Forcing kids to clean their plates leads to messed-up appetites

October 22, 2003|by Lynn Little

Many of us remember the "clean plate club" - we were made to sit at the table until we finished everything that was on our plate. Calling attention to certain foods is not recommended; encouraging children to keep eating after their hunger is satisfied also is not advisable.

So, what should parents do? Parents have a responsibility to provide food for their children; it's the child's responsibility to eat the food.

Most of us can benefit from a lesson that we can learn from our children: Infants self-regulate - that means they stop eating when they're full.

Because a child's stomach is small, they do, however, need to eat frequently. Vitamins and minerals from a variety of foods are essential for growth and development; calories are needed to fuel energy. While planning snacks to supplement children's meals is recommended, monitoring snack size and the timing of the snack also is important.


Offering one piece of fruit or a serving of vegetable sticks and dip can satisfy a child's hunger; offering fruits and vegetables as a snack can be helpful in meeting the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Offering a whole bag of chips or a box of cereal instead of a single serving can fill up a child to a point where he or she will eat little of the food prepared for the next meal. Offering a snack too close to supper can have the same effect

  • Plan meals and snacks. Set aside time to eat, and limit distractions - turn off the radio or television.

  • Children's stomachs are small, so they need to eat frequently to feel satisfied. When meals and snacks are planned, it's less likely that children will overeat.

  • Offer portions that are age-appropriate: about 1 tablespoon for each year of age. Learning to gauge portions can reduce food waste.

  • Introduce new foods gradually, but don't call attention to them. Remember also that children model parental behaviors. When they see their parents enjoying food, they are likely to do the same.

  • If a child rejects a new food, don't take it personally or be discouraged. Offer it again. A child may take a liking to the food in a different form or at some time in the future. As an example, students participating in a school lunch program often are more accepting of new foods they see their peers eating. When they think it's "cool," they may readily eat something they previously have rejected.

  • Don't give in to food jags. If a child becomes cranky and insists that he or she will eat only one kind of breakfast cereal or sandwich, continue to offer a variety of foods.

  • Resist the temptation to use food as a reward. Doing so can encourage overeating, which, in turn, may lead to obesity. Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. The fact that infants and children initially self-regulate their food intake should ease some parental anxiety. Offering a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, and allowing a child to stop eating when he or she is full, rather than overfeeding them, can help a child learn to choose a variety of foods that are important to nutrition, health and fitness.

Weight-conscious adults can take a cue from infants and children who inherently stop eating when they are full. Learn to choose a variety of foods and how to recognize "standard" serving sizes.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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