All parents want their kids to eat healthy, and most of us have only one instinctual rule-of-thumb to make this happen. It involves us saying over and over something along the lines of “Clean your plate,” “Eat your vegetables,” or “Finish your chicken.”
Why do we think it’s such a good idea for our kids to belong to the Clean Plate Club? Mainly, because we think it worked for us. Most of our parents made us clean our plate, and we grew up fine. We didn’t lose our teeth; we didn’t get scurvy; we didn’t fail 1stGrade because we had too low of a broccoli-count.
A year ago, I had nearly mastered the mystical Eastern art of getting my three kidsto clean their plates. I used these skills to beg, guilt, trick, scare, humor, and bribe them into finishing their food. I was convinced I would be the Gold Medal Father-of-the-Year in the Winter Olympics –this would be a new event, designed specifically around my feeding abilities.
But something happened since that showed me the dark side of the Clean Plate Club.
A while back I conducted a study on whether Clean Plate Club kids had better eating habits away from home. We focused on preschoolers. We figured the Clean Plate Club kids would tend to eat in a balanced, healthy way. Afterall, their responsible parents had showed them what was right, by gum.
We had the parents of 63 preschoolers fill out a survey that asked them how regularly they insisted their child clean their plate. Some parents do this all the time, others are more laissez faireand basically say, “Yo, eat however much you want.”
Before these 63 kids came to preschool the next day, we had rigged their school room with hidden scales embedded in the tables, and with hidden cameras that were operated by researchers with stopwatches and hand-counters. While the kids poured their Super Sugar-Cube cereal for breakfast and pawed at the dessert tray, we weighed what they poured and counted what they took. Who do you suppose took more food, the “Clean Your Plate Club” kids or the “Eat Whatever You Want” kids?
We were surprised.
Those in the “Clean Plate Club” –the kids whose parents insisted they finish their food at home –poured twice as much presweetened cereal (22 vs. 47 gms), and they took about 1 extra dessert than those whose parents were more laid back.
In talking with these kids afterwards, here’sthe picture that emerges. When kids have no control over their food environment at home, they compensate once they leave the house. If the food’s forbidden, they pounce on it and show themselves “Who’s boss.”
Within 24-hours of discovering this, I changed the way I feed my daughters. I’ve forever more traded in my “Finish your vegetables” mantra for “Have you had enough?” So did all of the other parents who are researchers in my Lab. We might not be able to control every thing our kids do at school, but we can set them up so they don’t treat it like it’s the last time they’ll ever see food.
Earlier I wrote, “Most of our parents made us clean our plates, and we grew up fine.” That empty chip bag and that candy wrapper now make me wonder.
Reprinted from my Family Circle Column –August 29, 2010 Mindless Eating SolutionsTM
For 30 years my Lab and I have focused on discovering secret answers to help people live better lives. Some of these relate to health and happiness (and often to food). Please share whatever you find useful.
This video of one of my post-docs gives a flavor of one type of research that we've done: