Through generations, the notion that kids should clean their plates has prevailed. For some parents, it stems from a “waste not, want not” philosophy. Others may tire of wondering how to get kids to eat vegetables and reason that the only way is to enforce a strict policy about meals in general.
Many of us grew up in the “clean plate club” ourselves, and the idea is so ingrained that it can feel very natural and right. But it’s worth investigating whether this approach is actually helpful to our kids, especially our picky eaters. Does the “clean your plate” rule work? Even if it does, what kind of message does this ultimatum send?
Why We Should Pass on the “Clean Plate Club”
Many parents might equate a clean plate with better nutrition or a higher likelihood that their kids will eat their vegetables. In truth, though, the “clean your plate” strategy is one that we as parents should try to avoid.
Our kids’ healthy relationship with 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 an arbitrary amount. Your kids should learn to recognize what it feels like to be hungry and full and then eat based on how they feel.
Think about your own experience as an adult, particularly when eating at restaurants where portions are often super-sized. If you tend to overeat, there’s a reason for it: 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.
Teaching your kids to recognize and listen to their hunger cues can combat this natural inclination, setting them up for a lifetime of healthy eating. By laying the foundation at an early age, your kids will be better-equipped to self-regulate when they’re older and begin feeding themselves.
Healthy eating isn’t only about what’s on the plate, either—it’s also about how kids approach and feel about food. During meals, the pressure to eat everything can be stressful for kids, undermining what should be a relaxed time the family can enjoy together.
5 Positive Alternatives to “Clean Your Plate”
So how can we encourage both adventurous and picky eaters to eat varied, balanced meals without resorting to the “clean plate club”? Just like our favorite picky eater strategies that focus on positivity, the tips below say no to stressful ultimatums and yes to an encouraging, inclusive approach.
1. Use Smaller Plates
You can use age-appropriate plates for your toddlers and kids to help them avoid overeating without ever mentioning portion control. A typical adult-sized plate is 12 inches, so opt for a 6-inch plate for toddlers and a 9-inch plate for kids and early adolescents.
If you’ve got a picky eater in the household, try out an age-appropriate plate that’s a little more imaginative and creative! Serve with other picky eater tools to make mealtime fun.
2. Serve the Veggies First
If you’re worried that your kids won’t eat their vegetables unless they’re told to clean their plates, try offering veggies as an appetizer, first course or snack between meals. If your kids finish their meal and ask for seconds, serve up more vegetables.
Need some recommendations for veggies that your kid might actually accept? We especially love these 15 kid-friendly veggies for picky eaters.
3. Let Your Kids Serve Themselves.
Giving kids control of their portions can help them approach eating in a healthy way. 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. Consider serving dinner family-style and letting your kids help themselves!
4. Give Your Kids Choice.
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 pre-selected. For example, your child could choose which veggie they prefer from a list of five options, or you can each select one dish with the promise that everyone will partake in every dish together.
If you order Nurture Life meals, you can even include your child in the ordering process! Sit down with your little one to view our ready-to-enjoy kids meal menu and choose a few breakfasts, lunches or dinners for the upcoming week.
5. Involve Your Kids at Mealtime.
To take independence and choice one step further, try involving your child at mealtime even more. By giving your kids small, age-appropriate tasks like washing the veggies or picking out the produce, they’ll be primed to participate in healthy eating choices. Picky eaters may be more excited to help themselves to a second serving of spinach or broccoli knowing that they helped make it.
No matter which of these “clean your plate” alternatives you try first, remember that it can be a slow process and that the goal is always progress, not perfection! It can take 6–15 times for a picky eater to accept new foods, so don’t lose heart if nothing seems to be working right away. By focusing on positivity, fun and encouragement rather than the “clean plate club,” you’ll help your kids grow into happy, healthy, independent eaters who are empowered to make good decisions for themselves.