Should kids eat everything on their plates?

Those who have worked with me, will know that my answer to this is HELL NO. Why? I have the advantage of seeing the result at both ends of the spectrum. In the short term, there are the kids who develop fears around eating, stressful meal times, and families scrambling to make multiple meals each night. In the much longer term, these kids grow into adults with all sorts of issues around food that may lead to unhelpful habits, such as overeating. Here are some examples of the types of thinking I see ALL the time in adults:

"I must eat everything on my plate"

"It is wasteful if I don't finish" (cue guilty feelings)

"It is not polite to leave food on my plate" (cue social embarrassment, anxiety)

"There are starving children in the world" (cue guilty feelings)

"If I don't eat everything then I am bad"

"If I don't eat everything then I won't get dessert"

STRAIGHT TO THE POINT: KIDS SHOULD BE ABLE TO LISTEN TO THEIR BODIES. NATURAL HUNGER/FULLNESS CUES ARE REALLY IMPORTANT FOR APPETITE REGULATION.

The problem with forcing kids to eat everything in front of them is that they learn to ignore their body's natural hunger/fullness cues. These cues are really important for appetite regulation as adults, and something that many of my adult clients need to re-learn.

As a parent I understand how frustrating meal times can be. Here is what I suggest to deal with them:

1. Don't offer dessert, or any other bribe, as a reward for finishing everything on their plate.

2. Serve up small amounts of food, especially if it is something that is usually rejected.

3. Adopt a really relaxed attitude towards meal times. If the kids won't eat, then it's ok. It is really unlikely that your child will starve if they miss one meal. Make it clear (nicely and calmly) that NOTHING else on offer (no fruit, no milk, NOTHING).

4. If someone finishes all their food and is still hungry, then they may go back for more (if there is any left) or have something else (eg, a piece of fruit, some milk, or dessert on the rare occasion that it is available). If they say they are still hungry but the broccoli is still on their plate, then they are not that hungry (if they are allergic to broccoli, clearly that is another story).

Allow kids to develop a good relationship with food by listening to their bodies and respecting their natural appetite regulation cues. They may thank you in the long term.

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