What Forcing Kids to Eat Looks Like 20 Years Later

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on July 6, 2012

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Make your bed. Clean your room. And eat your veggies!

I often hear parents lump kids’ eating in the same category as other chores. But eating food is different — very different. As we discussed in the other post on rewarding kids with food, the way we feed our children imprints their eating for years, even after they leave the nest.

So what are the long-term effects of forcing a child to eat? Let’s take a look…

The Research
After digging in the research I found a study published in the 2002 issue of Appetite surveying over 100 college students. Of these young adults, 70% said they had experienced forced-food consumption during childhood. Most often than not, the forcer was a parent and the common forced foods included vegetables, red meat and seafood.

The scenario goes something like this: the forcer coerces the forcee to eat the target food for reasons such as health, variety and waste. The most common tactics used were threats such as no dessert or staying at the table. In over half of these cases there was a stand-off lasting an average of 50 minutes!

What is most interesting is the internal conflict the forcees experienced — 31% experienced strong conflict, 41% moderate conflict and 29% slight conflict. Forty-nine percent said they cried, 55% experienced nausea, and 20% vomited. Most of the responses to the experience were negative with feelings of anger, fear, disgust, confusion and humiliation. The forcees also experienced feelings such as lack of control and helplessness.

Will they freely choose “that” food?

When asked if they would now eat the food they were forced to eat in childhood, 72% said they would not. The researcher’s explanation is that when a child finally gives in and eats something he doesn’t want to, he “loses” and the parent “wins.” So later in life, when he can freely choose the food on his own, he chooses to “win.”

Also, forced food consumption that results in gagging, vomiting and overall disgust can cause food aversions. Pickier kids tend to be more sensitive to different textures so being made to eat something that offends them can make that item displeasing for many years, if not a lifetime.

When asked if the forced consumption changed their overall eating habits as adults, over one-third said yes. Of those who said yes, 73% said it limited their diet and 27% said it made them more open to new foods. While this is only one study, and it does not prove cause and effect, it’s important food for thought.

pickygirl

The Opposite Effect

After studying the feeding literature over the last few years, it’s clear that many of the feeding strategies parents employ have the opposite effect. Forcing and pressuring causes kids to eat less and dislike certain foods. Restricting children makes them want to eat more.

I think a lot of it comes down to distrust. Parents have trouble believing their children will eventually learn to like a variety of foods on their own. When kids are highly food neophobic (afraid of foods), which peaks between 2 and 6, they can be very adamant about new foods, saying things like “I’ll never eat that!” If a parent doesn’t understand the child’s development, and that this is normal and will lessen with time, they’ll be more likely to fight against it making the stage last longer.

So as you can see, eating is different from other habits such as cleaning and brushing teeth. It involves taste, texture, appetite, temperament, listening and trust. It’s not about making or tricking a child eat what’s in front of them, but creating the circumstances that will help a child eat well today, and 20 years from now.

So tell me, were you forced to eat food as a kid? How does it affect your eating today?

For more on all things feeding, join the Fearless Feeding Movement on Facebook.

References

Batsell, R.W., Brown, A.S., Ansfield, M.E., and Paschall, GY. “You Will Eat All of That!”: A Retrospective Analysis of Forced Consumption Episodes. Appetite. 2002, 38 (3), 211-219.

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather July 6, 2012 at 9:02 am

You should check out this book:

http://karenlebillon.com/books/

I think there is more to this that just “not forcing” kids to eat certain foods. You would be shocked at what kids eat here (I am an American living in France). And its not because they like it at first. But, then as they grow they learn to appreciate variety in food. I am sure positive societal pressure plays a role as well, but in my view, you can’t just let your kids only eat what interests them. You can’t let them stay on a “beige” diet just because you are afraid of turning them off from other food. I think you should expect them to eat like adults. I don’t know, I can just tell you, it works here.

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Heather July 6, 2012 at 9:03 am

I want to add, that if food culture in America in general were better, I would say you could trust your kid’s tastes to grow, but its not good, and you can’t really trust that they are going to grow up make good choices on their own. Statistically, they probably won’t.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 6, 2012 at 11:40 am

@Healther — Thanks for your comment. If you read other articles on my blog, you’ll see that I do not recommend feeding kids just what they like. The key is for kids to provide a variety of food and make feeding positive. In some cases, a one taste rule may work for the right child. According to one study, 85% of American use such strategies such as bribing to get kids to eat so I don’t think most are following the Division of Responsibility like I recommend. I think what happens is parents try to get their kids to eat, it doesn’t work so they give up and feed them “kid friendly” food. There isn’t one right answer — I do wish our culture of feeding here was more like France in that everyone seems to be on teh same page (schools, families etc.).

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Denise July 6, 2012 at 9:39 am

My son is WAY beyond the typical neophobic stage–he’s 10–but he still refuses to even try any fruits or vegetables. We’re talking none: zero fruits, zero vegetables. It drives me nuts, but I haven’t ever tried to force him. I’m ashamed to admit I did once try to bribe him. I offered him 20 bucks to just try a bite of broccoli. I even said he could spit it out if he didn’t like it and he still refused!

