Creating a healthy relationship with food is an important part of parenting, and thankfully – we have access to more information than ever before! So, should we tell our children to finish their plates? Maybe not. Here’s why.
Before you go down mom guilt lane, let’s be clear. As I write this article, I sit with a box of crackers next to me at 11PM at night. So… my relationship with food? Not 100% great.
Did I bribe my son with promises of candy this month? Yes, actually. Probably even this week if we’re being completely honest here.
My point is this: This information is a lot to take in. There is no shaming going on, and I fully understand we’re all doing the best we can in the moment. I’m particularly bad about bribing my son in moments where it’s more convenient to pacify him temporarily than it is to face the hard parts of parenting, like in the grocery store, or when I’m wrangling both kids with a pregnant belly in and out of my prenatal appointments.
However, because I’m so passionate about creating a positive experience and relationship with food for my kids, I wince in these moments. I know they’re not the “right” thing to do, but I also give myself grace. But, that saying is true: When we know better, we do better. And these moments are getting more far and few between because I keep myself informed and passionate.
To my fellow overwhelmed mamas out there, opening bags of goldfish while in the store so their kids don’t go ballistic, I see you. I am you. And educating ourselves on the ins and outs of parenting and food is such a big step that we can all take as a generation of parents determined to raise a new, well-rounded group of human beings.
In recent years, this has become a hot topic of discussion. And, as always, I hope not to offend, but to spread what I’ve learned through reading and my own personal experiences.
Many of us were told to finish our food while growing up.
Some of us heard phrases as harsh as, “you’re not getting up until you clear that plate,” or even as gentle as, “wow! Look at brother’s plate! He ate all of his dinner. What a great job he did!”
It all boiled down to eating our entire dinner before being allowed to leave the table or partake in dessert.
And, while no one meant any harm by these words, therapists and other professionals have been digging deeper into the negative impact this language creates long-term. What kind of dynamic are we creating for our children when they’re told they must finish their plate of food?
Is It “Bad” to Tell Our Kids to Finish Food?
We all know no parent has ill intent when they insist that their kid finish their plate of food. It comes from a place of love, actually. We all want the best for our children! We want to make sure they’re eating a balanced diet of nutrient-rich foods, so we do what comes naturally which is (surprise, surprise) to mimic what we heard growing up: finish. your. food.
However, when we tell our children to finish their food when they clearly don’t want to, we’re teaching them to ignore their body’s natural cues that tell them they’re full.
What we want to do instead, is support them as they learn to listen to their bodies. The solution is so simple, yet so difficult. Remember, simple doesn’t always mean easy.
If your child says they don’t want any more pasta because they’re full, but they turn around and beg for chips as if they’re starving, you gently but firmly tell them that they’re more than welcome to eat more of their pasta if they think they’re still hungry, and chips aren’t on the menu for the day.
Except… the execution is what’s difficult, isn’t it? Our kids really have a way of wearing down on our nerves and our confidence starts to fade by the end of a day of pestering.
This is the daily work we must put in to do our best for our kids. It’s a constant uphill battle, not something any parent is suddenly perfect at.
Is it Actually Important for Our Kids to Finish Their Food?
Or, is it something that’s ingrained in many of us due to our own childhood and ideas surrounding food? That is the question, isn’t it?
Here’s what we know is important: Many of our kids cannot survive exclusively on the foods of their choice. They require certain vitamins, nutrients, and protein to thrive.
So, from there it becomes our job to provide them with these healthful food choices.
Notice how I said, “provide,” and not “make sure they eat lots of healthy foods.”
Our job is to provide our kids with good food and encourage a positive relationship surrounding diet. It’s up to them to eat it. Unless your child needs medical attention regarding their diet, the majority of kids will eat what is given to them so long as it’s cooked correctly and at least a little tasty!
We are stressed about our children’s diets to our own detriment. Loosen the reigns a bit, put good food in front of them, keep an eye on what they’re eating, and relax.
Food Pressure: The “Solution” You Should Ignore
Not only is pressuring your child to eat ineffective, it’s straight up negative. This we know. Pressuring our kids to eat, even if it’s “just one more bite,” creates an unhealthy narrative surrounding food.
Is your child doomed if you’ve already been doing this? No, it’s never too late to change directions!
Think about it. Every time we beg them to eat one more bite of green beans to justify their dessert, we’re subtly reinforcing the idea that green beans are a necessary evil. They’re not delicious. They’re “healthy,” which actually ends up being correlated with “gross.” We must eat gross food in order to deserve the good food, like cake and ice cream.
