Clean Your Plate: Are You Sure?

  • Article
  • December 20, 2016

“Clean your plate” has been a common phrase associated with mealtimes for many families, in fact, a research study showed that 85 percent of parents try to get their kindergarteners to eat more during meals. While this phrase is typically well-intended, encouraging children to clean their plate may result in children over-eating instead. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that “parents are the best judges of what children should eat and, children are the best judges of how much they should eat.” To provide some additional insight and healthy eating tips, we connected with expert pediatric nutrition researchers Susan Johnson, Ph.D. and Laura Bellows, Ph.D., MPH, RD.

Should parents make children finish their plates?

Johnson: I understand the in-the-moment worry and frustration parents feel when children don’t eat: Are they sick? Is something wrong? I just spent a lot of valuable time making that food and now they won’t eat it. That said, these momentary frustrations shouldn’t overtake the long-term goals of helping children learn to eat well and to ably manage their desire to eat. I think that most parents want their child to learn to eat when they are hungry and to be able to stop when they feel full…even when it’s something particularly yummy like the holiday foods that will be coming soon. Focusing on cleaning the plate or the “three more bites” request takes away from paying attention to hunger cues (i.e., stomach growling) and recognition of a feeling of fullness. Moreover, children who can’t eat in response to these internal cues are more at risk for excess weight gain. 

Bellows: As parents, we need to be careful that our words are encouraging versus pressuring. The “clean your plate” club or “one bite rule” could pressure children to eat when they may not be hungry. Instead, use encouraging statements, such as “These carrots are crunchy and delicious,” or ‘’I like that you tried your carrots.”

What are some tips to helping toddlers/children recognize when they’re starting to feel full?

Johnson: Children can actually learn to use their words and connect words like “empty” or “hungry” with feelings of hunger and “full” or “just right” with feelings of fullness and satiety. The trick is to connect the dots for them, helping them practice by having them close their eyes, place their hand on their tummy and check in to see how they feel. Making this kind of thing a routine (NOT just the moment when you want them to eat more) and a part of regular mealtime will help them learn to recognize these internal cues related to hunger and fullness.

Bellows: Offering a variety of nutrient-rich foods on a predictable schedule and developing mealtime routines can help children learn to anticipate when they will eat next. With set mealtimes, children can learn the cues that indicate what hunger feels like and what starting to feel full or satiated feels like. If children graze or snack right before meals, they may be less hungry at mealtime and potentially eat when they are not hungry due to mealtime expectations or be anxious and irritable because they are not hungry.

So, it’s up to the parents and caregivers to set the meal and snack schedule, prepare nutritionally balanced meals and snacks and educated the children on cues of hunger and fullness. It’s up to the children to eat the meal or snack and determine when they are done.

If you want additional information, here is a great resource to help guide you in making decisions for what to feed your child in this first two years of life. This document, Airplane Choo Choo, was developed together with the American Academy of Pediatrics & National Dairy Council.