What makes this even more frustrating is that I’m studying to be a holistic health coach because I’m so passionate about nutrition and wellness, and yet I can’t even get my own kid to eat a healthful diet. I have three older children (all of whom are now grown) and this wasn’t an issue with any of them. They all ate a varied, nutritious diet from a very young age, and still do. It’s just this one.

He lives on cereal, sandwiches, meat, crackers, pizza, and mac and cheese. He will eat rice or quinoa as a side. That’s it. And this has been going on for YEARS. His pediatrician told me once not to worry about it, but that was a long time ago.

I’m beginning to despair that he’ll ever grow out of this and clearly my hands-off approach hasn’t been working. If forcing and pressuring (and bribing) doesn’t work either, then what will??

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 6, 2012 at 11:42 am

Denise — it sounds like your child may have sensory issues. Has he had an evaluation by a feeding therapist (usually OT or ST)? See this article for more info http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2010/05/picky-eating-part-1-how-to-tell-if-your-picky-eater-needs-help/

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Kim July 6, 2012 at 9:42 am

I was forced to eat – even through high school. I recall choosing to be grounded over eating something when I was maybe 18 years old. Ironically, last night I forced myself to eat fish, which was a food I used to be forced to eat as a child. I do not like it to this day and I have negative feelings toward it, but only try to eat it now because I am aware of its health benefits.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 6, 2012 at 11:45 am

Thanks for sharing Kim. I’m sorry to hear this still affects you. I used to not like fish either but was never forced ot eat it. Once I moved to New Orleans I caught the seafood bug. Good luck!

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Gillian July 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

I completely agree wit your take on this issue and with the fact that forcing food involves trust issues and power issues that can last so much longer than one bite of broccoli.
Funny enough, as a kid, my mom “required” us to eat a minimum of certain vegetables every night at dinner. Typically it was four green beans or four carrot sticks – vegetables that my sister and I tended to like anyway. But there was a minimum and we had to eat it. I remember it distinctly but I don’t have bad memories or associations with it at all. In fact, I’m a huge vegetable eater today. And I serve all kinds of vegetables to my kids, though they don’t always eat them. I struggle with whether to impose minimums, as I experienced as a kid to try and broaden my kids’ variety but as of now, haven’t gone that route.
Would love to hear your thoughts on the concept of minimums of veggies that are already approved options.
Thanks for putting this out there!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 6, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Gillian — you bring up a good point. I wish there was one right way to go about piquing interest in fruits and veggies but different things work for different children. A more stubborn child might rebel against miniumums where another one might not. The fact that you’re a vegetable lover probably has nothing to do with the minimums your mom set and more with your exposure to veggies (or something else entirely). The fact is most children will grow up eating the foods they were exposed to growing up. They may have periods where they get off track, but most will come back to this. So don’t be afraid to try different things to see what works for your children. Remember that children are more sensitive to the bitter taste in many veggies, so may take more time to accept them. We’ll be digging into this in my upcoming series on vegetables!

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MamaG July 7, 2012 at 7:28 pm

My parents forced all ten of us kids to eat everything she prepared (at least equal number of bites for each year old we were). We were fed a wide variety of fruits/veggies/ethic foods. We all eat all our food now. There weren’t angry standoffs, she just stayed calm and said once you have your bites you get down you can go. If kids don’t try food when they are young they are missing nutrients they need now during the critical ages of neurodevelopment. I’ve talked to lots of moms who said they wish their mom HAD made them eat veggies because they don’t have a taste for them now. I’m sure a research study based on people’s actual behaviors rather than their perceptions of their habits the results would be different. But http://www.ViviLeDish.com has a great a approach—start young, get creative rather than angry, and get kids involved works. (P.S. I didn’t see the whole research design, but this does not appear a generalizable study or findings based on the audience sample alone so I would be really careful to point that out to readers who might read more into the conclusions than warranted).

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 7, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Thanks for your comment MamaG. You are right that this study is only one — and there are very few that follow feeding to adulthood (5 total that I have found). There is another study that found half the time, young adults didn’t eat the food they were forced to eat as kids. I don’t know anyone — and Karen Lebillon incuded — that recommends forcing a child to eat. You might ask them to taste it or have a one bite or lick rule, but the research on children shows that pressuring makes kids eat less, not more. In this study, a smaller percent report that being pushed to eat actually helped them. So again, it depends on the child and the appraoch. Obviously a stand off, crying or gagging is not a good thing. A positive approach may work fine for the right child. But regulation of food intake matters too. And if a parent makes a child take a certain amount of bites they may end up being more focused on that, over listening to internal cues. The research I’ve read shows that having healthy food available, being a good role model and having regular meals increase the chances that a child will eat a variety of healthy food and maintain a healthy weight.

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MamaG July 7, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Also—check out Karen LeBillion’s book, “French Kids Eat Everything.” I lived in Europe for 3 years and she has nailed it—things don’t have to be the way they are here if we get kids eating their fruits and veggies early. It’s a great book that all Americans struggling with the inner conflict about “should I make my kids eat this” should read.

http://karenlebillon.com/books/

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 7, 2012 at 9:51 pm

One more thing MamaG. This article reviews the research on feeding styles and is written by my writing partner Jill Castle. http://justtherightbyte.com/2010/10/whats-your-feeding-style/ The research shows the most effective feeding style is an authoritative one (same one discussed in Karen Lebillon’s book) summarized below:

Authoritative, or the “Love with Limits” parenting style, promotes independent thinking and self-regulation within the child, but also sets boundaries within which the child is expected to operate. The authoritative feeder determines the details around the meal (what will be served, when it will happen, and where it will be served), but allows the child to decide if they will eat what is prepared, and how much they will eat. Trust and boundaries are the basis of this parent feeding style. Children who have authoritative parents in the home tend to be leaner, good at self-regulating their food consumption, and feel secure with food and eating. The most current research advocates this style of parenting/feeding as an effective childhood obesity prevention approach.

