for the rest of their lives. (My salmon aversion!)
How to Fix It: Put your kid in charge.
Renowned feeding expert and dietitian Ellyn Satter developed a proven strategy to feeding kids called the “Division of Responsibility.” Here’s what it means: Parents decide the “when,” “what,” and “where” of feeding—and kids decide the “whether” and “how much” of eating:
So let your child know that you are in charge of what is served but that it’s up to them whether or not to eat. This no-pressure atmosphere increases the likelihood that kids will eat a wider variety of foods.Ellyn Satter
The Division of Responsibility goes against one technique for getting kids to try new foods—the one-bite rule (or the “no thank you bite”). So try the one-bite suggestion instead: When you give your kid a new food, suggest that he try a bite. If he refuses, honor that. But then casually explain that most people don’t like a food the first time they try it. If you keep trying it, it tastes better. (This happens to be how we got Abby to like Indian food.)
Along with taking the pressure off, try presenting new foods in a fun way:
- Serve raw veggies with a fun dip, like ranch dressing, raspberry vinaigrette, or a creamy pesto dip.
- Cut veggies into fun shapes with small cookie cutters. Here’s a 5-pack of fun veggie cutters. Until I looked, I didn’t even know that was a thing!
- Dress veggies up by melting some mozzarella or Parmesan cheese on top.
- Smoothies, smoothies, smoothies. You can make a pretty tasty smoothie with green stuff, even! And your kids will love throwing the food in and holding down the button to pulverize it all. But first, a warning: We’ve gone through a lot of blenders—even had one catch on fire—and you need a high-quality blender if you’re going to make smoothies regularly. Our favorite (and still going strong after three years): the Ninja. We love our Ninja!
You can find lots more ideas here.
3. To Avoid Wasting Food
No one likes to spend the time making a nice dinner, only to scrape half of it off plates and into the trash after dinner. But somehow, it seems just as wasteful to put food into a body that doesn’t need it—the body just converts it to fat that then has to be worked off.
Did your parents ever use this line on you? “Eat up, there are starving children in Ethopia!”
Well, as it turns out, forcing your kid to eat more won’t solve the issue of world hunger.
How to Fix It: Let your kid dish up her own dinner.
Kids shouldn’t be eating the same portion as adults anyway. As long as you’re serving a healthy dinner and your child knows they have to put some of everything on their plate, you have nothing to worry about. (Although if you’re serving dessert with dinner, you may want to dish out the dessert portions yourself—at least at first.)
To help us remember how important small portions are, we got this kid’s plate with four small compartments. (It’s top-rack dishwasher safe and also free of BPA, phthalates, and PVC, which is good because you don’t want any of those nasties touching your kid’s food.)
Here are a few other approaches to avoid wasting food:
- Save their leftover dinner and pack it in their lunch the next day.
- If they don’t finish their dinner and you suspect they may get hungry again before bedtime, put their plate in the fridge. Then if they want more food before bed, pull out the plate and reheat it.
- For fun, serve a meal in a muffin tin once in a while.
4. To Make Sure Your Kid Is Eating Enough
If you’re stressed that your kid isn’t getting enough food, check out this chart of how many calories your kid needs. For example, a moderately active 8-year-old needs only 1,400 to 1,600 calories a day.
How to Fix It: Relax.
Your little one won’t let herself go hungry. If you’re providing healthy food at regular mealtimes and snack times, you’ve done your part as a parent. (See the next tip for more on that.)
5. To Prevent Being Hungry Later
I’m not always great at watching the clock when we get home from school, so I’ve been known to let Abby snack up until 30 minutes before dinner. Then when it comes time to sit down to dinner, she says she’s not hungry. Duh.
At which point we enter into a power struggle because I know if she doesn’t eat dinner now, she’ll be hungry again before bedtime.
How to Fix It: Come up with a snack and meal schedule. We use this super cute notepad to plan out our meal schedule every week.
Most toddlers and preschoolers need three full meals and two snacks—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. If they’re going through a growth spurt, they may need more. School-aged children can get by with just one snack in the afternoon—provided breakfast and lunch aren’t too far apart.
Pay attention to your child’s appetite and create a schedule that works for her. But remember to be flexible for growth spurts.
Banning snacks worked for this family. While I’m not taking a hard line against all snacking, I am going to stop giving snacks so close to dinnertime.
I also plan to incorporate fruit and veggie trays more often instead of going for the convenience of processed foods for snack times. (And I love the idea of setting out a fruit or veggie tray without saying a word.)
The tip from #3 about saving their dinner plate in the fridge in case they get hungry again could help in this situation too.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
In what situations do you find yourself pressuring your kids to eat more? Have you tried to break the habit? Share your experience in a comment below.
Note: All information on this site is for educational purposes only. Happy You, Happy Family does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician.
Great post, Kelly! The hardest thing for us is taking our 7-year-old boy out to a restaurant and finding one where they serve something he will eat. And I mean a nice restaurant, which usually means no cheese pizza or chicken strips on the menu. I live in Portland, Ore., where it’s food-topia here. Sigh. So we try to work on expanding his food palate by introducing new foods with the hope that maybe he will be willing to eat those at a restaurant. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I would LOVE to hear other parents’ suggestions for getting kids to eat at fancy restaurants.
