In Our House, We're Breaking the 'Clean Your Plate' Mentality

Growing up, most of the time, my whole family would sit down for dinner together. It was time to catch up on the day; time to talk about our school day, or fun plans we had coming up. While I couldn’t tell you exactly what we talked about, I can tell you the phrase I remember to this day (that I came to dread even as an adult): Why aren’t you eating your food? You know you have to clean your plate.

With parents raised by folks who lived through the Great Depression, not finishing your food was something you just didn’t do. I know I wasn’t the only one who grew up in a home where you couldn’t leave the dinner table until you finished your meal. 

Don’t be wasteful. Don’t be ungrateful for what you have. There are kids starving in (whatever random country they’d come up with) who would love to have the dinner you’re having.

Truth be told, gratitude had nothing to do with it. And I wasn’t intentionally trying to waste food; I just wasn’t hungry enough to finish all the food on my plate. Of course, instead of saying that, I probably said something like, “I don’t wanna” — but inevitably did, just because I wanted to leave the table.

Fast-forward to almost two decades later, and I find myself in the same spot my mom was: waging an uphill battle with small people who refuse to finish their food. Except this time around, I’m taking a different approach. We are breaking the “clean your plate” rule. If my kids are full, they don’t have to finish — period. There is no guilt, there is no judgment, and I’m not disappointed when they don’t eat every scrap on their plate. Because at the end of the day, only eating enough to satiate you doesn’t make you a good or bad person; it’s the way our bodies are built.

Here’s the thing. It was never my family’s intention to add to the already-complicated relationship I had with my body and food. But I also know the firsthand ramifications of being forced to finish my food. I don’t want my kids to eat until their stomachs ache because they finished food they weren’t hungry for. And I also don’t want them to develop a relationship with food rooted in fear and guilt.

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Of course, it all sounds good in theory. But as a parent, you worry about your kiddos’ health. Are they eating enough? Do they get enough nutrients? Where do you even start when it comes to intuitive eating with kids? 

“Firstly, it is important to understand that with children there will be all kinds of fluctuations in regard to their eating habits,” says Rose Summers, MS, LPC-IT, a therapist with Rogers Behavioral Health. “There will be times when kids will be ravenous. Literally, it seems no matter how often you go grocery shopping the pantry is always empty and other times when it seems a child will barely touch anything you put in front of them,” she adds.

Additionally, Dr. Jillian Lampert of The Emily Program stresses the importance of how simply talking to your kids about their food choices can make all the difference. “Be curious about what your child is experiencing. Are they full? Are they satisfied? Were they hungry at that mealtime? Ask questions about how they feel when they are eating — before and after eating, too.” 

As a parent who had a complex relationship with food and developed disordered eating habits as a result, talking about food makes me nervous. Yes, even decades later, it still puts me on edge. My worst fear is my girls struggling with the same eating issues that I did. I worry if I talk about it too much, it will also make them anxious about food when there is no need to be. But on the same hand, if I ignore it and sweep it under the rug, it feels like I’m continuing the cycle. 

The reality is, as uncomfortable as it is for me, having these conversations is half the battle to develop healthier relationships with food. Dr. Lampert suggests approaching these conversations with curiosity: “If you find your kids are ‘not very hungry’ frequently, be on the lookout for other signs of an eating disorder or even depression which can impact appetite. How is their mood? Do you notice anything different about how they interact with you or others in the household? Are they more isolating than usual?” 

I am incredibly grateful that my kids haven’t inherited my unhealthy relationship with food. But make no mistake, I’m fairly certain part of me will be holding my breath for the rest of my life, hoping it stays this way. Every generation of parents and children has an ever-evolving relationship with food and nutrition. 

While the ‘clean your plate’ mentality started as far back as my depression-era grandparents, there is still an overwhelming amount of food-insecure families today. Even so, it’s still important to encourage kids to listen to their bodies. “Overeating when food is scarce sets us up to overeat regularly — which can lead to excessive weight and disrupted eating habits,” Dr. Lamper said. “Food insecurity and eating disorder co-occurrence are high — higher than in food secure households, particularly binge eating disorder,” she adds.

Generational patterns, toxic diet culture, and faux ‘healthy living’ tips all play a role in the relationships people build with their bodies and the food they use to fuel them. I don’t have all the answers, but letting my kids have autonomy over their eating decisions feels like a good place to start.  

Don’t get me wrong — my girls like to have a small dessert with every dinner, and yes, they snack more than my super-woman grocery shopping abilities can keep up with. But as much as they enjoy less nutritionally-dense food, they also love whole vegetables and fruits. Seriously, anyone who knows them absolutely understands why I have to maintain three to four cherry tomato plants every summer just to keep up.

They enjoy food. They appreciate the energy it gives them. And even though I still struggle to this day, they don’t seem any worse for the wear. As long as they are happy and healthy, there is nothing more I can ask for. Except for a magical self-stocking pantry … that would be nice.

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