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I Will Never Tell My Son to “Clean His Plate”

image source: heather neal
image source: heather neal

Oh, the battles you can face when it comes to feeding your kids. What kind of food, how much food, when to eat it, where to eat it … toddlers seem born with a predisposition to throw a wrench in our dining plans no matter the meal or the day. I thought I was going to get a free pass to skate on by this parenting hurdle with ease, but as with most parenting expectations, I was wrong.

I naively thought my experience as a dietitian would easily cross over into the real-life of motherhood, allowing me to use my expert knowledge and raise an adventurous, cooperative, and healthy eater. At first, I was right. Early favorites were avocado and sweet potato, and pretty much every vegetable got the baby-fisted thumbs up. Then toddlerhood struck, otherwise known as the phase in which everything you learned the first year goes out the window. Suddenly, we too were struck with the battle that many parents know all too well: that kids have a mind of their own (and often a very stubborn one) when it comes to food. Taste seems to be the least of the problems. Texture, color, proximity to other foods, bowl (or lack of) that it’s served in, where it’s served, and how to sit (or stand) while eating all become variables in what I once innocently thought was just lunch.

Just to keep me on my toes, my son decided to throw me one more loop. Instead of not wanting to eat certain foods, he wanted to eat everything, all the time. Every five minutes he was asking yet again to eat. Despite that seemingly backwards twist, we’ve been through most of the same picky eating meal time struggles as many of you. At first I tried to stick to my “expert rules” as a dietitian, trying to do the “right” things. Then I threw it all out the window and would do whatever it took to make a meal happen. Eventually, we settled somewhere in between and seem to have found a happy medium. The one rule, however, I refused to ever follow is the outdated “clean plate” rule. Oh how I’ve hated that from day one.

Enticing my son to eat more and encouraging him to eat what’s on his plate before he can have something else results in total mutiny. The promise of a reward, a dessert, or a different favorite food in exchange for cleaning his plate only provokes him into thinking that’s how things work: after a meal he gets a treat, whatever that may be. It means arguments, battles, and frustration. It seems like an easy way to say “no” and encourage eating at the same time, but urging a kid to eat everything on his plate in order to do something else overrides all the body’s natural signals and overlooks the fact that young kids simply don’t have the most developed of palates.

Instead of heading down that path, we use our own version of the “one bite” rule, another rule you’re “not supposed” to follow. The “one bite” rule is a seemingly innocent rule in which you tell your kids they have to have at least one bite before they can say they don’t like it. Some call it a “no, thank you” bite — they have to taste it before they can say, “No thanks, I don’t want it.” But this too can lead to extra battles at the table, especially with kids of strong will. (Does this bring up your own memories of being stuck at the dinner table for hours because you refused to touch your tongue to that disgusting green bean?) It can also inadvertently lead to implying some foods are “bad” or that they’re not supposed to like it without letting them make that decision for themselves. (It’s not like you would ever force your kid to take a bite of cake.)

For my kid’s temperament, a variation of the “one bite” rule works. We don’t follow through with any threats or rewards, but we encourage our 3-year-old to try things even if he thinks he doesn’t like them. We say things like, “Oh you didn’t like that yesterday, I wonder if you like it today?” Or use ourselves as examples, saying, “I thought cabbage was yucky last week but I’m going to taste it again today. Oh, I think it’s yummy today!” If he still doesn’t taste it, there’s no prodding or bribing, that’s just that. We say, “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to, but the kitchen’s closed.” If he really isn’t hungry or really doesn’t like it, there’s no pressure.

To make sure there are still options if he’s hungry but still won’t touch the food, I load his plate in his favor: there’s always something on it I know he won’t refuse, and I don’t mind giving him more of it, as long as it was already part of the meal. If we’re struggling with a particular food that he wants all the time instead of anything else and isn’t the best choice (chicken nuggets and veggie straws, I’m looking at you), sometimes the best approach is to “accidentally” run out. Then I can’t cave in and hand them over and look like a weakling that can be walked all over. (Added bonus: that tactic usually makes my son want to go with me to the grocery store, to make sure I don’t forget next time.)

I’m not saying this is the right approach for every kid and it’s taken some experimenting to land at this conclusion for us, but the biggest lesson we’ve learned is what “experts” (myself included!) say is right isn’t always right for your family. Then again, sometimes it’s spot-on. Above all else, remaining flexible and open, and paying attention to what your kids are saying and how they’re reacting is more than likely the best approach. Having a little faith in your kids and trusting them to eventually get on board doesn’t hurt either.

How do you deal with your picky eater?

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