Written by Doctor G

Don’t Argue With Healthy Kids About How Much They Eat!

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.

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13 thoughts on “Don’t Argue With Healthy Kids About How Much They Eat!”

  1. We weren’t required to finish our plates as kids, but we were told that these are the meal times and these are the snack times. At dinner time you’ll eat what is cooked and at snack time you’re allowed to have these specific foods. Not to say that there wasn’t treats mixed in, but we learned to pace ourselves appropriately and that if we don’t eat this now, we have to wait this long and we had limited options.

  2. That’s a tough question. I’ve struggled with my weight my entire life, even though I eat healthy and am active. Even though my mom had the best intentions, I remember being promised things like bikes and new clothes if I lost weight. The promises never worked because besides doing something drastic that wasn’t anything I could do at 12 years old about my weight.

    1. Wow. Motivating children to lose weight is a really tough road. Thanks for your candid response.

  3. I have a 4 year old who has been very picky her entire life and has always eaten very small amounts. This was very unusual to me, and stressful initially. We tried to offer a variety of healthy foods, but she has had between 4-8 foods she likes, and doesn’t like to try anything else. After she turned 3, we insisted she try a bite of what we are having for dinner…otherwise she doesn’t need to have anything. She has her usual breakfast and lunch and we offer healthy snacks, but she isn’t a big snacker. It is very upsetting that she frequently chooses not to have dinner, rather than try a bite of what we are having, but she is getting better about it. She actually has improved on the growth chart (5% to 20% despite her choosing not to have dinner a few times a week!). I think you are right not to pressure kids to eat. Realizing each child has their own diet needs and respecting that, not stressing that they have to eat a certain amount has been helpful too.

    1. If you and her doc are comfortable that she is growing and that she is thriving developmentally, then you’re teaching her a great lesson – listen to your body!

  4. I was told all about the starving children in Africa and I also suggested shipping my food over to those children. I will never use that line with my child for fear of the same response, haha! 🙂

    Love your advice though. Now that my son is almost 3 he’s starting to get a case of the “pickies”. So, I find myself constantly balancing my desire to not make food that I know will be wasted and offering him a healthy well balanced meal.

    Fixing issues that have been passed down from generation to generation is sometimes a constant work-in-progress.

    1. Wow, isn’t it a work in progress? We are certain we won’t make our parents’ or grandparents’ mistakes… but we’ll certainly make others!

  5. I totally agree with not forcing kids to eat. I had one set of grandparents that would make us feel incredibly guilty for not eating everything – even when we didn’t fill our own plates.

    We don’t let our boys have seconds (except veggies) or dessert if they aren’t hungry enough for dinner, but we certainly don’t make them feel badly for it, either.

    Oh, and we generally have dessert every night (sorry Doc), but it’s usually something like one cookie or a single mochie.

  6. We weren’t required to clean our plates, at home. But, at my aunts house, you were rewarded if you were a member of the “clean plate club.” And chastised, if you wren’t. Looking back, I realize how unhealthy that was.

    1. It’s not simple, right? I understand (now finally) why the parents and grandparents of yesteryear were horrified by waste of any food. They were looking through the lens of deprivation, and we are looking at an overabundance of food that requires learning self-restraint.

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