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Clean Plate: How Pressure to Eat Affects Kids

Originally published in 2013. Updated in May 2020.

Little boy with sad face and crossed arms. A Clean plate can be too much pressure to eat.
Photo credit: Sergio Vassio Photography

“Make a clean plate.”

“Just take a bite.”

“Try it, you’ll like it.”

If you were a child from the ’50’s or ’60’s, these might be familiar phrases.

To be fair, we all want our kids to eat, and we want them to eat well. And we often feel it is our JOB to make sure they do.

As a childhood nutrition expert, I’ve met many parents who want to improve their kid’s eating habits, tweak the variety of foods they eat, or long for the past when little Johnny “ate everything.”

But, it’s not our job to make our kids eat. Forcing kids to take more bites, clean the plate, or finish the meal before leaving the table can have negative affects down the road.

No doubt: Parent feeding is getting more complicated. Larger than life portions, convenience on every corner, and high hopes for raising healthy kids make it harder for parents to guide and govern food.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why parents use pressure to eat like
  • The affect it has on kids eating (both short- and long-term) 
  • Positive approaches to feeding kids

The Clean Plate is Pressure to Eat

Parents have a tough time keeping it all together. They’re juggling work, kids, a personal life, and more. It’s a lot.

Making meals and snacks add to the stress. When little Johnny won’t eat, it’s hard to keep a smile on the face and a positive feeding atmosphere at the table.  

In an effort to “take control” of eating and health, you may unintentionally pressure your child to eat by begging him to take another bite, try a new food or clean his plate.

Yes, these are common feeding practices, but in the long run, not very good approaches.

Picky Eaters and Pressure

Sally had a preschooler, Ashley, who was a picky eater. Sally referred to her daughter as a “grazer.”

Ashley was busy playing, exploring and having fun. So much so, she often didn’t want to come to her toddler table for meals and wouldn’t sit for long  to eat.  

Concerned that she was not getting enough food, Sally found herself frequently asking Ashley if she was hungry.

She left food in strategic places as little hints for Ashley to eat, such as in the playroom and the living room. When Ashley did sit to eat, Sally asked her to eat more.

Sometimes she even forced her to take bites of food, even though she felt awful about it.

Forcing kids to eat, or what we know to be a feeding practice called Pressure to Eat, is an approach that can be harmful over time. 

Although Sally had the best intentions (to improve Ashley’s eating), it wasn’t getting the job done.

In fact, it was making things worse.

The Clean plate gets started in toddlerhood. Little girl refusing to eat.

How the Clean Plate Club Gets Started

Pressuring kids to eat often begins in toddlerhood.  It’s a time when toddlers become erratic eaters. Sometimes they eat well. Other times they don’t.

Bottom line: They demonstrate irregularity in their appetite. This is partly due to their slowed growth, which lowers their appetite.

Some toddlers refuse to eat. Or, they want the same foods over and over again.

This typical toddler development can throw parents for a loop. They’re not sure how to handle this new change, and may even launch into action.

They make an all-out effort to control their child’s eating.

The Research on Force Feeding Children

Enforcing a clean plate, more bites of food, or trying something new to eat  may cause more harm than good.

Let’s break down what the child feeding research tells us. 

Researchers have found that kids who are reminded to eat (prompting or nagging) and pushed to eat more (pressuring or forcing) may indeed eat more, and perhaps, too much.

It’s been proposed by several studies that pressure to eat causes a disruption in a child’s ability to self-regulate his eating. In other words, the sense of fullness is dulled, which affects the instinct to stop eating.

Researchers postulate that poor self-regulation and Eating in the Absence of Hunger is associated with the development of unhealthy weight and childhood obesity.

However, a 2018 longitudinal study in Appetite emphasizes that it’s not just pressure to eat that may cause a disturbance in self-regulation, but it’s the intent, tone and manner by which pressure is used that may be more important.

The Clean Plate for Picky Kids

On the other hand, some kids may have different experiences with pressure to eat, especially picky eaters.

A study in Appetite (2006) by researchers Galloway and Birch, found that children experienced “early satiety” (early fullness) and didn’t eat more when forced or pressured to eat more.

In other words, they ate less and/or became more picky with eating.

The researchers also showed kids may develop a dislike for foods they feel pressured to eat, like vegetables.