MaryJo, I agree that’s definitely a challenge! My 5-year-old struggles with that too. One thing that has worked for us (though not every time, haha) is approaching a meal out as family style. We’ll order 2-3 different entrees, then everyone tries a little of everything, and you can have more of what you like best. But…sometimes she just doesn’t like anything we order!
I’d also love to hear other ideas for how to handle this special kind of eating out!
We don’t visit fancy restaurants but we do visit casual family style restaurants and we really enjoy the fact that most of those restaurants offer a sampler of their appetizers where you can order 3-4 different smaller size portions of the appetizers they offer and our 2 kids (ages 3 and 1) usually eat off of that then I just make sure to order a kid friendly vegetable side either with my meal or as an add on to make sure they get something sort of balanced; luckily both of my kids love broccoli, green beans and okra as well as other veggies. But as the other old adage goes “A child will not starve themselves” so as long as food is put out or the child knows they can ask for food then they’ll be fine. The only rule in my house is if you don’t at least try a bite of the food (and spitting it out is ok, as long as they taste it) then you don’t get what you want to eat ie crackers, mac and cheese and so forth. So if I’m introducing a new food they know they have to at least taste it before I serve them the rest of the meal. Just recently I successfully got my 3 year old to eat peas with mint and honey and now she requests peas to eat even when out at a restaurant.
Amanda, what a great idea to order the sampler plate when you eat out! I’ll definitely be trying that myself now that we have two little ones. :-)
And you are so right about kids will eat if they’re hungry. It’s such a balance between offering them food you know they’ll eat and trying to get them to eat the healthy stuff.
I absolutely LOVE your take on the “try one bite” approach. I never thought to tell Abby she could spit it out as long as she tasted it. It’s the taste we need to get them exposed to, and that’s the perfect way to make that happen without dictating what they actually put in their bellies.
Thank you for sharing all these great ideas!
I’d like to hear about parents who give their toddler/ kids a lot of food and or when kids eat a decent amount of food and ask for more they keep giving them more…so much food, way beyond what someone should be eating? Thanks
I have the opposite problem where usually I have to convince my kid to stop eating haha. But yes there are times when I have encouraged him to finish his food even though I know this is wrong. Usually it’s from shock that he didn’t finish, sort of like, “are you sure you don’t just want to finish your bowl?” Or like most recently, to make sure that he gets enough to eat.
Nina, that is a good problem to have! My girl’s appetite waxes and wanes – I can only guess it’s related to growth spurts?
But I definitely am catching myself ever since I read this post – just last night I was trying to convince her to eat more of her dinner before I realized what I was doing. Argh! Old habits die hard, I guess. :-)
Unless your child has a underlying medical condition, DOR works for big eaters as well as limited eaters. It is all about trusting your child to eat what they need and letting them become aware of their own hunger/satiety cues.
Thank you for your hard work and research for this post! I’m definitely going to try these tips at meal times. One thing that has helped me is serving my toddler and preschooler their meals on kids sized plates and bowls, then I usually don’t give them much.
Tiffany, you are too kind to take the time to thank me like that! I hope at least a couple of these tips work for you and your littles. :-)
I love your tip about using kid-sized plates and bowls to help with portion sizes. I’d love to add that above – emailing you now!
Really interesting post. I’ve heard it before but without all the detail. I think my OH’s worse than be. I tend to ask ‘have you had enough, are you finished’ rather than telling N to eat up. He was baby led weaned, so will stop when he wants, although he is a real pig and would eat all day every day if he had the chance.
N’s 3.5y and loves serving his own veg. He’s generally pretty accurate, although sometimes I worry he’s put too much on his plate, but he’s usually right.
I think I need to take more note, as I need to lose weight – maybe I can blame it on being told to eat up. And like your salmon aversion – I’m not keen on lamb – my mum once served lamb casserole, I refused to eat it at 2.5yr old and it got tipped over my head. I’ll now eat roast lamb at a push, but casserole I wouldn’t go near.
Emma, isn’t that funny how those aversions stay with us all our lives? Wow!
I love your approach of asking “have you had enough?” We’ve been trying to ask Abby if she feels full instead of nudging her to eat more. Such a hard habit to break!
I think I mainly get away with the question because sometimes he just gets distracted and I’m never sure if he is finished or not, rather than being fussy. There’d be hell to pay if I removed a plate before he’d finished. But it’s quite a good way to turn round the conversation and let them choose.
We have a highly-sensitive seven year old who is very particular about her food. I’m also highly-sensitive and have never been able to eat food to “be polite” in public settings so I think it has made me more willing to deal with her issues. I refuse to get into a power struggle over food. It’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. We do have some guidelines, but for the most part I try to accommodate her preferences. We’ve seen lately that she is voluntarily asking to try foods she sees us eating. I feel like our patience is finally being rewarded and eventually she will enjoy more new foods, in her own time. I just shared your post on my FB page. :-)
Sallie, first of all thank you for sharing your experience. But also thank you for sharing this post on your Facebook page! Whether or not everyone agrees, I think it’s awesome to raise the question and get folks thinking about what will work in their own family.
I love how you put it: not a hill you’re willing to die on! So much of parenting hinges on that cost/benefit analysis doesn’t it? :-)
How amazing that your daughter is starting to ask YOU to try new foods. That’s like every parent’s dream! Good on you for sticking to what felt right for you and your girl. It sounds like it’s paying off big time!
I am still working on finding a balance between letting my daughter choose when to stop eating and when to help her eat healthy before reaching for a treat instead of dinner. Great post!
Katie, I hear you! I feel like I am constantly having to catch myself.
The one trick that I’m super intrigued by but haven’t had the guts to try yet is to serve dessert WITH dinner. I feel like, although it’s almost counter-intuitive, that may solve the issue of my daughter not eating her dinner because she’s “saving room” for dessert. We’ll see if I work up the courage to give that a go. :-)
I am going to give it a try some time….really I am ready to try everything! :)
But dessert doesn’t have to be every night and it can be really healthy. When my Grandkids want a TREAT, I cut a banana in half, put a bit of whipped cream on it, and some crushed peanuts and make a monster!. The eyes are raisins. By the time we think we have figured out what works, they are on to something else to make us crazy! By the time they go to college, all will be fine! Some of the Mom’s on this thread sound a bit angry or like they know it all for every ones child. HA!! The older you get, the more you find out, you just don’t know everything and life gets easier when you don’t feel like you have to control every thing your kids do.
I don’t mean to sound mean, rude, or disrespectful, but, really, what a bunch of crap! Yes, I can understand certain aversions to food, like the salmon pie. I will not eat any fatty cuts of meat, or even the fat on meat, because of a traumatic childhood experience with my grandmother forcing me to eat the slimy, rubbery chicken skin that ended up in my bowl of soup. *Gag* I understand texture issues, trust me. But, for the most part, those are not situations that happen every day.
I am the cook at a fairly large daycare (150 children), so I understand a lot more about children, child nutrition, and children’s eating habits than most people. I do have state guidelines to follow, but I am the one who decides the menus. When I started cooking, I took over for someone else who had no business preparing food for children. All canned vegetables, hot dog products twice a week sometimes, chicken nuggets at least every other week. Gross. WE (the adults) are the ones responsible for our children’s eating habits. Yes, perhaps grandma went about it the wrong way, but her intentions were good. At my daycare, food is served family style, which means that the teachers sit down and eat with the children. And if there is one thing I know I’ve said until I’m turning blue in the face, especially when I’m trying to introduce new foods, it’s this: Don’t say a single word to them! Put the food on their plates, then on your own plates, sit down, and eat. I don’t want to hear, “Jimmy, you might not like this, but you have to try it.” Just shut up!
When you say things like that to your children, you’re putting the thought in their head from the beginning that it might taste bad. So, of course, they’re going to protest eating it! But, if you just keep your mouth closed about anything along those lines, you’ll be amazed what you can get them to eat by setting a good example. The “Do as I say not as I do” routine doesn’t work on children. So, if they see you making a big deal of eating something or you refusing to eat something, what do you think they’re going to do?! Whatever they see you doing! So, if you sit down and just eat your dinner, without making a big fuss one way or the other, you’re showing them what they should be doing. If you act like it’s a big deal, it will become one!
Very few of the children at the daycare knew what cauliflower/asparagus/squash/etc. was and looked at it like I was serving them alien food. But, when the teachers sat down and ate it, they started showing interest in it. Granted, it took a few tries for it to catch on, but they now eat all of their vegetables very well. I only serve them fresh or frozen vegetables, and they are cooked the appropriate amount of time for each age group. And there is no butter or cheese anywhere in sight for the vegetables either! They even eat fresh veggies for snacks now, which include things like carrots, cucumber, celery, bell peppers, snap peas, zucchini, and jicama! And they love it!! I don’t tell the children that they have to eat all of their vegetables, but you should see how proud they are to tell me that they’ve done so!
Today, they tried chicken salad sandwiches for the first time. My administrator assured me they would NOT eat it because it wasn’t “kid-friendly” food. And she sure wasn’t happy when I added the Craisins after she said I shouldn’t because they wouldn’t eat it. Well, guess who ate ALL of the chicken salad – that’s right, the children! Because the teachers know better than to let me catch them saying anything that might sound derogatory about the food to/in front of the children! Like I said. Close your mouth. And lead by example. It’s much more effective than bribes and rewards and all this other garbage!
Sandie, I totally agree that we shouldn’t preface new foods with a disclaimer, but even if you disagreed with that point, it is rude to insult something that someone obviously put so much thought into — and the post still has many other good points. It surprises me to hear another person who works with children speak so harshly to another adult… words sting just the same online as they do in person.
You know, I think this is one of the best suggestions here, as well as a good summary of the article’s ideas. Don’t make a big deal out of new foods. Serve proper portions. Don’t offer garbage food; as a snack, reward, or otherwise. And keep snacking in check. Its really not that difficult to do or understand.
