Have you ever spent what feels like hours cooking a delicious meal for your family only to have your toddler throw their plate on the floor after having only a couple of bites?

Has your preschooler ever eaten about three bites and pushed their plate away, saying they are full?

Have you ever felt like you are failing because your child never finishes all the food on their plate?

As a parent, it can feel frustrating when we work so hard to get dinner on the table only to have our children take two or three bites. It can be tempting to try and force them to keep eating and clear their plate. 

There are a few reasons that parents have felt the need to encourage (and sometimes force) children to finish all of the food on their plate. Some of these reasons include: 

  • Cultural norms and expectations.
  • Growing up in, or currently living in, a family where food is scarce and don’t want to waste food. 
  • View of finishing food as a sign of respect for the person who made the food.
  • Want to feel a sense of control over mealtimes. 
  • “We worked hard to bring food to this table – you need to eat it.” 
  • “It’s rude not to finish Grandma’s dinner.” 

The idea of children having to finish everything off of their plates is actually NOT about the food and more about other factors. 

In recent years, therapists (and other professionals) have been encouraging parents to steer clear of the “you must clean your plate” mentality. This is because there are many reasons why this kind of thinking doesn’t actually serve our children.

Let’s look at three of the most important reasons we should stop forcing children to finish everything on their plates. 

1. Our kids have a natural radar for fullness

By making them finish everything on their plate, we push them to eat past satiation rather than trust their internal radar. We are not instilling a sense of trust in our children, and as they get older, they may begin to doubt their internal radar, which could lead to many different challenges, including eating disorders. 

2. We don’t want to teach our children to eat for our praise

If we are forcing kids to eat their whole plate and then we praise them when they finish their food, we are teaching them to eat for praise. We also are teaching them that we will be happier with them if they eat more than they can handle and clear their plate, than if they eat just enough to feel full. Does this sound like something we want to instil in our children?

3. Forcing food creates power struggles

We need to remember that there will be days when children have three bites and are full and other days where they have seconds or thirds before they are full. If we respect that our children will let us know when they are full, we can avoid getting stuck in power struggles. 

If we trust that our children will let us know when they are full, and we respect this whether they had two bites or two plates full, we are setting them up for success. We are encouraging them to notice what their body is telling them, we are helping them learn to trust their instincts, and we are letting them know they don’t need to eat to earn our praise. 

If you grew up with the mentality of “you have to clean your plate,” it can be challenging to make the switch to fully trusting your children with listening to their bodies.

Try these simple sentence shifts

Instead of: “I see three more bites left on your plate!”

Say: “I see you are done eating.”

Instead of: “Come on, Matt, have a few more bites! Grandma made this just for you!”

Say: “We trust Matt will tell us if he’s still hungry. You don’t need to feed him while he is pushing his plate away.”

Instead of: “Wow, Lena, that is so much food! You don’t need any more dinner.”

Say: “Lena said she is still hungry for more dinner. We trust she knows her body.”

Instead of: “You need to have more food! Choo-choo, here comes the airplane.”

Say: “I see you signing “all done.” You are all done with your dinner.”

A few final reflections

If you feel ready to make this mindset shift and begin trusting your child’s internal sense of fullness, here are some tips to help you with this transition:

  • Reflect on your family values and cultural norms around food.
  • Get curious about what your child might be trying to communicate to you when they refuse to eat their food.
  • Offer a few different choices on their plate of things they can choose from.
  • Narrate out loud when they are done. “I see you are pushing your food away; it looks like you are full.”
  • Allow for natural consequences (they may be hungry) instead of adding in punishment if they don’t finish their food.

If you are worried about your child’s eating habits, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor for support!