Clean Plate: How Pressure to Eat Affects Kids' Eating

Other Factors Affect Kids’ Eating

More recent research is exploring the type of pressure parents use, and how that influences kids’ eating.

For example, another 2018 study in Appetite showed that pressure to eat new foods was associated with Eating in the Absence of Hunger (or eating when not hungry, such as when bored or feeling emotional).

Interestingly, pressure to eat familiar foods didn’t have this affect.

Other research looks at the chicken and egg argument: Are parents pushy or are they forcing kids to eat because their kids are fussy eaters?

A 2017 study in Physiology & Behavior examined moms and young children, finding that picky eating predicted the use of pressure to eat.

In other words, parents use pressure to eat, or forcing, as a response to picky eating.

Another study in Appetite (2014) looked at 8 and 9 year old kids and the role of anxiety and the perception of pressure at the table.

They found kids with symptoms of anxiety and depression more readily perceived pressure to eat from their parents.

Last, a 2016 Appetite study of college students looked at their recollections of parental pressure to eat at the table, finding that pressure in childhood was associated with problematic eating in young adulthood.

“Try It, You’ll Like It” May Backfire

It was clear Ashley was becoming less interested in food, and eating less overall. She seemed turned off by the constant availability of food, the reminders to eat, and the nudging to eat more.

More importantly, this was changing the feeding relationship between Sally and Ashley, setting it on a downward and negative spiral.

Sally was more and more worried about Ashley’s eating and her weight, so she pressured her more. Ashley became less and less interested in food, and was eating poorly.

Should We Force a Child to Eat?

No, we shouldn’t force any child to eat.

Would you like it if your spouse or partner forced you to eat? Made you take a bite of food? Asked you to try something new with which you weren’t comfortable?

Of course not. Our children need the same level of respect we would show a friend or family member.

Use Positive Feeding Practices, Always

It’s hard to know if you’re doing harm by pressuring your child to eat, because each child is different.

Some kids may not be bothered by encouragement to eat.

Other kids may dig in their heels and be offended by pressure, or worse, force feeding. 

Getting your child to eat can be a day-to-day feeding practice that stems from your feeding style.  Over time, it can be wearing on your child, and on your relationship.

If you feel you are too involved in your child’s eating, you may want to take a step back and check your feeding style, your feeding structure (regularity of meals and snacks) and your own emotions about your child’s eating performance.

[Read: How to Create a Predictable Meal Schedule Without Being Too Controlling]

Feeding your child is one of the most important jobs of parenthood, and it’s complicated and can be difficult.

Just as it takes a childhood to cultivate a broad palate and healthy relationship with food, childhood can also be mired with nutrition challenges for parents along the way.

Hang in there!

Do you force your child to eat? Or pressure him to take another bite? Or try new food?  How’s that working?

Stayed tuned for the next installments in this series: Food Restriction: What it Really Does to Kids and Bribing Your Child to Eat.

Need More Help with Parent Feeding?

My workbook Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods will take you through my step-by-step system for helping your child try new food without pressure or force.

Or, learn about the most modern, healthy and effective way to nourish kids!

Other Helpful Articles to Read about Child Eating:

How to Get a Child to Eat When He Refuses

12 Reasons Why Your Child Won’t Eat

Get Kids to Eat? That’s Not the Goal

Food Parenting: United We Should Feed

Teen Age Obesity and Bariatric Surgery

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  1. Great post! We all have an instinct to feed our children, so if they don’t eat it worries us. But kids who don’t eat much (within reason) will probably be healthier than the rest of us in today’s world!

  2. Great post! As a father of twins, I know first hand how hard meal times can be. Often times I feel torn. The RD-half of me argues with the parenting-half. I constantly have to work to try to give my kids the space and time to eat. I’ve learned (through some great books by Ellyn Satter) that my job as a parent/RD is to provide a nutritious and tasty meal. It’s my kids job to eat it. Remembering that has really helped me and my family make meal times much more enjoyable and much less of a struggle. Again, thanks for the great post.

    1. You’re welcome–i am glad you enjoyed it. I think prompting/pressuring is something that stems, in part, from our fast-paced world. As RDs, we have the extra knowledge to help us see the long term impact of such actions–we just need to help the rest of the world understand that there is more to nutrition than what we eat.