Precisely what I was thinking, Sandie. What a bunch of nonsense. And as for ‘Eat up there are starving kids in Ethiopia’, well, we do sponsor two children in Africa and they are malnourished and hungry and our children know that and we do talk about it. No, it will not fix the hunger problem throughout the world, however, I hope (and do see in my children) an appreciation for the food that’s being provided for them, an appreciation that they are privileged enough to be able to eat until their full and I do expect them to clean their plate. As parents of your children, you should be able to figure out just how much your child can typically eat and not over-serve them.
yes yes yes YES AND YES!!!!!
Well, finally something that makes perfect sense. I am a grandmother and an aunt who has fed a lot of children in my home. I believe every word you are saying about adults giving children preconceived ideas about what they might and might not like.
Kelly I think this is a great post!!!! We have loads of issues at mealtimes and I’m really trying to improve things so its really helpful for me :)
Kate, I’m so glad to hear this gave you some more ideas to work with! I’d love to hear how it goes if you try these tips (or any others that work for you). :-)
As someone who is currently fighting in recovery from an eating disorder of twenty years, I appreciate that someone is getting out there that we should not make children clean their plates and should change some of these other long held traditional food rules! Thanks!
I agree with the not cleaning your plate! After 40 years I’ve learned to stop after starting to feel full. I do make my child eat more because otherwise he would be skin and bones. Today at lunch, he had 4 spoons of rice and was done feeding himself. He is 4. When his initial hunger is satiated, he doesn’t eat to be full. He loves vegetables but hates meat and being a child that is allergic to milk, eggs, soy, sesame, oats, peanuts and tree nuts, he needs to eat anything he is not allergic to. Dinner can take 2 hours sometimes just from the snails pace he chews his food! I’ve also read that offering snacks promotes snacking. We do give him fruit if he’s hungry between meals. I love the dessert idea but we rarely offer dessert too so he never holds out for it because he never knows if there is or not. Love all the tips! Thanks!
Lucy, it is such a struggle to achieve the balance our kids need in this department! I hear you on how dinner can take FOREVER it seems like. Our little ones are super slow too. :-)
It sounds like you’ve found an approach that works well for your son already, but I’m happy you found the list of ideas useful as well!
As a teacher/mom with my degree in both early childhood education and educational psychology I thoroughly agree with you. Kids can control very little in this world but what they eat is one of those things. Making a mountain out of a molehill turns meals into a battlefield instead of a peaceful place to regroup and discuss our day. Great post!
It only turns mealtime into a battlefield if you fail to set expectations from the start when your children are young, toddler age. And they should not be in charge of these decisions. Once they know and understand the standard, there’s no battle. NOT teaching these things in the home is exactly why we have a generation (and more to come) of disrespectful, ungrateful, and entitled youth and adults. Respect and discipline start at home and they start when children are young. It’s not likely that a child who is taught these things at home when they are young are going to have a great deal of problems with them when they are older.
I disagree. I will teach my children to respect me by respecting them (and their decisions).
Great post! Thank you for the tips – I have found that when I give my kids a “platter” style meal (with a mixture of things, sweet and savoury), they don’t even ask for pudding or a ‘treat’ afterwards, so the ‘whole meal’ approach works with them.
I also answer all winging/moaning with “just eat what you want to and leave what you don’t”. Always hated at school that we didn’t get pudding unless we had ‘cleaned’ our plates…
This is a great article. Thank you Kelly. I think it’s interesting that we all try to get our children to eat what they’re given when actually they’re much more likely to be overweight that underweight. A great reminder to let them control their eating themselves.
I often cook too much dinner especially so that I can have left overs for lunch. My toddler twins love cold pasta with vegetables for lunch and it’s a great way to get them eating vegetables as they’re a bit young for salad.
And I know snacks can be a bit controversial but I think they’re quite important, especially if you have young children who can’t go so long between meals as older ones. As long as they’re (mostly) healthy I don’t think there is a problem.
Another thing I think is really important is family mealtimes. (Which goes back to seeing us eat healthy foods). I recently had a triumph with getting my fish-resistant 6 year old to eat sardines that way (he had a bad experience like you, but not because he was forced, he was poorly…pink mackerel vomit. Enough said!) Now he keeps asking for them!
When I was a kid, we would not get up if we wouldn’t finish ALL our food. Period. I remember one day coming back from school and mom had cooked steaks. I should say “had burnt steaks”. It was charred, dry and inedible. I was defiant and honestly, I could not even pierce it with the fork, so I started banging my frk on the steak (childish, I know, but I was like 8yrs old). My parents were at odds but trying to make up, so my dad felt he had to defend my mom’s cooking. Basically he took a hammer and while shouting at me for being ungrateful, he hammered my fork in the steak so hard that the plate broke into pieces and flew at all directions. He then cleaned the steak from the ceramic pieces and I had to eat it, which I did with tears in my eyes. Until now, I always finish my plate, even if I don’t like the food. I don’t seem capable to kick the habit STILL. Strange, right?