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Mama G July 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

From everything I’ve read on your site, heard from parents, read in research, it essentially it all leads back to this: ANY technique performed by an angry parent will backfire in the end. A CALM, loving parent requiring a set number of bites will not have the same negative lasting implications on a child as who applied that very same technique using anger. In fact, they will likely have a positive association with the experience (as did I-I felt like my parents cared about my health).

I, like my parents before me and most Americans, just cannot financially afford to offer multiple choices of fruits and veggies at every meal or have the time/expertise to cater to each child’s personality. It can be very discouraging to all the advice from well meaning experts who advise people to cater to each child’s personality and/or offer multiple choices etc. because it’s just not realistic to execute financially or logistically for most people. Which is why so many turn away from trying at all — I hear this over and over again from moms.

After living abroad and seeing how powerful the impact of a shared culture is on the french eating habits — I think our grandparents approach had a lot in common with the french/germans (they were immigrants afterall!) PROVIDED we do so in a non-angry/forceful way. We need to find a way to make parents feel supported for trying – and that’s what I’m trying to do with Vivi LeDish. Create an approach moms can use to add some fun into the process and feel supported at the same time-to create a culture for moms trying to turn this generation of kids around.

A majority of parents with young children were raised on processed food-they are starting from scratch—tasting and preparing produce right along with their kids. Whatever experts can do to decrease the intimidation factor will be much appreciated!

So far Vivi LeDish is getting a great response from a growing number of moms- and we’re just going to keep trying. We are just one of many approaches that parents can take – but our approach is to designed to build healthy habits and warm memories that will last a lifetime. 5 minutes/day, 5 ingredients or less (always served with a side of giggle).

The particular study you referenced in the article just hit a chord with me because it’s ungeneralizable conclusions are so strong compared to what you are saying easy to over-interpret compared to the point I think you are trying to get across to the audience. (Which sounds reasonable to me and I completely respect and admire what you are trying to do for your audience). I wasn’t disagreeing with your point, I’m just overly sensitive to how/what research is presented and shared because there is so much potential to misinterpret. I wish research methods was a requirement for all Americans…but that’s a mission another lifetime for me. My mission to get parents and kids in the the kitchen enjoying all the amazing food the world has to offer is all consuming!

In any event, keep up the good fight! Every voice and every bit of energy will help us turn this nutrition related health crisis around!

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Kim M July 10, 2012 at 11:58 am

I was raised on a mix of canned, processed, and fast food. I don’t remember fresh fruits and vegetables in our refrigerator. I do remember 2 liter bottles of cola. I give my mom a pass as she has issues with eating and she was a single mom working three jobs. If I were going to have a home cooked meal, I had better make it. It left such an impression on me, and I currently struggle with weight, that I was determined to raise my children differently. Before I had kids, I had an employee whose children always ate their fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. I asked her how she did it, and she said she didn’t give them any other choice. They ate healthy food for all meals or they ate nothing. Like earlier posts, I agree this should be handled in a calm matter. If you don’t yell at your kids about it, it won’t be a battle. There is one more thing I’ve always done that seems to work for my kids. I explain why. I actually tell them the health benefits and I’ve also explained the negatives to eating junk food. My 5 and 7 year old girls can tell you about antioxidents, vitamins, protein, benefits of colorful food, organics, etc. They are involved in the cooking/baking/making of our food, too, which always helps. Another VERY important thing in my house… balance. They aren’t restricted to always eat just the good stuff. If they’ve been doing a good job on food, we will share special treats as a family. You need a cookie now and then too, right? :) I am not sure if this would work for all kids….and I don’t pretend that it’s easy, but I thought I’d share my thoughts since it’s such a passion of mine.

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Gina July 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Maryann – Great article on such an important topic. Too often I hear of parents using food as rewards, bribes and threats which is the beginning of a very unhealthy relationship with food and rarely does any good.

We don’t keep a lot of treats around the house (more so to keep them out of my hands!) but my kids certainly get their fare share. They have a very healthy diet so I don’t mind letting them have treats.

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Karen November 15, 2012 at 9:15 pm

So, are you proposing that kids should get dessert and all the carbs they want at dinner without eating the healthier options? Many kids choose that because parents don’t guide them in the right direction, then those kids become obese. Shocker. Guidance includes consequences (e.g., don’t eat your veggies, don’t get seconds on mashed potatoes or any dessert). Why should we withhold those consequences? It seems natural to me.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD November 15, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Thanks for your comment Karen. I am not proposing that at all. In fact, I don’t recommend providing dessert every night. If a child is really hungry for dinner, and there is something that they like, they will eat it. I see no reason to make a child eat more than they are hungry for, in order to get dessert. Research shows that kids learn to prefer the dessert over the healthy items when this happens. The research shows that was is most important for children and eating habits is exposure to health foods and role modeling.

