"Finish your plate before you can be excused from the table."
"No dessert until all of your dinner is in your belly."
Are you inviting your kids into the Clean Plate Club? What seems like nurturing and concern may actually be an invitation to an eventual weight problem, says Ximena Jimenez, MS, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Parents and other caregivers often equate feeding a child with love, so it's very satisfying for the adult when the child consumes a large meal. Other times, says Jimenez, parents force food onto their children because they are so concerned about proper nutrition and growth.
Dangers of the Clean Plate Club
"The one thing that worries me most as a registered dietitian nutritionist is that children may lose their ability to read internal hunger cues," says Jimenez. Forcing kids to overeat, she explains, teaches them to ignore their bodies' signals that they've had enough. This can set them up for a lifetime of eating when not hungry.
Requiring kids to eat what they don't want may backfire in other ways, too. According to research in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when parents pressure kids to eat fruits and vegetables, they are actually discouraging intake of the very foods they want their children to eat. Furthermore, this can "turn your dinner table into a boxing ring and ruin family time," says Angie Hasemann, RD, CSP, weight management dietitian at the University of Virginia Children's Hospital. Taking a more relaxed attitude brings success on many fronts, including teaching children to regulate their food intake.
Happiness at the Dinner Table
- Divide responsibilities.
Parents should provide a variety of tasty and nutritious foods, says Suzy Weems, PhD, RDN, CSSD, LD, FAND, professor of nutrition sciences at Texas Tech University. Leave it up to your children to determine how much to eat.
- Plan and prepare meals together.
Little kids can bring food from the refrigerator or pantry. Teens can help with slicing vegetables and monitoring food on the stove. Everyone in the family can request favorite vegetables, entrées or sides.
- Lead by example.
If parents and caregivers are good role models for healthy eating, children will follow suit, says Kansas-based registered dietitian nutritionist Suzanne Fleming, RD, LD.
- Encourage — don't force — a taste of everything.
"Cheer the family on as everyone tries each food and talks about which one they like the most," says Hasemann.
Children of any age should be allowed to listen and respond to their own cues of hunger and fullness. If you worry that your child isn't consuming a proper balance of food, check in with your child's healthcare provider and schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian nutritionist.