I Will Never Force My Kids To Clean Their Plate

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I remember sitting at the dinner table as a kid feeling like I was about to burst after eating half a hot dog and a few orange slices. I really thought I might barf.

On this particular day, I did not have an appetite, but my mother told me I had to clean my plate. So I did. It was the rule in our house, and it seemed to be the rule in most homes during my childhood. Sitting at the table until your plate was clean was the way it was done.

There were nights I would take my peas and throw them on the floor, a few at a time. I figured out if I chewed my meat a bit and nonchalantly spit it in my napkin as I performed my best fake cough, no one would know I didn’t finish my supper.

Before long, cleaning my plate was something I did because I thought it was polite. Soon I didn’t have to spit out half-chewed meatloaf, or throw my vegetables on the floor, because I could eat it all. As I got older and had dinner at friends’ houses, I finished everything, even if they didn’t have the clean-your-entire-plate rule. During my adolescence, I grew an iron stomach.

Pushing myself past the feeling of full every day stayed with me as I got older. I continued to think I had to eat everything in front of me, simply because it was there even though there was no one telling me I had to.

Over time, it became something I did without even thinking about it. I just automatically ate all the food that I took, or was served, even when it was way too much. It was like my mind saw a plate full of food and was intent on consuming it all. Feeling legitimately sick was my signal to stop putting food in my mouth.

And to this day, if there is food on my plate, no matter how full I am, I feel like I have to eat it — even though I don’t actually want to eat it. My mind and my stomach can’t seem to agree.

Cleaning my plate for every meal is a dirty habit I can’t seem to break. After ignoring my body when it told my brain it had enough food to carry on, I stopped being able to tell when I was actually full. It’s a constant battle, and it is emotionally and mentally exhausting. It really robs me of a lot of the joy that goes into savoring and enjoying a good meal.

Because of this, I don’t force my kids to finish everything in front of them. I don’t want them to view not cleaning their plate as a bad thing and force those last few bites of mashed potatoes in their mouth lest over- stuffing themselves turns into a sport.

I’m not saying my house is a free-for-all where I let them skip a healthy meal, then load up on cake each night. I am talking about not making them eat beyond their comfort level.

I want them to recognize when they are full and be able to walk away without feeling guilty. I respect that some days their appetites are larger than others. But it should be up to them to determine when they have had enough to eat by listening to their body, and I find nothing wrong with letting them eat smaller portions during mealtime, with a few more healthy snacks thrown in their throughout the day.

They know when they are hungry, and they know when they are full; it is their body, not mine. I can provide them with all the nutrition they need and limit their sugar and processed snacks and trust they are taking in what they need.

I certainly couldn’t force them to eat when they were nursing, and I didn’t pry their mouths open to get more strained vegetables in them as infants — that would have been impossible. When they were full, they would spit it out or cry. I paid attention to those signals then, and now that they are older and can say, “Mom, I’m full,” I respect those signals now as well.

Our kids’ appetites go in cycles. They go a few months hardly eating a thing, then all of the sudden, their appetite ramps up so fast, you can’t keep enough food in the house and they are asking for seconds during every meal.

And yes, it is annoying how one week they love baby carrots and hummus, go through a few tubs of it, so I go out and buy four more, only to have them decide they hate it. But kids aren’t any different from adults when it comes to eating. They get sick of certain foods after eating them for a while, and when they get full, they want to stop eating. Who wants to be forced to eat when their body is telling them they’ve had enough?

We can encourage our children to eat a healthy variety of food without teaching them they must gorge themselves by finishing every thing on their plate during every meal. That’s not healthy or practical.