I don’t care if I’m being rude. This is complete and utter crap. If you give your child a proper serving, to their tummy size and not your own, they need to eat all of it. If you give your child a huge serving or someone else does, of course they shouldn’t be expected to eat it. But if your child sits down and takes two bites and says “I’m full.” Are you going to fall for it? If you do, you’ll have a unhealthy, underweight child. My sister is like that with my niece. My niece plays my sister and gets away with not eating anything but junk, because my sister is so desperate to get her to eat because she is underweight. My daughter is 8 months younger, is 3 inches taller and at least 10 pounds heavier than my niece, is in ballet and gymnastics and is in perfect health. And you know why? Because I make her eat everything on her plate. No matter what, whether she likes it or not, whether it takes her 2 hours and no bed time snack, I make her eat it. And you know what? When my niece comes to my house, I sit there and make her eat her food too, and she does. Because she knows that there is no point in fighting with me, I’ll make her eat it. She stayed with me for a month while I baby sat her while my sister was working, and she gained weight. Besides, it takes you multiple times of trying a new food to acquire a taste for that food. So if my daughter doesn’t like the asparagus on her plate, I cut it up into small pieces and make her eat it. And guess what? The next time she eats asparagus she likes it. This whole “ignoring your bodies cues for being full” is bull crap. Normal children are extremely active and burn more calories in a 15 minute period than you do all day long. The majority of kids I see these days are either overweight, or underweight, but their eating habits are the same, getting away with not eating at the dinner table and getting away with eating junk food. It also depends on how active they are that determines that fact. Feed your child using your brain, give them portions sized to THEIR stomachs, give them a little bit of what they don’t like and more of what they do like, give them milk to drink down what they think is yucky. And if you hear any of this “I’m full.” “Oh, well do you want dessert?” “YEAH!” Then they are not full yet and can stand a few more bites, until their plate is clean. This does nothing but teach children BAD eating habits and teach them how to take advantage of you to get what they want.
I actually received all of these same tips from a registered dietician regarding my son. I’m far more inclined to believe what they have to say (as well as the author of this article who has echoed exactly what I was told). I’m glad your child is flourishing right now but it is possible that she could have an unhealthy relationship with food later on due to the pressure to eat everything on her plate. Both of my parents as well as myself have unhealthy relationships with food due to that rule.
You could go by the expert on your child: your child. They should be able to eat just like you and I do: when and how we want to.
There is clearly stated that you shouldn’t give anything else to make up for anything not eaten during meal or snack times. There is also clearly stated that you should also only offer healthy food. I am clearly stating now that your rant about your not-so-clever sister is complete and utter crap. my 2 yo boy eats mostly anything that is put in front of him. We don’t talk about whether he’s going to like it or not. He stops eating when he stops eating…..also a tip: don’t offer plate service, put the food in owls that you place on the table and let them put the food on the plate themselves
I actually agree with you (are you kidding me) , my neice is the same she wont eat anything when her mam is about just junk but at mine for a week without mam she ate everything my kids did very small portions for a 9yr old may i add , my 1 yr old neice eats more , but she ate what i put out i allowed her to leave foods she didnt like as long she tried it but each time she comes up ,i put them on , on the hope one day she will just eat it, and if she eats each meal then shes allowed junk but not too much oviously . But she worries me sick shes nine but the size of a 4 yr old and skinny as rake and ill looking all of the time no engery very lithargic for a child , but she aint my kid so what can i do??
As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder (compulsive overeating/binge eating) and is still a charter member of the Clean Plate Club at 42, I think this is an issue that needs to be addressed. By the way, I have two boys, 15 and 5, and both are a healthy weight and don’t have issues with food, like I do/did. A few things we do at my house:
1. We don’t do dessert, ever, save birthdays and holidays. I serve a full home-cooked meal every night of the week. The kids get a snack before bed if they are still hungry but no dessert.
2. I give realistic size portions. Leftovers go in the fridge and can be eaten after dinner. That is their before bedtime snack. No other snacks are allowed if there is left over dinner.
If they are hungry, they can get seconds.
3. I don’t serve alternatives. I am not a restaurant. See number 2.
4. I try hard not to serve snacks between meals, and if they are, they are spaced out in a reasonable time period.
That makes a lot of sense I have a 2 year old son and he will go 2 or 3 days without eating hardly anything. He will take a bite or two then he will walk away but every couple days he will sit down and really eat.
What are your suggestions for our family? I have a 9yr old stepdaughter who we only have on weekends. She is only given a small plate with appropriate portions. She is very picky anyway, and she likes to eat alot of junk food. We have tried to eliminate the junk from our house altogether, but occasionally we like to have chips or a type of dessert for ourselves. The thing is she will get half way through a meal and then say she doesn’t like it or she’s full, and then proceed to ask for something unhealthy. It is very frustrating especially for my husband who will do most anything to make her happy in the short time she is here. So what do you do with a child who is purposefully refusing to eat?
