Were you a member of the infamous Clean Your Plate Club when you were a child? Are you still a member? Though its numbers are dwindling, it was once a very populated club, and most kids were not members by their own choosing. If you were raised to think you always need to clean your plate, that mindset tends to follow with you forever, which can interfere with your ability to eat mindfully and manage your own food intake.
I've worked over two decades with people struggling with eating issues, it's interesting that many them were raised in this way. In most families, the rules were firm:
- You had to finish all food on your plate. No ands ifs or buts. Most were made to sit at that table until every bite of food that was placed on the plate was eaten. Some have told me stories of having the same food repeatedly served to them at subsequent meals until they finally would eat it. There would often be punishments if the food was not eaten, or worse yet, guilt. My husband remembers being told by his Grandma that children in China were dying of starvation. The implication was clear to him. If he didn't finish all of his mashed potatoes, he felt like he'd be responsible for their deaths. Many people have told me similar stories. Some kids learned at this point to hide food and lie about eating it. Force, punishment, guilt, coercion, lying...none of this is good.
- Once you finished all the food on your plate, you got to have dessert! Yeah! Pie, ice cream, cookies...you know, the sweet stuff!
- It teaches a child to ignore his/her own hunger cues. It doesn't matter if you are hungry or full. Eat. Eat it all. Wrong lesson! It's vitally important to allow a child to learn to connect with their sense of true physical hunger and fullness. When you're filling the gas tank in your car, there's an automatic shut off switch that stops filling when the tanks full--pretty cool. Human brains also have a control mechanism in place, though many of us have learned to override it. We need to allow children to learn to listen to it. Tummy hungry? Eat. Stomach full? Stop eating. Quite a lesson to teach a child of any age.
- A reward is given if the child eats all the food on the plate. Rewards should never be given for eating or for not eating. In this case, it's reinforcing a child to ignore their own internal hunger cues and pay attention to the plate instead. This develops into an unhealthy habit which is tough to change.
- Food should never be used as a reward. Expecting food for a job well done may set a person on a path of lifelong struggles if they constantly want to reward themselves for everything they do with food. Not a good way to lead a healthy life.
- The food reward is a sweet DESSERT!! Wow! If I clean my plate, stuff my face, make my mom/dad happy, I get to have a reward, and it's not whole grain bread, it's chocolate cake with fudge icing and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. I only get to have it if I've been good and clean my plate. This puts cake on a pedestal, an all powerful reward that only the best kids can achieve. Chocolate cake now has power. Some people develop an overwhelming obsession with that cake just because it was place on that pedestal. We want to eat it because it makes us feel like we were good. Or, we want to sneak around and hide the fact that we've eaten it, since we don't feel like we have earned such a reward---too much head stuff tied up into dessert for some of us.
Ditch the clean plate club. Encourage children of all ages to eat until their tummies are full and then stop. It takes awhile to learn but it's worth it. If food waste is a problem, encourage them to start taking smaller portions. We all should be doing that anyway.
- Take small portions when hungry.
- Take a bite.
- Taste the flavors.
- Notice the textures.
- Enjoy the food.
- Repeat if still hungry.
- Stop when full.
Stay tuned in for tomorrow's, Clean Plate Club, Part II. We'll be talking about how to provide family snacks and meal times for healthy kids of all ages!