Clean Your Plate?

by Baylor Scott & White Staff on December 31, 2013

in Healthy Living

Find out why the old adage may not be as healthy for children as previously thought

foodEveryone is finally gathered around the table and is digging into the balanced meal you lovingly prepared. You notice that your youngest child is pushing his green beans around in a circle and feeding his carrots to the dog.

Your instinct might be to tell him to sit up straight and clean his plate, but McLane Childrens’ Scott & White pediatrician Jennifer H. Helmcamp, MD, MPH, said that might not be good for the child’s overall health.

“Even as infants, children have the ability to self-regulate how many calories they take in per day,” Dr. Helmcamp said. “Telling a child to finish their plate might disrupt that self-regulation that they’re born with.”

Not only can forcing a child to clean their plate encourage overeating, but it can also create a hostile dinner time environment that is just as unappetizing.

“Meals are meant to be enjoyable and a time for parents to bond and build up good will with their kids,” the pediatrician said. “If it’s just about eat this, eat that, then those kinds of things—which are equally important to a child’s well-being—can’t happen at a meal.”

But even though you don’t want to force your child to finish everything on his or her plate, it is still important for children to get the necessary daily nutrients.

“You want to make sure your child gets the servings of food they need, like the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables,” she said. “It’s really hard to get those things in if you don’t encourage your child to eat.”

One of the suggestions Dr. Helmcamp gives her patients’ parents is to serve meals in courses.

“If a child sees a full plate of food, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “If you serve little bits of fruits and vegetables first and then move on to breads, cheeses and meats, then it’s not so overwhelming and children are more likely to try the healthier items on their plates.”

And if you want to encourage your child to eat more manageable portion sizes, Dr. Helmcamp said having your child plate their own food might help.

“Studies show that school-aged children will actually eat better and give themselves more appropriate portion sizes if they serve themselves,” she said. “It also encourages children to eat better if they are helping to prepare and serve the food.”

For more information on appropriate portion sizes and other helpful nutritional information regarding your children, visit the Centers for Disease Control or the Texas Pediatric Society website.

If you have done all the right things and your child still says they aren’t hungry at meal time, what should you do?

“Give them a little time,” Dr. Helmcamp said. “Take that time to chat and find out what’s going on with their day. If ten minutes go by and they’re still not eating, then it might be time to put things away and try a little bit later. Most kids aren’t going to be harmed by not eating one meal. It helps to maintain that self-regulation.”

And if your non-plate-finishing youngster says they’re hungry later on, offer them a healthy snack—like fruits or vegetables—to quell hunger and keep their health on track.

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