Making Children Clear Their Plates May Cause Eating Disorders Or Why I Hate Minced Beef

Did the way your parents made you behave during mealtimes affect you later in life? DISCUSS.
Publish date:
August 6, 2013
food, eating disorders, nutrition, problems

As a teeny weeny baby child, I was a bit of a nightmare, food-wise. I had an intolerance to dairy which kindly manifested itself in Exorcist-style projectile vomiting, and despite switching to soya products, I suffered from colic a lot. I was a little screwed-up ball of screams, and it must have been a relief when I was finally old enough to start chowing down on solids.

From what I gather, I was a little piggy with a very healthy appetite -- a lot of photos of me from way-back-when feature me with a Gremlin-style grin, mucky little paws clutching a sticky bar of something, most of it all over my face.

Some of my earliest food memories are not happy ones, though. It's funny that, how 100 happy mealtimes can be forgotten, yet the film of gravy on the roof of my mouth is a big thing. As an older child, I became pickier and pickier -- a parent's nightmare. I would often refuse things, I would turn my nose up at mealtimes and I would poke and prod and move things around my plate.

The most furious of my hatred was reserved for two things -- sausages and minced beef. Shepherd's Pie, that staple midweek British dinner, was a regular occurrence in our house and I HATED IT. It would mock me from my plate.

My friend Nikki would often come over for dinner and my Mum would make us this very dinner, such a treat for many! Such a delight! Nikki, my younger sister and I would sit up to the table, my sister happily playing with her food. When my Mum left the room, Nikki and I would spoon all of our dinner onto my sister's plate and she would happily eat all three portions without even really knowing what was going on, gravy smeared all over her chubby little chops.

Mum would be none the wiser, Nikki and I would sit there with our empty plates, beaming away. We knew that clear plates were the only way to leave the table.

On days when Mum and Dad sat to the table with us, I wasn't able to deviously scrape my mash and mince onto my cheery little sibling's plate, so I sat and poked and moved it around, picking out the peas and carrots and making all the right noises. Of course, my parents weren't complete idiots and could tell that me patting my tummy and sighing "Mmmmmm! Yummy!" while eating approximately 1/10th of my dinner wasn't going to make me grow big and strong. I had school to go to! I needed to eat my five-a-day! I had PLANETS TO CONQUER, MAN.

My parent's tactic to make me eat all of my dinner was to not allow me to leave the table until I had done so. I would sit there, up to the table on my own, furiously stabbing bits of cold potato and crying like a little brat. I can remember gagging while trying to force down cold, grainy minced beef. I can also remember carving "I HATE YOU" into the wooden dinner table with my knife. God, kids are horrible.

As a result, I now cannot abide minced beef in any form. Lasagna makes me gag. Apart from the cheese, because it's cheese and anything cheesy is the Holy Grail. Mousakka? HELL NO. Spaghetti Bolognese? Hold the bolognese, just hand me the parmesan. But hey, my parents were only doing what they thought best for me and for my healthy development. And a hatred for minced beef and sausages isn't all that bad in the grand scheme of things. I just avoid hot dogs. There are plenty of other things to eat.

At school, we were never allowed to leave the dinner hall until all of our packed lunches were gone -- I remember classmates hiding peanut butter sandwiches in the waistbands of their uniforms, desperate to go out and play. This tactic of making children eat everything on their plate is age-old, an evolutionary parenting technique that was born of a time when food was not readily available and the next meal time was never guaranteed. But this "rule" is out of date in most food-plenty societies -- and research shows that these practices of forcing clear plates "negatively affect food regulation skills as children age."

Maryann Jacobsen of the Motherlode blog adds that "pushing food is not always about getting children to eat more — it’s also about the quest to get them to eat healthy. For example, caregivers may insist children eat fruits and veggies before other items, or reward children with dessert for eating more healthy food.

Unfortunately, this strategy makes children less likely to (intrinsically) prefer healthy foods while making sweets even more desirable. And with all the negotiations at the table, children lose sight of their internal signals of hunger and fullness. By the time they are adults, the “shoulds” of eating rule over their body’s own wisdom and they don’t even know what being “full” means." I am sure most of us can agree that often the lure of dessert is what prompted us to eat all of our broccoli as children.

So, let's discuss. If you're a parent, how do you deal with the minefield that is trying to get your children to eat healthily during mealtimes? And as an adult, do you have any quirks with food that you put down to the way your parents managed mealtimes? Not long ago I read about a 17-year-old girl who has lived solely on chicken nuggets since she was TWO! I think I'd actually prefer to eat cold Shepherd's Pie.

Usually tweeting pictures of kittens in socks: @Natalie_KateM