Bribing Doesn’t Actually Work
What’s the goal with all of this parenting stuff, anyway? Is it to provide quick relief in the moment? Or is it more important to build our children up for long-term success in all regards, including their relationship with food?
While we may breathe a sigh of relief when our kids eat a big portion of broccoli one night, it truly doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. We must not trade long-term success for momentary relief too often.
Bribing will certainly help you out of some tough moments, but in turn, it usually creates more tough moments down the line.
What Can We Do Instead?
Set Boundaries (and Follow Them)
Meal time can’t be a total free-for-all. Parenting with understanding (which this topic falls under the umbrella of) is not permissive parenting, but rather, a parenting model that favors connection and relationship-building over the authoritative style of parenting.
So, set boundaries that make sense for your family. Don’t be afraid to offer the same plate of food throughout the day, no matter how persistent your child is. You can be kind and firm at the same time.
But… Be Understanding
The last thing we want to do is force our child to eat something they truly can’t stomach. Only you can really make that call. It can be hard to tell if they’re avoiding a meal in the hopes of eating cookies soon, or if they really don’t want to eat something.
If you believe your child really isn’t enjoying your dinner, it’s not very nice to force feed them the rest, right? My go-to is to offer something else that more-or-less offers similar nutrients.
Tips for Getting Your Child To Eat
Keep More Real Food Around
When you’re worried that your child has been eating cheesy puffs too often lately, what solution do you come to? At times of high stress when we have been begged for cheesy puffs incessantly all day, we might end up falling back on the age-old, “fine! You can have some cheesy puffs after you eat your dinner! Finish your plate first!”
But, what actually works is this: Don’t have any cheesy puffs around for a while. It might be rough for the first couple of days, but they’ll adjust, and you’ll be happy that you don’t have anything for them to beg for.
Having plenty of real food around is key. Fruits, vegetables, and grains galore!
Change the Presentation
Have you heard the phrase, “kids eat with their eyes first?”
It’s true! Try plating the food differently or making it fun and see how they do! One major thing to remember is that kids can get overwhelmed by plates that are piled high. Start off small. It’s easier for them to process mentally.
Involve Them in the Meal Planning, Cooking, or Plating
Involving your child in the grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking, and plating of the family food is a great way to get them excited about what’s on the menu.
Sometimes when I write about children, I feel like I’m writing about an alien species that we’re studying and trying to figure out. But, it’s not the case! Think about how you would like to be treated, and extend that courtesy to your kids. That will always work. Anyone, at any age would be more invested and engaged in their meals if they’re involved in the process.
Talk About Why Some Foods Are So Important
Create an open dialogue about what different foods have to offer our bodies, and why we prepare them the way we do. Create some intrigue and insight into food, and be honest about why your family chooses to eat certain things. Obviously, leading my example is key.
Try Different Temperatures and Textures
You never know what might work! Younger children in particular are prone to being put off by different textures, especially if they haven’t explored very many before.
For instance, my son is okay with cooked peas, but he LOVES frozen peas. The temperature and texture are different, and he prefers it that way!
Teach Them About Their Bodies
Give your child the space to understand their own cues. It’s not for us to tell them when they’re done eating. They should be allowed that autonomy, and empowering them with knowledge is the best thing we can do.
Change the Vibe at Mealtime
Kids are easily overwhelmed and distracted. If you struggle with getting your child to “focus” on mealtime, or interested in what’s on their plate, try turning off all noise in the house, and make it a sit-down event. It gives them the mental clarity they might need to explore their food on a better level, and at the very least, makes for some quality family time.
Offer Unlimited Vegetables and (Sometimes) Fruits
If you’re worried about your child not getting full enough, have some food around that is always up for grabs. At our house, I have no restrictions on fruit or vegetables. You don’t want my breakfast or lunch? Fine, there’s some oranges in the fruit bowl.
You ate all of your dinner and you’re still hungry? How about some baby carrots? No matter what time of day, or what the circumstances are, my kids are given an immediate “yes” to these items because:
- they offer nutritional value
- the kids are given some freedom of choice, and
- they will never be truly hungry.
Be Cool, Man!
Just as we don’t want to be too “weird” about good vs. bad foods, we shouldn’t make a big deal when they eat their entire healthy dinner. After all, the goal is simply to keep them fed and growing, and to allow them the space to learn to trust their hunger cues. They’re not eating to our standards, they’re eating for themselves.
Just be chill! No need to praise them for finishing their food. They’re simply doing what they should and listening to their body.
Remember: Picky Eating Isn’t Really As Big of a Deal as You Think It Is
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