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When I was a child, the expectation when my family sat down to dinner was that I should eat everything on my plate.
Whether that was really the expectation or what I perceived, it was the message I got.
Growing up in an Italian-American family, eating is what we did.
Sunday dinners with meatballs, pasta and coffee cake were such a big part of our traditions that it wouldn’t be a Sunday without it.
When we visited family, the expectation was that we at least tried what the host took time to prepare.
Eating, and eating as much as you wanted, was always a good thing and praised. If you didn’t eat, everyone wondered if something was wrong and it was almost seen as an insult.
While I do remember being told to eat your vegetables, and take a bite, you might like it, I was never forced by my parents to eat although many parents of that generation did.
Surprisingly, it seems that the “clean plate” mentality when kids were told they had to eat before being excused from the table, is still at play today.
Recently, I’ve noticed some of my friends falling into this camp.
While having dinner, one waved a fork of food in his kid’s face and told him to take a bite, while another told his kid that she couldn’t be excused from the table or have dessert until she ate.
Research shows not only is this way of thinking still very real today, but it’s happening in households not with toddlers, but also teens.
In fact, a May 2013 study in the journal Pediatrics showed up to two-thirds of parents encourage their adolescents to finish everything on their plates.
We all have the best intentions and want our kids to eat healthy and eat enough, but when we force kids to eat, it can backfire.
Forcing kids to eat doesn’t help—and it may even hurt
When we encourage kids to eat—or do something we want them to do but they don’t want to do—, it doesn’t usually work.
According to an April 2018 study in the journal Appetite, researchers suggest that forcing kids to eat can create tension during meal times and even damage the parent-child relationship.
What’s more, forcing kids to eat foods they don’t like has no impact on their weight nor does it do anything to change their picky eating, the same study found.
Kids need to recognize their hunger
Kids will eat when they’re hungry so forcing them to eat when they’re not puts a sour taste in their mouths, so to speak.
Put yourself in your kid’s shoes: if someone put a plate of broccoli in front of you and told you to finish it when you weren’t hungry, would you eat it? What if the food was something you despised—how likely would you be to just try it?
The same goes for kids.
As toddlers grow and are exposed to new foods, they’re learning what it feels like to be hungry, satisfied and full.
Forcing them to eat doesn’t give them the chance to learn how to recognize their hunger and satiety cues and know when they’re hungry and when they’re not.
It creates a negative experience
Food is fuel but meals are meant to be enjoyed—both the food and the shared experience with family.
When each meal becomes a power struggle or rife with tension however, kids don’t have the freedom to make choices about what they eat and the whole meal time experience becomes an unpleasant one.
It may lead to bigger eating problems
When there’s a consistent message that kids should clean their plates, I’m concerned that it can become what a child starts to believe and continues to believe throughout adulthood.
Just look at the 93 million people in the U.S. who are overweight.
At the very least, eating everything on their plates can become a poor habit that started because they were taught to do so.
A better way to get kids to eat
Using pressure tactics to encourage your kids to eat makes you feel in control but it’s not a healthy, long-term strategy. Here are a few easy, effective tips to try.
Mealtimes should be an opportunity for kids to learn about healthy eating and portion control and an opportunity to explore new foods and have a taste—but only if they want to.
Meals should also be a way for your family to communicate, connect and enjoy each other. Instead of bribes, negotiation and pressure tactics, focus on the conversation and the food—not on how many bites your kid takes.
Model healthy behaviors
Teach kids that it’s OK not to love everything on their plates and the goal isn’t to leave the table with a clean plate.
Lead by example and teach your kids how to eat slowly and mindfully, taste the food, put your fork down every so often and savor every bite.
While something simple like scrambled eggs and toast is all you’ll be able to pull together for dinner some nights, try to offer a cooked vegetable and a salad and let your kid decide which he wants to try.
When kids feel that eating is in their control, they’ll be more likely to make healthy choices—as long as those choices are offered.
Stick with it
Kids who are picky eaters aren’t going to change their ways overnight—and we can’t expect them to. It can take between 15 and 20 times of offering a new food before they’re willing to try it.
Teaching kids about healthy foods and healthy eating habits takes consistency—and plenty of patience—at every meal.