Should We Force Children to Eat Everything on Their Plate?

Should We Force Children to Eat Everything on Their Plate?

Here are some very common lines parent use to “encourage” children to eat their food.

  1. “Clear your plate or you can’t have dessert.”
  2. “I made the food, all you have to do is eat it.”
  3. “There are people starving in this world now eat your supper!”
  4. “Go to your room if you are not going to eat your supper.”
  5. Child “Why do I have to eat all of it.” Parent “Because I said so.”

Do any of these lines sound familiar? Have you said any of them yourself? Sadly, these directives leave parents’ mouths far too often. I ask you to read them again and count how many have to do with teaching your child healthy eating habits. The answer is 0, nada, nil, zilch.

Here is what they really teach your children:


How child interprets it: If I eat everything on my plate, I get something I really want.

What it teaches your child: to eat solely for rewards


How child interprets it: If I don’t eat my mom/dad will be sad or mad.

What it teaches your child: to eat to please, to eat out of guilt or to avoid negative consequences


How child interprets it: If I don’t eat I am being wasteful and that is not fair because other people do not have food like me.

What it teaches your child: to eat out of guilt


How child interprets it: If I don’t eat this I am in trouble. I don’t want to go to my room so I better eat it all.

What it teaches your child: to eat to avoid negative consequences


How child interprets it: I have no choice but to eat.

What it teaches your child: resentment towards the parent, that s/he has no control over what goes into his/her body

Now I ask you to think of why we eat at all.

We eat to fuel our body, to give it the nutrients it needs to develop and the energy we need to live. Does eating everything on our plate at every meal ensure that we will be successful in doing so? Depends on what is on the plate of course.

“Eat everything on your plate” is not the message we need our children to learn. We want them to hear that they have a choice of what foods and how much of them they consume. Does that mean we give them free reign? No way. Just like in every aspect of life they need our guidance. They are not born knowing what nutrients they need or how to get them.

As a mom, I have heard all of the arguments about why children should just eat what is placed in front of them. Here are the two most common ones with my two cents worth.

1. My kitchen is not a restaurant. I cannot make a different meal for each family member.

My two cents: Nor can I. And your children should not expect that of you. For family members who are not fans of the prepared meal, a quick and easy alternative should be available such as a peanut butter and banana sandwich. If the child is old enough, s/he can be responsible for making a substitute meal on her/his own.

2. My parents made me eat everything and I was fine.

My two cents: Think about why you ate everything and how it made you feel about food, how it made you feel towards your parents. How does it affect your eating habits as an adult? If you had siblings, did it work the same for them? My three daughters were all exposed to the same foods when they were infants and toddlers but not surprisingly to me, they each have different food preferences and aversions. And why shouldn’t they, they are individuals. My middle daughter will not eat a green vegetable to save her life and she has been that way since the mushed up baby food stage. She just does not like them – not mushed up, not raw and not steamed. It is not the texture, it is the taste. My eldest daughter, who does like green vegetables, bases a lot of her food preferences on texture. My youngest daughter, who happens to be the one I gave more “free reign” to in the food department, eats the most variety of foods and is more likely to try new ones without coaxing than her sisters.

The main rule I have at my house is that everyone needs to try something new when it is placed in front of them. The adage, you never know until you try, really is true. If you try, and you don’t like it, then you don’t have to eat it, but you do have to find an alternative that provides you the same nutrients. Afterall, that is why we eat in the first place.

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