Forcing Kids to Eat: Why Pressure-to-Eat Feeding Tactics Don’t Work


Were you forced to clean your plate as a child?

Did you have to eat all the food you were served before you could leave the table?

As an adult, do you struggle with leaving food on your plate at meals, even if you're full?

If yes, then realize you are not alone in this.

Many kids who are forced to eat everything on their plates at mealtimes are more likely to grow up into adults who have a chaotic relationship with food. It is not uncommon for children who have been raised with controlling feeding practices to be more likely to chronically overeat as adults or struggle with emotional and/or binge eating. Controlling feeding practices include:

  • Pressuring a child to eat certain amounts of their food

  • Coercing a child to take so many bites of a food

  • Requiring a child to eat everything on their plate before they can leave the table

  • Telling a child that in order to have dessert, they must eat something else first

Why Parents May Default to Pressure-to-Eat Feeding Tactics

Now, it’s important to understand that many of these tactics often come from a place of good intention. At the heart of this are concerned parents who worry or fear that their child may not be getting adequate nutrition or who may not be eating enough.

However, when it comes to feeding our kids, the most important thing to remember is that raising healthy eaters requires us to go far beyond the food itself. Sure, nutrition is an aspect of being healthy. But it is not the only thing that allows a child to grow up into an adult that respects their body and and feels confident in how they are eating.

As parents, we could try a variety of things to get our children to eat all the vegetables and nutritious foods in the world, but if there is pressure and force behind the way we feed our kids, then this is not raising a healthy child.

A parent’s feeding style can be influenced by a variety of factors, including:

  • Fear of a child’s health and grow

  • History of food scarcity

  • Unresolved food issues from childhood

  • History of disordered eating or chronic dieting

  • Generational feeding practices (how they were raised and fed)

Whatever the reasons, parents generally mean well when it comes to feeding their children, and it’s always helpful to to understand the factors that influence feeding styles.

When parents feed their children from a place of fear, it often creates controlling feeding tactics that actually backfire in the long run. For example, children who are forced to eat everything on their plates make grow up with a tendency to overeat or have aversions to eating certain foods. While well-intended, requiring a child to eat a certain amount of food on their plate may actually prevent them from being able to innately gage and respond to their natural feeding cues.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Pressure-to-Eat Tactics

Putting pressure on a child to eat can take different forms, including verbal and non-verbal approaches from parents. Many moms I have worked with remember being told these types of statements as a child, such as:

“Don’t waste your food”

“There are kids who don’t get anything to eat”

“Finish all your vegetables if you want to eat dessert”

“You need to eat it all to grow up healthy and strong”

Sound familiar?

Sometimes, pressure to eat is created by non-verbal cues, such as giving your child “the look” if they haven’t eaten much on their plate, or appearing disappointed or angry if food is left behind.

What Can I Do to End the Cycle?

Whether you have experienced this as a child or have taken these approaches to feeding your own children, know that you have the capacity to create a more positive feeding relationship between you and your kids. Most importantly, give yourself grace and patience through this process.

Maybe you still struggle with knowing when to stop eating or feel obligated to eat everything on your plate, even if you’re past the point of fullness.

Maybe these behaviors are recurring with the way you feed your own children because you don’t know any different?

The good news is that you can opt-out of the ‘Clean Your Plate’ Club. You don’t have to eat everything on your plate if your body does not need that amount of food.

We can choose to be a generation of moms that eat intuitively and respect our bodies by honoring our innate hunger and feeding cues.

By doing so, we are not just creating a healthier relationship with food and our bodies for ourselves but for our children, too!

Remember how it felt to have to eat everything on your plate as a kid, even when everything within you was telling you to stop eating.

Think about how it feels now as an adult to eat beyond comfortable fullness, to the point where your body may feel physically sick.

What could you do to help prevent your child from experiencing the same thing?

What Can I Do For My Child?

The best thing we can do as mothers to raise healthy eaters who respect their bodies is to encourage our children’s autonomy in self-regulation of food intake.

This can be a lot easier said than done, so give yourself grace through the process. Trying something different than what you are used to can feel counter-intuitive at first. When you catch yourself wanting to say something to your child about how or what they’re eating, remember that they can be trusted to know exactly how much they need to eat without any interference on our part.

It’s our job to focus on:

- What we are feeding our children

- Where we are feeding our children, and

- When we are feeding our children

It’s up to our child to know:

- Whether or not they want to eat, and

- How much food they want to it

When we stick to our feeding responsibilities and allow our children to do their part with theirs, we are creating the foundation for a positive feeding relationship between us and our child. It is from this relationship that our children will grow up to be healthy individuals, free from lifelong problems that can stem from a chaotic relationship with food and poor body image.

So only one question remains: when will you opt-out from the ‘Clean Your Plate’ Club, and how will you write a different story for your kids?

There is a better way, and you can choose to do differently for you and your family.