Well, I’m not sure how terribly helpful this is two years later, but I suppose I can offer my two cents. I completely understand your husband’s want for her to be happy since he sees her for so little of the week, but he has to try. After a few weeks, she should come to realise that her eating habits don’t change based off of where she is and she has to eat correctly all the time. I’m not a parent, but I care for my brother and make most of his meals, so here are my tips.
1) Make meals chocked full of vegetables. I normally try to serve at least three in two different styles, which adds variety.
2) Don’t always make desserts an option. For my brother, dessert only comes on nights when I take the time to make something, we don’t have packaged sweets. If I haven’t baked, plain and simple, there probably is no dessert.
3) As hard as it can be, stick to it. For my brother, when he refuses to eat, he has to eat all of his vegetables and half of his protein to get up from the table, all of his food for dessert (which again is fine because he never knows when dessert is coming, so he’s inclined to behave regardless)
4) Adopt a little Japanese eating mentality. If he leaves behind 10% of his food after saying he’s full, I accept it. I do the same for myself.
5) It will be hard, especially if she’s started associating you guys with eating junk, but you must break this mentality. My food suggestion is stir fry with cabbage, onions, and carrots, baked tonkatsu chicken, thinly sliced raw cabbage with tonkatsu sauce, and rice. That meal makes him clear his plate no matter what.
6) (My favorite) Lunch time is your friend! When I’m giving my brother a new food, I pack a small amount into his lunch box to test it. He already knows to eat or try everything in there, so if he comes home and the pickles are barely touched I already know what to expect when supper comes.
7) My two veggie method is GREAT for picky eaters. Say she doesn’t like the raw cabbage in the above meal, simply tell her “Fine, but you’ll have to eat more stir fry.” They can pick their lesser of two evils while you can take comfort that they’re still getting their vegetables.
Great post! I agree completely and was given very similar advice from several Occupational Therapists who were helping when my son was you because he had some tactile issues with food. :)
Both my children eat about everything we serve them. We have taught them not to say no before tasting food, and we have encouraged them to eat by saying that when we were their age we used to LOVE this meal. On the other hand and in order not to force them to eat more than they can, i know the exact portion of food to serve. I dont over do it you know, and i am fine with the fact that they might not like one or two things among ALL that we serve! At the end its NORMAL. but i teach them to eat meals they don’t like from time to time because this is what is available at home, and we are not a restaurant with a menu ;). So a little flexibility is not harmful. But you sure got to set the example, and teach children the importance of sitting and eating on time and what it is available. Some kids does not have food FOR DAYS, and at some age why not explain that to them with no pressure. With the measured amount for them you will be sure they eat whatever food, and clean their plates if they must ;)
I think there are ideas of value here; I also think, however, that many of these ideas are child-specific. I have a child who resists anything (and I mean ANYTHING) new on principle, especially vegetables. (It’s my middle, by the way. My oldest loves veggies and listed her favorite food on her kindergarten info sheet as an artichoke.) I have found that expecting at least one bite of everything has enabled her to transition into liking more and more; I have also seen what NOT trying things has done for her dad and my mother-in-law. Taste has to be at least partially genetic, based on my observations of the three of them, and I want to give my daughter every tool I can think of to help her avoid the weight frustrations my husband and his mother struggle with.
My child is known for whining that she is hungry, having me get her food, eating 2 bites and then saying she is full… yea I am going to make her eat more then that. So this article doesn’t work for everyone… if she asks for it she is going to eat it
We have an almost-two-year-old and we have him eat with us and have family dinners. I like these suggestions and we seem to follow most of them. However, If he gets distracted by something else in the house after eating only a little bit, then I will try to get him to eat a little more, since I don’t think it’s lack of hunger, but rather being more interested in something else at the moment. This avoids him getting up and down from his chair multiple times. If he hasn’t cleaned his plate but has eaten some of everything and it seems like a reasonable amount, then when he says he’s all done, I say “ok, you can be all done, but you need to sit with us”. That usually works and we’re all happy.
Agree!! I think the main distinction that we need to figure out as parents is the cause behind why our kids aren’t eating their dinner. Are they not eating because they don’t like the healthy spinach dinner that we put in front of them, is it a tantrum, do they just want to get to dessert, etc? Each situation should be treated differently but forcing them to eat just isn’t the answer. You either end up with an unhealthy relationship to food, or an aversion to the food you are trying to get them to eat. I believe protein in the morning is essential for good brain function and spent a good year and a half trying to get my toddler to like eggs. It was a slow process but now she loves them. I don’t think this would have happened if I had forced her to sit at the table each morning until she finished her eggs.
Great post! It really makes you think about where all of your own bad habits started to develop!
Great article. I am going to start trying the dessert with dinner as I definitely do this we had the breakthrough moment where there was a show down with my daughter over a tiny piece of tomato. After that I new I didn’t want her to grow up hating tomato so I introduced a new dinner. The kids have called it ‘pick-a-dinner’. When I make salad everything goes into seperate bowls. Each family member has their own small serving tongs and everyone picks their own dinner. We include some fruits that I know they’ll eat, and we have a few rules. They must eat some protein, some greens, and whatever they put in their plate they have to eat. We no longer have arguments, I no longer feel frustrated that I have waged my time making dinner and my kids are more likely to eat foods they don’t love and to try new foods.
