To Clean the Plate or Not to Clean the Plate?

by Cindy Gray

Many families encounter the big debate at some stage over whether to insist children clean their plate or not. On the one hand, concerned parents want to ensure their child gets adequate nutrition, but in some cases pushing children to eat everything on their plate can backfire. After generations have been told to "eat up and remember the starving children in other countries", have we inadvertently spawned fussy eaters, food addiction and overweight adults who need help with overeating? Let's see what modern-day research shows.

Making your child clean their plate could sow the seeds for food addictions later in life.

Research into Food Addiction

A study published by the journal Appetite reported that 85% of parents try to get their child to eat more by coaxing them to eat "just three more bites." They may use praise, reasoning or food rewards such as dessert to accomplish their task, but this is a far cry from insisting a child stay at the table until their plate is cleared.

Vegetables are a vital source of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins, yet they are at the center of the controversy, as most children choose not to eat them. A similar study found that persistent parents offer a vegetable on average 14 separate times before the child will accept it.

A more recent study in 2015 showed that reducing pressure on children to clear their plate may actually help prevent obesity and food addiction in later life which may require help with overeating.  The study found that parents who were overly controlling at mealtimes increased the likelihood that the child would become overweight. The lead researcher of the study reported that 50-60% of parents surveyed expected their children to finish all the food on their plate; and up to 40% of parents encouraged their child to eat, even when the child claimed they were full.

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A supporting study by Cornell University found that youngsters who learned to clean their plate were more likely to request larger portions away from the home, making them likely targets of food addiction and obesity later in life.  It all makes for interesting discussion, but appears to indicate that overeating is a habit established in childhood. Parents can control what's on the plate but children should regulate their own intake. However, setting a good example can be the best lesson of all.

Where to get Help with Overeating

Slimming clubs are a good place to find help with overeating and support from fellow dieters. More serious cases of binge eating and food addiction may need professional counselling or help from the National Eating Disorders Association which provides a helpline and useful information for those with eating disorders.   

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