Why I Don’t Make My Kids Clean Their Plates

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Fun fact: We’re all born knowing when to stop eating. Our bodies are wonderfully made with the ability to feel satiated when we’ve eaten enough. It’s so simple: When we eat the right amount of food, we feel full. It’s a natural process that is in place from birth.

A not-so-fun fact: Most of us learn early on in life to override satiety cues and continue eating long after we are full. Those natural cues we’re born with? Many of us ignore them and keep on eating.

And why is that? For most of us, we were taught to “clean your plate” during childhood at meal time. We were asked to eat everything on our plate, even if we were full. Most of our parents never stopped to ask if we were full. They just told us to eat what was there, which is what their parents had probably told them to do and their parents before them, and so on.

Heck for some of us, the idea of “clean your plate” started even before we had a plate – our parents insisting we finished a bottle as a baby so we would sleep better at night or to extend the time out between feedings so that we would stick to a schedule our parents had set for us.

Can you see what a huge problem that is?

Biologically our bodies were designed with hunger cues and also with the ability to stop eating once we were satisfied. But we have ignored those biological cues, whether by force or by choice. We eat when we’re bored, lonely, tired, afraid, or just because other people are eating. We don’t always eat strictly because we’re hungry. And then we keep on eating long past the feeling of full, so often because our plate or bowl or take-out container or bag of chips isn’t empty, so we think we aren’t done yet.

Hungry? Who knows. But there is food left, so I’ve got to eat it.

As a mother, I made a commitment when I had children that I wouldn’t make them clean their plates at meal time. There would be no happy plates (in the traditional sense) in my house. A happy plate would instead be one that had food that nourished my children’s bodies, no matter how much was left behind at the end of the meal.

I have struggled with overeating my entire life and feeling obsessed with food in very unhealthy ways, and I have been determined not to pass that along to my children. I want them to have the best possible relationship with food.

I knew the first step in that was to not force them to overeat. (I understand that “force” is a heavy word, but think about it – that’s exactly what we are doing when we tell a child to clean their plate.) I wanted my children to learn to listen to their hunger cues and feelings of fullness – to eat when they are hungry and not eat when they are not.

I can hear they naysayers now –

“Don’t they snack too much?”

“What about family dinner time”

“They just don’t eat their meal because they don’t like what you’ve served, and they just want a fun snack.”

“Don’t you throw a lot of food away?”

“Does this actually work?”

“Doesn’t this lead to a lot of negotiating at meal times?”

So, here’s what I say. Yes, my kids snack a lot. Too much? Some days yes, and some days no. We don’t have a free-for-all at my house, please understand that. They ask before they get a snack. I try to guide their snack choices. And if it’s close to a meal time? Nope, no snacks. Sorry kid.

We eat dinner as a family as often as possible at the dinner table. But sometimes my kids are s t a r v i n g for dinner at 4:30, so I feed them then and my husband and I eat later. We do the best we can to all eat together, but some days it just doesn’t happen.

I try to serve balanced meals, although I probably could do better. Who couldn’t? I know when they are going straight for their favorite foods (Hello carbs!) and ignoring other food groups on their plate, and so I remind them that they have to try everything on their plate.

My children are still young enough that I plate their food for them, and so I have the ability to control their portion sizes of their favorite things. If they ask for seconds of a favorite without having eaten the other things on their plate, then they are reminded to eat what they have before they can get anymore. And because I dole out the portions, I am able to cut down on waste because I have a pretty good idea of how much they’ll eat most days.

I can tell when they say, “I’m not hungry,” because it’s not their favorite meal. I know to talk them through those feelings, to acknowledge not everything is my favorite either, but we have to eat some things because of their benefits for our bodies. And then yes, they are told to eat, but no, they are still not told to clean their plate.

So far this strategy of not cleaning your plate is working pretty well. Of my two children, one only eats when he is hungry. Period. And to this emotional-eating, stuff-your-face-past-full, struggled-with-disordered-eating-for-years woman, I truly admire his ability to listen to his body. My hope for him is that he can live his entire life with this relationship with food.

My other child does struggle, despite my best efforts, to not eat when she is not hungry. I do believe she ends most meals when she is full. But snacking is another story. I partially blame COVID (isn’t that to blame for everything these days?!) and the bored-snacking that came about in the long hours at home during quarantine. But in truth, I take responsibility for allowing the bored-snacking, and now I am working to help her undo those habits. I know it won’t be done overnight, but my hope is to help her have the best relationship possible with food.

And as for negotiating at meal times, admittedly yes, there is some of that. I am a parent, not a dictator. I am trying to teach my kids to listen to their bodies, to learn about proper nutrition, and to love their bodies. I am trying to teach them how to make decisions, how to become fully functioning adults. I recognize we probably have more conversations about eating what you are served than some families would allow, but I’m okay with it because I believe it’s all apart of the process.

Listen. I am no expert. I only have my own experience and relationship with food to go off of, along with a little bit of research. You don’t have to believe me or do what I do. I just know in our house, no one will have to clean their plate at meal time. Period. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Very good read and advice Jeri. Unfortunately you probably are a product of a mom who couldn’t leave the table unless her plate was clean. I’m sure a little of that I probably instilled in you. Wish I had read this back when raising you and your sisters.
    Thanks for sharing!

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