Do you have any research showing that kids get obese when parents don’t guide them the way you say? The research I have read show that an authoritative feeding style, one that provides limits with food but allows reasonable choice for kids, is associated with healthier body weights and diets in kids. More controlling or permissive feeding styles are associated with higher weights and poorer diets. This is food for thought as feeding styles need to change with the environment — one that provides food at every turn and huge portions of food. Teaching kids to listen to their internal cues of hunger and satiety is more important than ever before.

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Mark Waldorf November 25, 2012 at 10:20 pm

My son in law Insists on holding his son in a vicegrip while holding his
mouth open to force. It down. The child eeats extremely meals so why treat him lime a dog and forcing the food despite tears. I will say ht is a
good size totter who eats plenty. Is this necessary by 6’5 daddy showing who is stronger or is this correct behavior. My children are in their mid20-30′s and eat just fi

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Sequoia March 29, 2013 at 1:29 pm

As a child I wasn’t allowed options, I had to eat what was given to me. There were many foods I wasn’t crazy about and I still ate them. It was a way of life and it was simple. today I eat everything and i will try anything. And I don’t view my childhood eating experiences as negative. I am grateful because one I am healthy and two I appreciate healthy eating. Yes, there are vegetables I don’t like, yet I can eat salads all day and everyday. Now I have a three year old son who didn’t want to eat as an infant and I listened to people and his Pedi, who all said don’t worry he will eat. Well he never wants to eat. What about people who don’t have the money or people who live in poor counties? They don’t have the money or resources to go with what the child wants. The child either eats or starves. I met a mother who son didn’t want to eat as an infant, he would fight her. She said she didn’t give in to his tantrums, she was calm and pushed back. then he pushed back, and she pushed back. Now he is in his teens and eats everything. I think the problem is that we have listened to the research about what the child wants to eat, wear, and when it wants to go to sleep instead of listening to parents who have actual experience. We parents are at the mercy of our children. This is the problem, we have allowed society to tell parents how to do their job. How on earth did we do this before the “experts” came into the picture? The other problem is that grandparents or other other elders are not able to share what works and doesn’t work with new parents. Now we have a nightmare on our hands. We have children who are not disciplined, children who don’t eat healthy, children who are not healthy and children who either drop out of high-school or finish and can’t read, write or do math.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 29, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Thanks for you comment Sequoia. If you read more of my site, you will see that I don’t recommend a permissive feeding style as you suggest which means kids get to choose what is for mealtime and when. Instead, I recommend an authoritative feeding style where parents do their job of decide what, when and where children eat but children decide what and how much to eat of what is offered. Research shows that children do best with this approach in terms of nutrition and weight over more controlling or permissive feeding styles. This does not mean a child who grows up having to eat food will turn out bad food wise, but it is more likely they will do well with a more supportive, warm and structured environment.

If you son didn’t eat as an infant (not sure what that means exactly), the key is to find out why. Most children will eat anything from 6 months to 2 years when growth is high and the mind hasn’t developed to the point of rejecting food (unless there’s a problem of course). Around 2 when growth slows way down and the mind grows children are more skeptical of food. This is actually an evolutionary trait helped keeping children from being poisoned. It’s normal for children to become picker but it is not normal for children to eat only a few foods and have major tantrums around eating. That may indicate there is another issue like a food allergy (affecting the GI tract so it’s difficult to tell), sensory issues or oral/motor problems.

Back in the early 1900′s when children were fed in a very prescriptive manner infantile anorexia was quite high — meaning many parents were experiencing children not eating and growing well. Research shows that one potential consequence of forcing a child to eat can result in early fullness and under-regulation of food (overfeeding can also result). A famous study in the 1930s showed that children thrive when they get to decide what and how much to eat between the wholesome food offered. This changed the medical community’s take on feeding young children.

What I do on this site is not tell parents what to do, but help them make the best decisions for them based on the best research available. Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your son.
Here red flags he may need some help
http://www.sosapproach-conferences.com/articles/red-flags

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tammy April 9, 2013 at 12:33 pm

i was force feed red meat which i gagged on every time(except hamburger) i can’t eat the red meat today because every time i think about it i remember the gagging (gross)

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Sharada May 13, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Thank you for writing this. The funny bit is, I was never forced to eat as a child. However, as my parents have a bad relationship with food (fried, sugary, salty snacks abound in our house), I developed comfort eating as a habit too. Yet, as i began to understand my own body, I began choosing to eat only to feel satiated and as an energy source for my body. However, recently I began feel very irritable about eating over at a friend’s place where her mother forces me to eat. Since visiting their home is frequent, I cannot even avoid this. yearsI am 26, not 2 years old. And what scares me is how the mother sulks, whines or tells me her children do not eat, but at least i should be eating. While the mother herself eats light, diets and works out, I am forced to eat a lot because I am overweight and probably she assumes that I am feeling hesitant to eat more. I enjoy the food at their home and I keep telling her that. I also have been politely telling her for over 6 months, that I will try a bit of everything offered and help myself to what I want. But I do not like being forced into eating beyond what my capacity to eat is. She quietens down for a while, but eventually gets bossy again when she notices my plate is empty. Her husband and children have given up asking her to leave me alone. I am wondering if this is an Indian thing only, forcing people to eat, or is something the matter with my friend’s mother. Or if I am being bullied. I honestly am reaching the limits of my tolerance and am going to retaliate with unhealthy anger very soon. What can I tell the mother to back off politely?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 14, 2013 at 6:36 am

Sharada,

I’m not sure I have the answer. But I do know in some cultures, like my own Serbian one, not eating heaps of food is taken as you don’t like the food. I think all you can do is tell her that while you love her food, you are listening to your body and don’t like eating past full. Make sure she knows it has nothing to do with her cooking etc. Good luck!

