The Anti-Clean-Plate Club

A study published in the October, 2008 issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine reinforces two important principles that can encourage healthy eating habits in preschoolers.

The researchers studied 63 children, offering them as much cereal as they wanted in two different-sized bowls. They had also asked if each child’s mother had been asking them to clean their plates. They found that children asked for much more cereal if it were served in a bigger bowl, and also asked for more cereal if they were from households where mom encouraged them to clean their plate.

By far, the most common “eating disorder” in the United States is eating too much. Combined with insufficient physical activity, this had led to an explosion of obesity even among the very young. This places kids at risk for many healthy problems, including diabetes, liver disease, orthopedic injuries, and depression.

The best way to help children learn to eat a healthy amount of food is to help them develop their own ability to self-regulate their input. In other words, kids need to learn to eat when they’re hungry, and not eat when they’re full. Some of the best ways to reinforce and encourage this skill include:

• Don’t encourage children to clean their plates, or in any other way encourage them to eat when they’re not hungry.
• Do model good eating behaviors, like eating slowly and drinking water with meals.
• Don’t pile food on children’s plates, but rather have them serve themselves when they’re old enough.
• Do have children take small amounts of a first serving, and allow them to take seconds or thirds if they’re still hungry.
• Don’t make “good foods” dependent on eating “bad foods.” For instance, if you tell a child she can have ice cream if she eats asparagus, what she hears is that ice cream is wonderful and asparagus is terrible. Children who eat vegetables only to earn food treat rewards are very unlikely to continue to eat vegetables as adults.
• Do make conversation during mealtimes—but not about the food. Talk about your day, model good conversation skills, and find out what your kids have been up to.
• Don’t characterize children as “good” or “bad” based on eating—phrases like “he’s a good eater” should be avoided.

Remember: food is for eating when you’re hungry—not when you’re bored, or anxious, or want to please your momma. When you’re not hungry, you shouldn’t eat. When you are hungry, you ought to eat until you’re not hungry any more. It’s a simple enough message, and one that can go a long way towards reversing the unhealthy trend towards overeating among children and their families.

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