Wow, this post came at a good time! Earlier this week me and my little boy had quite an unpleasant evening all over a jacket potato! I know he doesn’t like potatoes generally but we’ve had jacket potatoes quite a lot and he’s usually quite happy with them as long as there’s plenty of salad and various extras!
Anyway, he really didn’t want to eat this potato and we both got quite frustrated as a result.
I think I’ll definitely be considering and implementing some of these over the coming week. I’m interesting to see what kind of an impact they make on our dinner times!
Bribing my son to get dessert if he tried a vegetable or new food worked. He wouldn’t eat anything but chicken nuggets. I just had him take one bite of vegetables for a while. I think it got him used to the texture and flavor. My parents made me eat vegetables before meat because I would eat all my meat and no vegetables. I grew to prefer vegetables over meat or starches. Now I don’t do desserts at all and he eats his vegetables before anything else. I am fully aware this goes against the perfect parenting model these days but it really worked for us. I do however totally agree with not making them finish their plate.
Oy! This is the biggest load of rubbish I have read in a long time! You do not give kids choices, this is why there are so many spoiled brats in this world now! As a kid, I was not to leave the table until my dinner was gone, it did not matter if I liked it or not. Not making them eat their food only tells them that they do not have to appreciate what they have. There are so many families and children that go hungry that would love that meal. You do not give them choices whether to eat or not. That food that you just tossed out because you tell them eat at least 3 bites, and they decided they did not like it, is a waste of money and could of been someone else’s meal who can not afford food.
This whole entire passage is wrong. You sit there until it is gone, and that is final! I never died or had mental problems because my parents made me eat my dinner. No I grew up appreciating all the little things I have and respect. Now there are times I will ask everyone in the house what they would like for dinner, but that is not often. If I am making a meal, it will be eaten. Screw all of this BS give kids choices madness, this is why our future generation is screwed because of parents like you. Your grandma was in the right, she bought the food, cooked it and it was your duty to eat it whether you liked it or not.
What if the child only eats the dessert and stops (won’t eat the other food)? What if your child gives themselves larger than adult sized portions when you let them serve?
Love this post!
When I was growing up, our main rules were these, and they seemed to work great:
1. Starting at the ages 4-6, we graduated into dipping our own food almost all of the time.
2. If we dipped our own food, we were required to eat it all (unless another family member was willing to finish it for us)
3. If we had dipped a younger siblings food (frequent in our family of 8 children), and they did not finish it, then we were required to finish it (again, unless another family member wanted it).
4. We rarely were allowed snacks.
5. We didn’t have to try everything at the table, but we weren’t allowed seconds if we hadn’t tried everything.
6. We almost never had dessert (my dad was diabetic, and we felt that many of the sugar substitutes were more unhealthy than sugar itself. But in respect for him, we had no sugar in the house most of my growing up years)
7. There were many times that we were allowed to put our leftovers in a marked container in the fridge. We weren’t allowed to eat any other food until we’d eaten what we’d served ourselves (sometimes this would result in one or two members eating the same leftovers through the course of several meals, but not usually)
8. We had different sized plastic cups for different age ranges, and we were required to drink a full glass of water before we were allowed seconds. It was frowned upon if we didn’t drink the whole thing even without getting seconds, but was generally not required.
We rarely had juices, soda pop, or junk foods.
I love that the points you mentioned in your post are a lot of the same things I experienced as a child. I rarely felt that the rules were unfair, even if I was one of the ones who had to save my leftovers for the next meal. It was frustrating to eat my younger siblings leftovers if I’d dipped them too much, but that rarely happened because I learned to dip portions they would eat. :-)
I now have three children of my own, and our rules that I feel work especially well for our family are:
1. If you don’t eat your food, then you can’t whine about being hungry later. Totally not acceptable. (We DO usually save the leftovers to be reheated when they get hungry, though)
2. We aren’t allowed to say “I don’t like…”
Rule #2 is inspired by a friend of my husband and I, who once told me that neither of her two daughters knew that she disliked eggs until they had nearly reached adulthood, because she knew eggs were healthy and didn’t want her girls to claim a dislike just because she did. My husband is EXTREMELY picky. He likes quite a few healthy foods, but he dislikes MANY, MANY, MANY healthy foods. Inspired by our friend, we have chosen not to let our children know what we do not like, and they aren’t allowed to say they don’t like things either, as it may influence their siblings or friends.
I also feel the need to mention that my husband was frequently forced to sit at the table for hours until he’d finished his food, and I really think that probably played into his picky habits now. My siblings and I have very few dislikes, and the older we get, the more that list shrinks.
