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7 Food Rules for Children that Need to Go Away

7 Eating Rules

Food Rules that Interfere with Healthy Eating

We all have mealtime rules for our children. These rules are supposed to keep the meal organized, pleasant, and healthy. However, some food rules really aren’t that healthy at all. In fact, a myriad of unhealthy food rules reign at many family meal tables.

7 Food Rules that Need To Go Away

Clean your plate.

We’ve all heard about this eating rule, and many of us may have been raised with it. I, myself, was part of the Clean Plate Club when I was a little girl.  Clean your plate means eat everything. The problem with this eating rule is that it ignores appetite. What if your child eats half or ¾ of his meal and is satisfied? Should he or she continue to eat? Finish off the meal?

If you think, why yes!, of course my child should eat everything I have given him to eat, then re-think this.

Research shows that children who belong to the clean plate club, or who routinely finish their meal as a rule, may experience a disconnect with their internal appetite regulators (losing the ability to easily recognize their fullness) and may eat more than their body needs.

Eat this and you can have {that food}.

Rewarding with a coveted food such as dessert is a common motivational tool used by parents to get kids to eat something more desirable, such as vegetables or other healthy food.

Interestingly, when food rewards are used, studies show that an unexpected, psychological effect may take shape: kids can start to value the reward food (oftentimes a dessert) with higher regard than the healthy food you’re trying to get them to eat.

In other words, rewards rule over the healthy food parents are trying to entice their kids to eat. And, some children will eat more than they need just to get the reward food.

I explain this further in my TEDx talk:

Finish your veggies {or other food}!

Similar to the clean plate club outcome discussed above, mandating that children eat all of their vegetables (or any other food) increases the risk of disarming their natural appetite control with which they are born. When this happens, kids can lose their sense of fullness, which is critical in helping them stop eating when they are satisfied, and maintain a healthy body weight.

In a nutshell, finishing any food beyond one’s appetite isn’t a good practice. Additionally, mandating a child to eat any particular food can turn them off from learning to like and enjoy it.

Just take two bites.

Parents are often worried about making sure their children get enough to eat. They may encourage their children to polish off another bite of food (or two or three). While they may not enforce cleaning the plate or finishing a food item, they may still push their child to eat more or try a food they are unwilling to try.

This can translate to kids feeling pressured. As a parent, you only have to take a step back and see this tactic through a child’s eye. It’s similar to the hard sell from the car dealership, or the pressure to take a stand or make a decision before you are ready.

That level of pressure makes you want to turn and run the other way, right? Kids feel the same way when they are pressured to eat more or try something new of which they are unsure.

Bottom line: Pressuring kids to eat often backfires, discouraging them from eating or trying new food.

‘Can I be excused?’ conditions.

Many children are finished eating and ready to leave the table before their parents. Children tend to eat more quickly than adults and want to move on to the next thing. Based on my experience, young children finish eating in 15-20 minutes (even less sometimes), while children and teens tend to be finished in 20-30 minutes.

Keeping the expectations realistic is important. Keeping a child at the table too long can turn into a negative experience. Also, overly focusing on a child’s performance such as eating all of the meal, having good manners, or drinking milk may set up a dysfunctional relationship with food, turning an enjoyable part of the day into one associated with anxiety or dread.

Swallow it! {aka, Don’t spit out your food!}

Let’s get one thing straight: tasting food doesn’t equal eating food. Tasting can take the form of licking, kissing, putting food in the mouth and taking it out of the mouth, chewing food for a bit and spitting it out, or any combination of these.

For some children, especially hesitant eaters, one of the best ways to become comfortable and familiar with new food is to put it in the mouth, explore it, and take it out.

Forcing or pressuring a child to swallow his food can have negative consequences in the long run, such as a negative association with food and poor eating.

Don’t pick at your food.

Handling food by touching it is a sensory experience. Many young children do well with eating when they can explore food with their hands first. Young children, especially, are hands-on and need this experience to develop positive sensory associations with food and eating.

While you should strive to help your child learn to use utensils, you should also recognize that this takes time (years to be proficient!). Keep your expectations realistic, let your child pick a little, and ease into using utensils.

What food rules for children would you like to see go away?


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  1. I think what’s missing in this article is a little about what rules can be used at the table with kids. After all, the time spent at the table is like any other time in the day, it’s part of every day for every one, and thus it also has rules that need to be introduced to children slowly, taking into account their age and development. What you present seems to be that there should be absolutely no rules for kids. This isn’t the case for adults, so it can’t be for kids either. Without acting like a dictator, there has to be some sort of boundaries, so where do you place them and how do you make them clear to kids?

    1. Thanks Elaine–You’ve brought up a good point, which i will have to address in another article. I agree, there are certain rules that children should follow at the meal table, but this article particularly addressed rules that are common but aren’t really effective–and perhaps harmful in the long run.