Hey Dr. G I’ve got a topic for you… making kids “clean their plate.” Growing up I was always told to finish all of my dinner. This lesson has stuck to me so well that I’ll eat past the point of being full rather than waste food. Now that I’m a parent I find myself walking a fine line between making sure my daughter eats enough, but not making her eat more than she wants to. This isn’t always easy, but I do my best. So, how can I encourage my daughter to eat “enough” without setting her up for a lifetime of overeating?
Wendy, in AZ
Wendy, I too grew up being admonished to finish my food since there were starving children in China. Got smacked once for suggesting we box up my leftovers and send them on over.
Times have changed. A generation or two ago the biggest concern most parents had was getting enough food onto the table. In this generation we’re much more concerned as a society with getting healthy food in front of our children, and teaching them about balanced nutrition and reasonable portions. I’m glad, as I’m sure you are, that this shift is occurring. Though there are still too many children in need of any food at all.
The good news for you is that you don’t have to encourage your daughter to eat!
Since she is no longer a baby or toddler, she has the skills she needs to judge this on her own. She has learned what hunger means and that eating satisfies it. She can understand that food is available at snack and meal time only. She can wait (though probably not very gracefully!) and she can learn from mistakes.
Your job is to make a reasonable amount of a variety of healthy food available to her at meal and snack times. Half the plate vegetables, one quarter protein and one quarter starch. She doesn’t have to eat anything, but if she wants seconds of something she needs to eat some of each of the three foods she has in front of her. Healthy snacks, in small portions, and no more than 8 oz of sweetened drinks (sweetened milk, juice) in any one day round out her necessities. An occasional (2-3 times a week or so) dessert is fine.
If your daughter eats well at a meal, that is great!
If your daughter chooses not to eat, that is also OK. You no longer need to count bites, bargain about how much she needs to eat before she can be excused, ask her to eat more (if you were even doing these things to begin with). You can instead ask if she is still hungry. If she says no, remind her once that there won’t be any more food until ____ (next snack or meal). Then stick to that.
In this way you can teach your daughter to respond to her own internal cues without nagging or guilt or overeating. You can enjoy your own meal, and not wonder where the line is. The line between over- and under-eating is not yours to find, it’s something your daughter needs to learn for herself. And she can! She will learn to be responsible for her own hunger and eating. She will learn resilience as she discovers that being hungry between meals isn’t the end of the world
Young children often instinctively eat in the ways that are best for them. Not the food choices – that has to be a parental decision – but the amount of food can absolutely be guided by the child.