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Lindsey June 17, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I love this! I have such a hard time understanding why people feel the need to force thier kids to eat. Is there a link between our parenting views on food and the obesity rate in the US?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 18, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Lindsey — there are a handful of studies (including this one) that show a link between how people are fed and how they eat as adults. This study showed adults remembering more food rules as kids, including clean your plate, were more likely to be obese as adults. http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2013/01/what-clean-your-plate-looks-like-20-years-later/

But we need a lot more studies! It definitely plays some kind of role but we cannot say that it causes obesity.

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Anna July 13, 2013 at 10:02 am

I definitely feel Clean Your Plate and obesity are linked. I think that those parents that don’t take the time to appreciate their children as individuals who have genuine taste preferences run the risk of creating anxieties in adults-and yes, eventually, those anxieties (especially if centered on food) can result in eating disorders (of which obesity is one).

It is a parents’ job to help their children learn to navigate the world but I think Clean Your Plate is the equivalent of standing over your child, screaming at them to finish their homework when the real problem is they are struggling with English. You haven’t fixed the problem. You haven’t done anything except demean them. You have not only taken away their power but you also haven’t given them the tools to “do it better next time.” The only thing they have walked away with is the idea that they need to “win” so that you “lose”; the only thing you’ve done is create a power struggle.
Clean Your Plate creates a win-lose dynamic with consequences reaching far beyond just getting your kids to eat their vegetables.

I definitely feel kids should be exposed to a variety of foods (and that they need to be exposed repeatedly) but in all honesty, sometimes there’s just a food you don’t like. I HATE green beans. There is not a form of green bean that I enjoy. I don’t even like green bean casserole and that’s mostly sauce. Nearly every flippin night for my entire childhood there was a green bean option at my family dinner. Yes, I did have incidents where my mom put a small (like maybe 3 total beans) forkful on my plate and sometimes I just ate them and said nope! still don’t like green beans. Or sometimes I ignored them and they were thrown away. No fighting, no crying, no problems. And I greatly appreciate that my parents, although being parents had the responsibility to at least PROVIDE me with the green beans, also had the respect to let ME chose whether or not to eat them. A lot of adults get caught up in the “I’M the parent” mentality and think that being in charge is what they’re supposed to be doing; forgetting that it’s not your job to teach your kids to listen to YOU, it’s your job to teach your children to listen to THEMSELF.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 16, 2013 at 7:48 am

Thanks for your comment. Very well said!

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Jordie August 14, 2013 at 5:30 pm

I found this website after getting an ‘aha’ moment. I am 50, my parents went through WW2 and their idea of healthy eating was to buy the cheapest and most disgusting cuts of meat, buy huge cases of cheap (read ripe) fruit which went overripe quickly so all you could smell was rotting plums or apricots, and eating all the food you were given was a sign that you respected your parents. We were forced to eat gristle, fat and gnaw meat bones til all the meat was off them, I used to eat the meat under duress, and chew it until it was white and hard and then go and spit it out in the bathroom.

We had legendary standoffs. My little brother and I were skinny kids. My parents and older siblings were all overweight. Not really obese, just chubby. However, I hated certain foods like fish and meat. I had no trouble eating things like sausages and mash, but hated stews and casseroles which my mother made from the leftover roasts because the cuts of meat she bought were inevitably bad and since she was not a very good cook, and frankly didn’t enjoy cooking, the food was pretty awful.

My ‘aha’ moment came today when I suddenly realised every time I eat, I think of stressful situations and kind of go into my imagination and start stuffing food into my mouth while I am thinking about the painful or difficult situation in my mind. I finally know why that is now. Mealtimes were always stressful for me, my parents always made an issue out of eating everything on my plate and used to get angry and hostile if I didn’t. They took it personally, especially my father, who was a big guy, and used to run around the house looking for pictures of starving kids in third world countries telling me they would eat what I was not. So, now, I was not just a bad person for refusing to eat my mother’s cooking and disrespecting her, but I was a terrible person for not eating something some starving child would like to eat. Frankly I have my doubts whether even they would eat what my mother was serving.

So, the connection between stress, literally having food stuffed in my mouth by my parents and guilt and shame were heavily linked from my early childhood. I now realise that the reason I finally became overweight was because I began to stuff myself every time I felt stressed and upset despite the fact that I always felt sick from overeating. I had learned early to ignore my body signals because my parent’s power and authority as adults was far more important, and frankly, pretty scary.

As a child I would often feel nauseous and vomit after meals. My mother thought this was pretty amusing because I had apparently eaten more than I could handle. Her favourite saying was that my eyes were bigger than my stomach. In fact, they weren’t, I was very good at leaving food on my plate when I had had enough, but got so much abuse from my parents or older siblings because of it that I ended up just stuffing it in my mouth to keep them off my back. You simply coudln’t win in my house.

