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Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on their plates

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Forcing children to finish everything on their plates sets them up for a bad relationship with food.

QUESTIONAs a child, I was brought up to eat everything on my plate and not waste food. As an adult, I try to listen to my body and leave food on my plate when I am full, but it’s hard. Do you have any tips?

ANSWER: Come on, don’t waste food – there are starving children in Africa!” It’s the refrain many Kiwi kids heard while growing up. And, yes, there are thousands of malnourished children in Africa (and New Zealand, for that matter), but eating past fullness doesn’t benefit the health of anyone in any country.

So, why are we so intent on encouraging, cajoling or downright forcing our kids and ourselves to eat past fullness and finish all the food on our plates?

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For parents, there seem to be two reasons: they don’t want to see good food go to waste, but they also don’t trust their child’s ability to eat enough food for their growing body.

However, young children have an innate ability to regulate their energy intake by eating more at one meal to compensate for eating less at an earlier one, according to a study published in 1992 in the journal Pediatrics.

We’re all born as intuitive eaters, able to sense and respond to our hunger and fullness cues. It’s only when we’re taught to ignore those cues, with messages such as “finish everything on your plate”, that we become disconnected from those inbuilt signals.

Coercive parenting has been associated with excess weight gain in young people. It is characterised by strict enforcement of parental rules and little encouragement of a child’s independence.

In contrast, an authoritative parenting style is linked to healthier weight and dietary outcomes. This type of parenting is characterised by structured guidance that listens to and incorporates a child’s desires. This means accepting that a child is full and allowing them to leave the table without finishing their meal.

This leaves us with the issue of not wanting to see food go to waste. It’s a hard habit to break, even once we reach adulthood, particularly for those who grew up in large families where meals were competitive, or where food was scarce.

But whether unwanted food is tossed in a bin or eaten, it’s still wasted (unless you compost it or save it for later), because eating when you’re not hungry is wasting food, too.

Researchers recently discovered that we have a greater desire to continue eating if there is only a small amount left over.

Their findings, published this year in the journal Appetite, also found that we justify eating small amounts of less-nutritious leftovers by “healthifying” them – that is, convincing ourselves the food is more nutritious than it really is.

They also noted that having the option to save them, or take leftovers home from a restaurant, reduced our desire to keep eating.

Often what we’re trying to avoid is guilt about wasting food. In essence, eating unwanted food is a form of “emotional eating”.

The best way to break the habit is to leave one or two mouthfuls of food uneaten on the plate at every main meal. Keep doing this until you feel comfortable with leaving it there, and you’re able to pause and check your fullness cues to decide whether you need it.

This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.