I do not subscribe to the “clean plate club.”
If you’re not familiar with this club, it refers to the thought that you need to eat everything on your plate.
I know a lot of people grew up with this way of thinking, and so did their parents. Now their children are being raised with the same mealtime mentality — but let me explain.
I grew up with a mom who was a picky eater.
A vegetarian before it was en vogue, dinnertime was always a struggle for her growing up. She would sit at the table all night rather than have to eat what she detested. She would line her pockets with plastic baggies to secretly stash her food to dispose of later. She would fling her pork chop out the sliding glass door for the family dog.
Food became a fight for her. When she became a parent, she actively chose to not enforce a clean-your-plate rule with me and my siblings.
If we, as parents, act as the food police, we’re more likely to create a power struggle — leading to our children having issues with eating down the road.
First, I think it’s important to recognize that every child is different — their likes and dislikes, tastes and distastes, tolerances and intolerances.
Now, I’m not advocating that you make three different dinners to accommodate each child, but providing an alternate option like a peanut butter or cheese sandwich could alleviate dinnertime dilemmas.
Also, kids’ tummies are different sizes. My 4-year-old son can’t eat and doesn’t need the same amount of food as my 12-year-old son. However, he will become hungry more quickly than my older kids because he just can’t hold as much at one time in his little belly. He needs smaller portions more frequently.
Scientifically, your brain tells you when you’re full.
“If children are encouraged to eat when they’re not hungry, often enough they can lose touch with the signals of hunger and fullness and are more prone to overeat,” Dr. Katja Rowell, a childhood feeding specialist, told Parents.com.
Studies also show that trying to control food intake actually backfires, and it’s associated with kids taking in more sugar-sweetened beverages and snack food as well.
To me, the clean plate ideology sets a bad precedent for the rest of your life, thinking you have to finish every bite no matter the portion size. This creates an increased risk for obesity and other health issues.
I know that there will be some who staunchly disagree with my thoughts on food, but I wholeheartedly believe a little mealtime autonomy when they’re kids will help create healthy adults.
If you want to create healthy, adventurous eaters, try these things. They work well in my house.
1. Let them dish up their own portions. If you want them to at least try a bite of everything, allow them to decide how much they think they can eat. A bite of green beans looks far less scary than a daunting mound of the green meanies staring at them.
2. Provide healthy options. Introduce fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and lean proteins at a young age. The less junk food they eat, the less they crave it.
3. Invite them into the kitchen. By helping prepare the meal, they will be more likely to want to try their creation.
4. Allow them to explore and have fun with their food.
Shea Saladee lives in Papillion with her husband, Brent, and their three children. She works as an instructor at the University of Nebraska Omaha.