I also remember my mom and dad discussing an aunt and uncle of mine once. They said she was an AWESOME cook, but that when she married she lost a lot of confidence, because her husband disliked her cooking. Eventually she learned to be an AWESOME cook of junk and unhealthy foods, which was what he liked. I can remember my dad saying “It’s too bad that we didn’t know then that it takes time to learn to like different kinds of food, because now she hardly ever cooks anything healthy, and he and she are both unhealthy as a result.” (Not those exact words, but that was the message he related) :-)
What’s way more important in my home than weight: self-respect and autonomy. If my kid doesn’t want it, they don’t have to eat it. No questions asked. They also don’t HAVE to taste. Anything. It teaches children to go against their own instincts to force tasting; that is forced eating. My kids choose what goes into their bodies, how much, and when, at all times. With a strong relationship built on trust and respect, they consider my words when choosing healthy foods. That is not my goal, however. No manipulation. Just love. I also can’t see forcing them to eat only when I’m hungry (making the meal).
We started something new in our house to combat picky eaters and the “clean plate club” issues: Dessert (a small serving) for afternoon snack and none after dinner. I try to incorporate both new and familiar foods with each meal and, as long as they try a bite of everything, they may make their meal out of whatever is on the table. If they try a bite of everything and say they’re not hungry, they don’t have to eat, but their plate is put in the fridge for later. No one is allowed a snack for an hour before meals or after, so they aren’t ditching dinner anticipating something else. Later, if they’re hungry, they can have fruit or veggies or crackers ( or their dinner, if they didn’t eat) and the sugar from the afore mentioned “dessert” isn’t keeping them awake at bedtime.
I understand the suggestions, but sometimes they just don’t work. My son is 12 now. He takes medication that takes away his appetite. We have a restricted diet and NO junk food. It is common for him to eat one bite of the food on the plate that he likes and then say he is full. He won’t touch what he doesn’t like. And his tastes change severely from week to week. One week he eats the meal I make and raves over it being the best meal he ever had. THe next week he won’t touch the same recipe. He gripes and moans, that he can’t stand it. I do want him to eat because it is also common for him to wake up at night screaming because his stomach hurts and he needs to eat. So I make sure he has a bedtime snack. Something healthy that he likes. Also his weight is so low that it is quite concerning. He used to be in the 25% for height and weight but he got taller so now it is the 5%. I have tried all those suggestions and they do not work because he has extenuating circumstances. Well thanks for letting me vent. It helps to admit that it is difficult and there is no easy answer.
This is a wonderful even 3 years after you wrote it. I have recently stopped forcing my child to eat. She knows when dinner is over it’s over and when her plate is cleared its gone. I’ve become okay with that. For years I forced my kid to because I thought she would starve otherwise. Now I know she won’t starve.
Hi. I’ve just read your article and am feeling motivated to try some of your tips. The hardest thing will be getting ‘the husband’ to back me up completely. We have a 3 year old son who loves breakfast, lunch and green smoothies, however when we get to dinner time…unless it’s pasta, pizza or fish and chips takeaways we have issues. There is a bit of texture issues and if he psychs himself out too much we end in him vomiting up the dinner we managed to get down. We try not to force dinner because of his vomit issue bit it sure would be nice to not stress about what I have to make each day. I’m not worried about him being undernourished because he eats lots of healthy fruits and grains and veges I can sneak into smooties. Our daughter is 1.5 yrs old and a fantastic eater but I feel she is starting to pick up some bad habits…watching that someone else won’t eat their mashed potato and thinking she can do the same. The dessert with dinner idea does go against the grain and I’m in doubt that the hubby will agree to that but I sure am open to trying new things. I really like the you don’t have to eat it but you have to try it idea. We usually food reward. I dish up a small amount of dinner and if they eat it all they get a small icecream, though we bend the rules if he has made a real good effort to eat things he doesn’t want to. But honestly sometimes I feel like the reward system isn’t helping anymore. We will be trying some of your tips. Thanks for your post!
I have a 6yo son who is a Selective Eater. I struggled so much with this until I came across Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. The main effect it has had is to reduce my anxiety and worry about what he was/wasn’t eating, and to make meals more relaxed. Putting pressure on him to eat never worked. The only thing I disagree with is expecting them to put some of everything on their plate. That still seems like pressure to me, and is not recommended with DOR.
For my brother, he’s chronic snacker and my stepfather indulges his requests every time no matter what I say. I grew up on a Japanese diet and way of eating, so it’s very angering to see unhealthy habits being placed on my brother. Any ideas on how to help the situation?
Thanks for the research, Kelly. I am wondering if you considered kids with special needs?
I have heard of parents that set a timer and when it goes off the kid either has to have eaten all the food on his plate or he will get a spanking. I feel this is setting the kid up for an eating disorder. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I have a 5year old daughter who chocked on a butterscotch candy and has now become afraid of choking again. It’s gotten to the point where dinner is a fight every night and it’s been maybe 4 months since the incident. We took her to the doctor to make sure there was nothing actually blocking her throat. The doctor reassured her that chewing her food 10 to 20 times is sufficient. However as times gone by she has now started holding her food in the mouth and chewing it until its practically liquid. We tried everything rewarding, discipline and reassurance to no avail. She holds her throat when she has to swallow. She cries because I get so upset and I realize now because she has anxiety about choking again. This behavior has actually caused my boyfriend and his grandmother to fight and ruin their relationship as well as end our own relationship over the stress of dinner time. How can I help my daughter move past her fears?