It's a seemingly simple question, but one creating quite a bit of discussion on the popular parenting forum Mumsnet: "Am I being unreasonable for not demanding my kid finish her dinner before she gets dessert?" And while there's a backstory to this particular situation (more on that in a minute), it's a classic parenting conundrum. Are you a proponent of the "Clean Plate Club," or do you believe kids should be allowed to eat until they decide they're finished?
Like all things parenting-related, this is a highly nuanced area to navigate. Deliberations about bodily autonomy, disordered eating, nutritional needs, and much more may come into play — in other words, mealtime hurdles often go beyond having "picky eaters."
What's the backstory here?
The conversation is made all the more complicated for the mom who originally posted this question (@Lolabear38) because it involves other parents. The backstory of the lightning-rod topic is this: Her child spends a lot of time at a friend's house, and that friend's parents always force all of the children at the table to eat everything on their plate. "We have close friends whose house we eat at, or they eat at ours, fairly often," she explained. "They have different expectations at dinner time for their kids than I do — they enforce a very strict 'clear your plate or no pudding' rule, I don't do this."
Until now, the mom has taken a "their house, their rules" approach. However, her daughter has begun feeling anxious about eating at her friends' house. Plus, the other parents in question have gone so far as to demand everyone follows their "Clean Plate Club" rule even when they visit the OP's house for dinner. "In their house, OK, I guess,” said the OP. “But if I'm following their rules in their home, surely they should return the gesture when in my house?!" The resulting tension is turning a fun, semi-regular dinner date with friends into a nightmare for this frustrated mom and her daughter. Oof.
But what do you do when two families are close, but one family has different rules for their kids? Do you side with the stricter parents, even if you think it's wrong? Do you stand your ground on behalf of your way of parenting and your kid's freedom? Or, like... find new mom friends with similar parenting styles? It's a valid question.
Should you force your kids to clean their plates?
Growing up, you probably had parents very similar to the OP's friends with rules about dinner. No dinner, no dessert. Perhaps you couldn't get up from the table until you cleared your plate. Or, if you didn't finish your dinner, it would be waiting for you at breakfast. Sometimes, it's hard not to fall into that same pattern with our own kids.
It may not be the right solution, though. As a matter of fact, a recent study has shown that clean plate rules actually lead to higher BMIs and an increased chance of eating disorders. Why? While there are a few psychological concerns attached to this, the biggest takeaway is that you're teaching your child not to listen to their own body. If they feel full but have only finished half the plate, they will continue to push on because of the clean plate rules. When, really, shouldn't they listen to their bodies?
Commenter @PaddleBoardingMama agreed, saying, "If you begin to get used to clearing entire portions when you're not hungry, that becomes a habit. As adults, we know when we are full and stop eating. We can also decide that we would like to save room for dessert. How can we expect children to have a healthy relationship with food and make good choices as adults if we are force-feeding them as children?"
Granted, some parents commenting on the original post felt it was understandable not to allow a child to have dessert until they eat dinner. But many kids feeding experts particularly warn against withholding dessert as well. Insta-famous eating expert Jennifer Anderson runs Kids.Eat.In.Color, and she explains what happens when you withhold dessert until they eat "healthier" foods first. It basically teaches your kids the opposite of what you want. Broccoli becomes the enemy — something your kid must fight through before they get to the good stuff, like dessert.
How can you gently encourage your kid to eat?
Anderson shares that the best way to keep kids on track with food is to serve their treat alongside their meal. Let them choose if they'll eat that Oreo first or last. If it's just one more thing on their plate, you're not putting a value on any food in particular — in essence, you're giving your kids a chance to love brussels sprouts just as much as Oreos.
Here are a few more tips to help your kid eat their food, no forcing necessary.
- Involve them in the process. From meal planning and food shopping to prepping and cooking, get your little one invested in what they're consuming.
- Don't overload plates. If you serve a child adult-size portions, you're setting them up for failure. Their tiny tummies can't hold as much as yours can, so don't set that expectation. Start small and let them ask for seconds if they want.
- Always serve one "safe food." Basically, put something on their plate (that is healthy or relatively so) that you know they'll eat.
- Don't give up on a food the first time it's refused. Keep offering tiny portions so it becomes familiar.
- Serve a variety of colors. Not only do more colorful foods hold tons of vitamins, but they're also just more fun. That can make them more appealing to fickle little palates.
- Don't pressure your kiddo into "trying" anything. To Anderson's point, pushing or pressuring your child about a particular food (or their entire meal) can make them dislike it even more.