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Amanda August 25, 2013 at 5:55 pm

I was forced to “clean my plate” ever day as a child, eat what was cooked when it was cooked and allowed no more than one snack a day. I am nw thirty years old, 5’10 and 140 lb female, eat very healthy and don’t see any of this as negative in my past. The idea fo letting your kid pick and choose is rdiculous. I know peope that have kids that do this. Th kids are unhealthy, unhygienic, and tend to have tantrums. My own daughter is 5 years old and we have strict food rules. She eats what is cooked, no option, but we start her portions small. She tries everything on her plate, no option. She gets a small treat if she cleans her plate. If she doesn’t clean her plate, no dessert. Thats her choice. She is healthy, active and one of the healthiest kds I know. Of course I think this goes back to breastfeeding as well. I breastfed exclusively for 8 months and in combination with solid food for two years. No formula ever. No baby food ever. Through breastmilk she got a “taste” of all my foods. Bottom line, the parent should decide what the child eats, period. They’re children, they don’t know what they need yet. That’s why it’s called parenting, folks.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 25, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Amanda,

Thanks for sharing your story. I do not recommend having the child be in charge of the menu or run the show. But I do, along with major health organizations like the AAP, recommend that once the food is served that children decide how much to eat and whether or not to eat items (called the Satter Division of Responsibility). Sometimes a one-bite rule can work depending on the child’s age, stage and temperament. It’s also important for parents to structure meals at the the table, so no grazing on food or alternative meals.

The research shows that controlling practices such as clean your plate, having children eat more and/or restricting food intake and those that are very lax, have a negative impact on eating habits and weight over time. This does not mean that every child told to clean their plate will grow to be overweight, but it will increase the risk that the child will grow into an adult who eats due to external cues versus internal ones. I have worked with patients getting weight loss surgery and a majority of them had to clean their plates as children. They didn’t understand what full meant and many were thin as children. I discuss the research in this NY Times post http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/02/saying-goodbye-to-the-clean-plate-club/?_r=0

What I do on this blog is try to help parents make the best feeding decisions based on the latest research. I always ask parents what they are trying to teach their children when it comes to their feeding practices. If you have your child always clean their plate, even when they are full, what are you teaching them? If they always get sweet as a reward, what are you teaching them about the role sweets play in the diet? If you are okay with what your are teaching your daughter, then go for it. I discuss this in more detail here http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2013/08/the-no-clean-plate-mom-comes-clean/

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Kirrilie September 9, 2013 at 4:23 am

As a child psychologist and the mother of a very picky eater (one who vomits just at the smell of foods he struggles with) I think the shared responsibility method is terrific.
The only other point i would make is that as parents we need to work very very hard at presenting food in fun, attractive ways, getting the child involved in cooking/choosing/shopping, allowing time for meals, staying calm, always requiring a “lick/mouse bite” of new foods and being absolutely vigilant about no snacking and no alternative meals. Being persistent and working on food every day and not giving up will eventually get kids earing at least a small range of veggies. I know from experience this is really, really tough but parents MUST persist. I have had 9 year olds come to see me who only eat carbs and I think this is close to neglect. Our brains take 30% of the nutrients we eat and there is no way a child of 9 who doesn’t eat fruit or veggies is learning well or managing life at optimum capacity.

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Nanasha September 11, 2013 at 8:36 pm

One one hand, there’s my oldest daughter, who won’t even TRY new food and takes forever to add something into her diet (even dessert items!).

Then there’s my youngest, who eats anything you give her.

Everyone (especially my mom and friends) acts like it’s my fault that the oldest one is picky and doesn’t like the texture of certain things, and they go on about how I’m too permissive.

It’s really hard for me not to start trying to force my oldest to eat because the shame and the accusation from outside sources is so huge and it hurts and I hate it.

Honestly? I don’t care if she doesn’t eat new food as long as she’s generally healthy and not having any nutritional deprivation. But I hear that the state is taking kids away from their fat parents if they don’t eat healthily and that scares the shit out of me.

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Melissa November 26, 2013 at 3:00 pm

I have 2 autistic sons and they both have terrible eating habits. I fell into the bribing trap, time outs, etc. I had to realize that sometimes, the boys will eat it, if I offer it on their terms and make it fun….

1 thing I do is–LET THEM HELP OUT!! I let the boys cut, cook, mix, create. This shows them that they are helping all of us and we make it all about how “kid” made the broccoli and it tastes great.

2–We implemented the NO THANK YOU bites. They have to take 1 bite and swallow. If after that, they do not like it, they are ok with not eating more. 9 times out of 10, it is a food that they never thought they would like.

3–Preferred foods are given in small doses. We do this so we can have the boys focus on what is on the plate as a whole and not as “I will scarf all of the nuggets and leave no room for corn.”

4–Rainbow plates–We use the rainbow method. Pick foods that are very colourful. Dinner could be multi coloured pepper strips, chicken, beets and apple slices.

5–I also use a magnetic/dry erase board for the boys. The boys have a chance to help with the menu. They mark off what they ate (veggies, meats, fats/sweets, fruits).

6–Salads for lunch count as the whole day worth of veggies and fruits. We also have our “fun” days. On our birthdays, we can eat whatever we want. 1 kid wants pizza all day and the other one would eat ice cream sundaes. Sometimes, you have to give in.

