With nursing, we trust that when we feed our baby at regular intervals and based on their hunger cues, they’ll get the nutrition they need to grow. We don’t know precisely how many ounces they eat at each nursing session.
Sometimes a baby will eat more if they are going through a growth spurt, and other times, they will eat less. We are all born with the innate ability to intuitively eat based on our hunger.
But somewhere along the way, many children and adults unlearn this natural instinct.
What makes a “good eater”?
We’ve all heard the narrative. “Wow! They cleaned their plate. What a good eater!” And the ever-so-famous clean plate club.
This, of course, is something that started with the best of intentions. And if you look back historically, this “club” dates to times of food scarcity during World War II and The Great Depression. Looking back at your own family tree, you might be able to see how some of these extremely hard times for your ancestors have shaped generational patterns that are a part of your life today. I find this extremely fascinating, but I will reel back in the nerdiness!
I’ll share one of my favorite stories from my mother-in-law. Her Nonni was an Italian immigrant that lived on her street growing up on the St. Louis Italian “Hill.” One night, Nonni made a stew for my mother-in-law and her sisters to enjoy. After dinner, the girls searched everywhere for their sweet bunny, Fluffy. Their parents quickly realized what happened. The girls unknowingly ate their pet Bunny for diner. Their Nonni as an Italian immigrant did not grow up with abundant food, and when the rabbit got big enough, you ate it.
Today, most of us are much more fortunate to have unlimited access to food, and I’m entirely sure my children’s Nonni will not eat our pets. But the idea of cleaning your plate and not “wasting food” is still celebrated.
Here’s the problem. This teaches our kids to eat past their fullness and ignore the hunger cues they intuitively honored as babies. If they get used to always having to clean their plate or being forced to eat, it can also lead to binge-eating later in life.
It also inhibits them from learning how to listen to their remarkable little tummies trying to communicate what nutrients they might be needing or how a food agrees with them. Food is not all equal for everyone. Some people tolerate gluten better; dairy; red meat; carbs; spicy food; vegetarian diet; etc. Some foods probably make you feel worse than others.
What a great life skill to raise children who intuitively listen to their bodies to eat the food that makes them feel good? Versus they must eat everything on their plate; regardless.
But what if my picky toddler is nowhere near the clean plate club?
The clean plate is an exaggerated example of the idea: no forcing your toddler to eat. Period. Forcing, bribing, or trying to guilt your toddler to eat tends to backfire and lead to pickiness (read Combatting Picky Eating). But even if your picky eater barely touched their food today, they are internalizing the message that they will get praised for the quantity of food eaten; so these same problems can occur later in life. The message is still there.
But what about wasting food?
Here’s a scenario. Let’s say you’re at a restaurant, and hypothetically, you can’t take the food home with you.
But you are full and satisfied with your meal. Eating one last piece of chicken, so you’re not wasteful….IS (drumroll), still wasteful. The piece of chicken is wasted. Your body is telling you, “that’s enough.” It’s not asking for the extra protein; you are not enjoying the chicken anymore….its purpose has been served. So it’s a choice: are you letting your food go to waste on your plate OR in your body?
Of course, anytime you can save leftover food, share with a neighbor or donate food that is absolutely preferred, we do not want to deliberately waste food. But the point is eating the food to not be wasteful is still wasteful. And can be contributing to a lifetime of overeating and health concerns.
A tip for less food waste is serving smaller portions, and your child can always ask for more!
My “Good Eater” hopes for my children
Enjoy the experience of eating a meal with loved ones.
Honoring their body with foods they enjoy and make them feel good.
Not feel pressured by diet culture.
Enjoy “less healthy” foods without guilt, obsession, or feeling of restriction.
Enjoy “healthy” foods that serve them without obsession.
And here is my tangent on healthy…. “Healthy” is a relative term. If you eat broccoli every day for a week, eating broccoli is no longer healthy. If you have celiac, whole grain bread is not healthy. Healthy is not a one-size-fits-all term. We are human beings, and just like everything else, we have different situations and needs. Of course, I want my kids to choose nutritionally dense foods that help them feel their best. But the obsession with “healthy” can also lead to disordered eating. It can inhibit some of the joy of just living life in our colorful world of food! As well as binging, guilt, and shame when they eat “less healthy.”
The ability to instinctively listen to their hunger, fullness, and nutritional body cues.
Balance, moderation, health, and joy!