Forcing Kids to Eat Can Be Very Bad for Their Health

family meal

Watch the messaging, mama: Our strict food rules might be teaching children to override their instincts surrounding hunger and fullness.

When we were growing up, few of us escaped the dreaded “finish everything on your plate” mentality. We were taught it’s rude not to eat what is put in front of you, or that wasting food by not finishing it all is somehow shameful.

But it seems “finish your plate!” does not a good eater make. In fact, it can have a detrimental effect on health, both now and in the future.

According to experts, both family and society play large roles in shaping our lifetime relationship with food, and sending the wrong messages about nutrition can disrupt the innate ability we possess to self-regulate our consumption.

Kids who grow up with strict rules around food are more likely to develop unhealthy eating habits, eat fewer fruits and vegetables, and be more reluctant to try new things.

In short, forcing our kids to eat more or restricting their food intake can have the opposite effect of what many parents are hoping to achieve through those practices.

So what can a parent do to raise a healthy eater? Many dietary experts and organizations are touting the effectiveness of a method called the “Division of Responsibility in Feeding.”

Developed by the Ellen Satter Institute, it clearly divides eating responsibilities in two: parents are responsible for some aspects of nutrition, while children are responsible for others.

Parents are responsible for:

what children are eating (by deciding what foods come into the home and what is being prepared for a meal or snack.)

where children are eating (the table, a restaurant, etc.)

when children eat (time of day meals and snacks are being served)

Children are responsible for:

whether they eat that meal or snack (“I’m not hungry right now”)

how little or how much of that food they eat (“I’m full,” “I would like seconds”)

If this doesn’t immediately make sense, think about your own dietary needs: Do you have the same amount of hunger each day, or does it vary based on activity levels, illness, stress and other factors? How would you feel if someone forced you to finish everything on your plate when you weren’t very hungry, or wouldn’t let you have another helping when you weren’t yet satiated?

Children’s bodies are similar. And if left to their own devices, studies have clearly demonstrated little ones are able to regulate their portions and balance their food choices to suit their current needs.

Of course, parents who are overly restrictive when it comes to food have the best of intentions. We want our children to finish their vegetables because vegetables are packed with vitamins. We want them to eat enough at dinner so they’re not crashing during soccer practice later.

But allowing our children to figure out their own food rules through natural consequences is a vital skill.

He learns he feels better when he gets enough fiber in his diet.

She learns she should eat enough so as to not be famished halfway through practice.

They both take responsibility for what goes into their bodies, gain confidence, and feel respected in their choices.

As parents, we can support our children’s acquisition of lifelong eating skills by stocking our kitchens with healthy foods and serving nutritious meals. But if we want to raise good eaters, we need to hand some of the responsibility over to them.

“Eat what you need on your plate to feel great,” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Image credit: “Family Eating a Meal“. By Rhoda Baer (Photographer), via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright the National Cancer Institute (NCI)

3 thoughts on “Forcing Kids to Eat Can Be Very Bad for Their Health”

  1. This sounds great, but it feels more complicated than that to me as a parent. The main area where I struggle with this is at dinner with our 10 year old. I think he’d essentially never eat a vegetable if he weren’t made to, but I agree it feels wrong and bad to make him. Also, I don’t like policing all day long and like to respect freedom of choice and timing. But what that really looks like is that he has an enormous bowl of cereal for a snack less than an hour before dinner. It’s a protein- and nutrient-rich snack (though completely lacking fruits and veggies) that I’m fine with. But then he’s primed to be able to readily pass on anything he doesn’t find totally delicious at dinner. I feel like if I want to “police” less at dinner I have to shift the policing to another time of day. I do make sure we have healthy snacks and I have identified the fruits and veggies he really likes and incorporate those a lot. I guess I’m just saying that this article sounds great on paper, but in real life it doesn’t seem so simple/black and white to execute. Kids are sneaky little boogers capable of pushing every possible limit…

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