It is all about picking battles. My kids are in the middle on weight and the doctors are impressed with their food battles. I am not saying we haven’t struggled, but this was a better solution for us.

I am not saying that this will work for everyone, but this is what works for us!!

Keep offering for both preferred and “new” foods.

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Mike December 19, 2013 at 11:37 am

What I hear from most parents of picky eaters is that they are ashamed of how their children eat, because they dont eat foods from a certain food group. First mistake: you are making their eating choices an emotional experience by making it about your feelings. Second mistake: You are focusing on the medical view of eating, by viewing everything as a food group for nutritents, rather than variety of food being an enjoyable experience. Dont worry if they only eat certain foods. Promote meal times as a time of enjoyment of a variety of foods and make it an enjoyable family time. When serving healthy foods, make your best effort to present them in a manor that will be tasty to their pallette the first time served and dont give up on offering them after the first rejection. One day they may just try them. The human palette evolves with age as will their diet.

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Mike December 19, 2013 at 11:48 am

I’ve seen many people comment that food today is largely unhealthy and you cannot leave it up to the childs discression as to what they eat. My response to that is that you as a parent are responsible for introducing foods to your child. It is you that chose to introduce your child to McDonalds, mac-n-cheese and chicken nuggets. It is you who chose to make the trip to eat McDonald’s food a reward for being good. As a parent, you must introduce your children to the smart choices at a young age, because children trust that sustainance provided by their parents is inherantly good. Dont give them the processed chicken nuggets all the time, just because its easy for you. Do a little extra work and make wholesome meals more often. My parents were smart. They did not introduce me to fast food as a child. We rarely, if ever, ate fast food. Rather, they focused on wholesome meals and never forced me to eat anything. I also didnt get special meals. I ate what was on the table with the family. At an early age, I ate few vegetables. Today, there are very few I do not eat. The many vegetables I did not like I found that it was largely because I did not like how my parents prepared them. I still do not eat fast food to this day and rarely find any enjoyment in it. I have a healthy diet and have to think little about making the right choices, because it was engrained in me without being threatening.

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mary December 25, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I can relate to Denise’s no veggie or fruit issues.
I have 2 sons with many food allergies. The younger son is autistic and eats a select few foods (granny smith apple is the only fruit or vegetable), and the older son has texture issues. We’ve had both to occupational and speech therapy and it has helped only slightly. The older son is now 20. It was up to him to decide when and if he was ready to try new foods. His sensitivities were intense. As a baby, he threw up when introduced to texture in baby food. As a young boy, he would ask to try a new food, but would throw up once he had it in his mouth. We never forced him to eat anything. Of course, he loved French fries and chicken nuggets, crackers and chips, etc. For years he didn’t attempt much, but college life and a girlfriend have convinced him to try once again. We are thrilled it’s his decision, and he’s working slowly on new tastes and textures. He’s as surprised as we are that he can deal with texture at all. He’s tentative and eats small portions, but I’m so glad he loves a few healthy options. So 20 years can mean progress. With his allergies to eggs, dairy, soy, sesame, pork, mustard, and more, he’ll never be able to eat a typical diet, but excited he’s branching out to try healthier options.

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Judy January 8, 2014 at 6:09 pm

My concern is “eat all your food or no dessert, you go to bed, no snack later. Foods that are fixed are spicy, starchy, one pot meals, we have veg. at every meal. Not all the children like the same things. Sometimes they cry. Some are told it is ok and some not. Large portions are given instead of small and they are overwhelmed to start with. You can always get more if you like it. Seldom do they get to help with the meals. I personally consider this abuse. Forcing someone to eat anything is like making someone eat roaches or fish worms and then drinking muddy water. I can eat just about anything, but that is just me and I was never made to eat. Children who eat a lot end up with health problems and over weight.

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Hamze February 19, 2014 at 8:57 pm

i was force fed as a child. Now I eat 900 calories a day.

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darren March 9, 2014 at 6:06 am

i doint do this forum stuff so i doint know it this will work . I am 46 i grew up in state care and foster care so any way while in a foster situation i was in from 12 — 15 i was forced to eat boiled plums bitter very bitter this was desert as they had a plum tree i had to eat them i loaded them with suger to be able to eat them i now have a gardening company and hate plums and all stone fruit they bring back memories bad ones i also explaind to me wife my fellings and last year my foster career arived in oz and joked of my hate for the plums i was discusted in them and it is some what scared me for life it will always remain with me if you doint eat your dinner you woint get desert trust me you would not want your dinner . is it power caring abuse well il leave that to the public whom no not of me also stew som plums and see if you like them doint add suger you will get diabites

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Aidan May 10, 2014 at 2:22 pm

My parents ruled my food consumption with an iron fist. First of all, they hung a clock next to my place setting at the table and said I had to be done eating by a certain time- or there would be some sort of highly unsavory punishment. As a very picky eater, this system DID get me to eat the new foods, but also got me to develop disgust for them. (Most notably, any form of beef- except hotdogs) Corned beef, ground beef, tacos, hamburgers, anything like that, to this day, still give me nausea at the taste, smell, and thought. Fish is another one. The texture made me want to vomit as a kid- I did a few times. My father still demands I eat it to this day.

