In Britain during World War II enemy ships began targeting food imports. Food was in short supply, rationing in full swing, and wasting food became a criminal offence.
A typical weekly allowance for one person was: one egg; 100g margarine and bacon; 50g butter and tea; 25g cheese, and 250g sugar. Meat was allocated by price, so cheaper cuts became popular. Self-sufficiency was encouraged, and allotment numbers rose. Vegetables were grown anywhere they could be cultivated, and rabbits, pigs and chickens were reared for meat.
With food so scarce, children were encouraged to finish all their food, as the next meal couldn’t be guaranteed. Cleaning your plate made sense.
My parents were children during the war. They insisted I clean my plate of food, a habit I passed it on to my children, until I learnt that perhaps this isn’t the best thing to do.
You see we now live in a time of food abundance. Eating more than your body needs can lead to increased weight, so it’s essential children learn to recognise when they are hungry, and to eat only until they feel full.
The appetite of children varies from day to day, and week to week. One day they may happily finish all their food, the next day feel full after eating only half of it.
By expecting your children to clean their plates every day, a couple of things can happen.
The first is they learn to finish their food to please you, rather than because they are hungry. This encourages them to override their natural fullness cues. If their body tells them they are full, yet you insist they finish their food, that important cue is missed.
As they grow into adolescence and adulthood, an empty plate becomes the main reason to stop eating, rather than the internal feeling of fullness, a habit that will encourage over-eating. Studies that compare eating habits in the US to those in France find exactly that. In a 2007 study 133 Parisians were asked how they knew when they were done eating, and 145 Chicagoans were asked the same question. The French said they knew they were finished when the food no longer tasted good, or they were full (an internal cue). Americans said they knew they were done eating when their plate was empty, the group they were eating with finished eating, or the TV show they were watching was finished (all external cues).
The second result of enforcing the clean plate rule is that it can lead to conflict at mealtimes if your child is full, yet you insist they finish their meal. Conflict at meals has been linked to worse picky eating and and poor digestion of nutrients.
But doesn’t allowing children to leave food lead to food waste?
This is a question I’m often asked, and my response is this.
If you allow your child to serve him or herself, over time they will learn to recognise how much food they are likely to eat and will help themselves accordingly. You can encourage your children to only take what they think they can eat, and to leave food if they feel full. It may be short-term pain (food waste) for long-term gain (eating intuitively).
Your responsibility as a parent is to provide healthy meals and snacks, while allowing your children to decide how much they wish to eat.
Want to know more? I’ve written a new EBook called Eat Your Greens: 3 common mistakes parents make getting their kids to eat vegetables. You can download it for free here.