Kids, Tips / How-Tos, Toddlers

Should Your Child Eat Everything on Their Plate?

Through generations, the notion that kids should “clean their plates” has prevailed. For some, it stems from a “waste not, want not” philosophy. Others reason that the only way to get kids to eat their vegetables is to enforce a strict policy about meals in general.

In truth, the “clean your plate” strategy is best avoided. A healthy relationship between kids and food is founded on their ability to listen to their bodies, appreciate what they’re eating and become independent assessors of their eating habits—not whether they’re able to eat everything on their plate. Your kids should learn to recognize what it feels like to be hungry and full and then eat based on how they feel. Teaching your kids to listen to their hunger cues will set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.    

Encouraging kids from an early age to recognize hunger and satiety for themselves sets them up for self-regulation later on. When kids are older and begin feeding themselves, it’s important they realize why they’re eating. Is it because they’re actually hungry or simply because food is present?

Think about your own experience as an adult, particularly when eating at restaurants where portions tend to be bigger. If you tend to overeat, there’s a reason why: Research suggests that we’re psychologically predisposed to take visual cues from food. In other words, as long as food is in front of us, it’s natural to want to continue eating. You can use age-appropriate plates for your toddlers and kids to help them avoid overeating. While the typical adult-sized plate is 12 inches, opt for a 6-inch plate for toddlers and a 9-inch plate for kids and early adolescents.

Many parents might equate a clean plate with better nutrition or a higher likelihood that their kids will eat their vegetables. But healthy eating isn’t just about what’s on the plate—it’s also about how kids approach food and the eating habits they develop. During meals, the pressure to eat everything on their plate can be stressful for kids, undermining what should be a relaxed time that the family enjoys together.  

If you’re worried that your kids won’t eat their vegetables unless told to clean their plates, try offering veggies as an appetizer, first course or snack in between mealtimes. If your kids finish their meal and ask for seconds, serve up more vegetables.


Giving kids control of their portions can help them approach eating in a healthy way. Consider serving dinner family style and letting your kids help themselves. Studies show that when children choose their portions, they’re less likely to overeat. One reason for this is that they decide how much to eat, which lets them learn for themselves whether they’re still hungry by listening to their bodies and understanding hunger cues.

Another way to encourage your little eater’s independence is by letting them “choose” what they eat for dinner from a selection of healthy options that you’ve chosen. Order a selection of Nurture Life meals you think would be approachable for your child, and let them select which one they would like to try first. If your kids are a little older, they can even help with the menu selection when you select the meals online. Nurture Life meals are designed by a team of chefs and pediatric dietitian to meet the nutritional needs of toddlers and kids. If your little one is a picky eater, our Favorites Menu is a great taste to start, offering nutritious versions of classic kids dishes like Mac & Cheese with Cauliflower and Chicken Bites, Mashed Yams & Green Beans.

The Baby Boomer generation might have become accustomed to the “clean your plate” rule, but this strategy doesn’t always lead to healthy eating. Kids are better served when they’re empowered to make good decisions for themselves.

If you’re interested in Nurture Life and have specific questions about getting your little one started on our meals, please contact us here.


Lara Field at Nurture Life

Lara Field

Lara has been working with Nurture Life since its inception, collaborating with the culinary team on the creation of all menus and recipes to ensure they are nutritionally appropriate and correctly proportioned for every age and stage of a child’s development and providing pediatric nutrition expertise to Nurture Life customers. Lara is the owner/founder of FEED—Forming Early Eating Decisions, a nutrition consulting practice specializing in pediatric nutrition and digestive diseases. Lara has over a decade of experience in clinical practice at two of the top ranked pediatric hospitals in the country, Lurie Children’s Hospital and University of Chicago Medical Center. Lara received her B.S. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and M.S. and dietetic internship from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. Lara truly enjoys the process of eating (and feeding!), from procuring the ingredients at various grocery stores and farmers markets, to organizing her pantry/refrigerator at home to make it easy to select healthy options, to preparing balanced meals with her children. Whether it be a decadent treat to a hearty, home-cooked meal, there is no greater satisfaction for Lara than enjoying food with her family.