The most annoying was my parents careful control over HOW much I ate. Which leads me to sneak around, getting bread and chocolate and crackers, ice cream, sodas and extra helpings of pasta behind their backs because they controlled it- and still do- so rigidly. It got so bad that earlier this year (I’m a sophmore in high school) I would steal money out of their wallets to buy fifteen dollars worth of candy, sodas, and pizza from my school. Each day.

I’m not diabetic. I’m not terribly overweight. I can perform physical functions well. The eating habits imposed by my parents also led to help me resent them.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 14, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Hi Aidan! Thanks for your perspective. Have you talked to your parents about this?

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Joan June 14, 2014 at 12:45 pm

After reading many of these comments, I’m wondering how much of our food aversion has to do with food preparation and not with the foods themselves.

As a child, I hated most veggies. When I was 18, I decided to be a vegetarian and had properly cooked (not mushy!) veggies for the first time. What an eye-opener! I had a similar experience with eggs. Hated them all my life, then had a beautifully poached on on top of a caesar salad a few years ago and now I’m hooked.

Anyone who has spent any time in Europe knows that the food there is better, across the board. There is a respect for quality, freshness and preparation that we, in the US, have traded for convenience. The children of my European friends eat a diet almost identical to the adults in their lives, willingly. I wonder, if American kids were fed better food, if they would be more willing to eat it.

My daughter (12 years old) will eat anything you put in front of her, as long as it’s not spicy. I’m not kidding; roasted bone marrow, frog legs and escargot in France, fisherman’s stew (by choice, last weekend!), sushi, stinky cheese, salad, fruit, veggies… We eat fresh, local and organic whenever possible, I cook most things at home, from scratch, and when we eat out, we choose good restaurants that serve fresh food. She has always been “forced” to try new foods (our rule is at least two bites), but not to eat them if she doesn’t like them. She usually does. What’s not to like when the food is fresh and properly prepared?

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mary June 14, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Feel very fortunate that your daughter is able to stomach almost anything. And I don’t doubt that European diets are healthier. I disagree that it’s how food is prepared.
Food allergies abound at our house. My autistic son ate many types of healthy homemade foods until he was about 1.5 – 2 years old. That is around the time his autism became apparent. Sensory issues increased with his diet as well as other areas. His issues regarding food include rules of texture and color (for instance only clear liquids – water or Sprite, not juice or Coke) and very repetitive.

My other son(typical but with sensory issues) asked to eat foods but could not handle the textures. Even gagged when introduced to ‘stage 2′ foods as an infant. Now an adult, he made the choice to revisit other foods and has found he can manage many more, but he had to decide on his own. Still some he cannot handle.

So please do not assume it’s as simple as someone being finicky or terrible cooks. I prepare healthy, fresh dishes and dreamt my kids would someday enjoy them. Now my older son eats a few and it’s a joy! I believe the problem is how the brain processes the texture input.

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Jo July 2, 2014 at 8:57 pm

Very Interesting article. Ill add my experiences; as a child I was forced to eat everything on my plate. I didn’t have a wide variety in foods I did like, so mostly everything I ate I hated. My mother would not let me leave the table till my plate was empty. I remember once being scolded severely because she caught me cutting up my broccoli in small pieces and swallowing them with my milk. She took my milk away. This could definitely be a case of she wins I lose. What did it matter how I got in down?
Most of my diet was seafood as it was my dads favorite and he fished and grabbed a lot.
In school, the same rules applied. We raised our hands when we were done and a lunch monitor came by and checked our trays. If it was empty we could go outside and play, if not, we stayed till the bell rang.
As an adult. I despise most vegetables and fruits and absolutely abhor seafood!
I force myself to eat plain salads because I know it’s good for me and I can eat fruit blended up in a smoothie.
Still won’t touch seafood.
I also struggle with leaving food on my plate, it’s extremely hard to throw away food for me.

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theresa July 10, 2014 at 12:16 pm

We have a rule in our house that you have to eat a vegetable (fruits are not a problem here) before dessert. But you don’t have to eat the vegetable I made for dinner. It can be any vegetable serving that we have. My picky child only likes lettuce, carrots, and corn so she will usually pick one of those even if the rest of us have something else. I figure it’s better she eat the same one everyday then nothing at all and there isn’t a battle because she gets to choose. She is also seeing our varied veggies on our plate and hopefully will try them on her own one day.

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Ashley Brissel July 22, 2014 at 12:36 pm

I don’t know what I did right, because I didn’t do anything in particular when my son was little. I just knew I didn’t want to force him to eat anything he didn’t like because let’s be real, no one is going to force me to eat something I don’t like. I always told him, if you try it and don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it, but please just try it. And he would try it and 50% of the time he didn’t like it and the other 50% he did. It was the ones he DID like that kept him trying new stuff. He is now 7 and now, I’m thinking I almost wished he liked plain stuff LOL this kid is expensive to feed as he seems to have a very refined taste. You know, crab, flounder, shrimp, lobster, ribs, fresh asparagus…you find that most expensive thing on a menu or at the grocery store, and that is probably what he wants to eat! All kidding aside, I’m so thankful he will eat so many different things and LOVES veggies and fruit. Although, I am not sure if I just lucked out or did something right. Probably a little of both!

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