Mealtime mistakes: Study shows that forcing kids to 'clean their plate' does more harm than good

As parents, we are programmed to keep a sharp eye on what our kids are eating. Perhaps a popular rule in your house is to finish all of your dinner, or else. A new study however shows that parents who act as “food police” may be doing more harm than good.

“If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?”

Pink Floyd asked it best. The notion of finishing off every crumb on the plate before one can be excused, and certainly before dessert can be enjoyed, may be seen as proper dinnertime parenting. But a new study released in Pediatrics magazine now says the time-honored “clean your plate” decree may be parent’s number one mealtime mistake.

The April 2013 study, conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, involved 3,431 parents and 2,231 adolescents. Dinner habits were analyzed, and the results showed that those parents who act as the “food police” may be contributing not only to suppertime stress, but could be putting their kids at an early risk of obesity.

Two-thirds of parents at the dinner table encourage their children to eat everything that is served to them, even if their children are already considered overweight or obese. While you may think it is the moms out there who are encouraging the “eat or else” ultimatum, the study showed that dads are mostly to blame for laying down the food laws.

“I was surprised at some of the parent behaviors, like feeling that their children should clean their plates and not waste food,” study author Kath Loth, a registered dietician, commented.

In the families of overweight kids, 66 percent of fathers agreed with the following statement: “My child should always eat all the food on his/her plate,” compared with about 50 percent of the mothers.

The study also revealed that two-thirds of the parents of obese children agreed with the statement, “If I did not guide or regulate my child’s eating, he/she would eat too much of his/her favorite foods.”

While guidance in food choices is certainly proper, forcing kids to eat is not. Similarly, categorizing certain foods as “prohibited” adds to their allure. Moderation is key, along with basic family education when it comes to food choices.

“Telling kids that they have to clean their plate, whether they’re hungry or not, teaches them to ignore their natural hunger signals, which sets the stage for overeating and obesity,” says Tana Amen, mother and author of The Omni Diet.

The study reflected that an educated outlook is a parent’s best defense. The study abstract concluded with these words:

“Given that there is accumulating evidence for the detrimental effects of controlling feeding practices on children’s ability to self-regulate energy intake, these findings suggest that parents should be educated and empowered through anticipatory guidance to encourage moderation rather than overconsumption and emphasize healthful food choices rather than restrictive eating patterns.”

How can parents set the example? Stock your shelves with wholesome foods and ditch the junk. Opt for “perimeter” shopping at your local grocer – stick to fresh fruits and veggies, meats, fish and whole grains. Avoid soda, which tops the list as a risk factor in childhood obesity. Try naturally flavored carbonated water.

A smarter solution is to bring your children in on the process. Involve your kids in mealtime decisions, shopping, couponing and cooking. Allow your children to learn from their poor decisions.

“If my daughter, Chloe, ate gooey chocolate cake at a birthday party and got a bellyache later, instead of scolding her for making an unhealthy choice, I’d point out the likely cause-and-effect relationship between these two events, to help her make a connection between what she ate and how it made her feel,” says Amen.

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