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Keep the kids out of The Clean Plate Club

I like to cook and I like to eat.

When I was growing up in rural Malaysia, my mother instructed us to “clean our plates.” She didn’t have to say it much as there wasn’t an overabundance of food to go languishing with 10 hungry children to feed.

What I remember most clearly is eating my favorite first and saving the least tasty for last. That came to me at an early age, after my oldest brother, who is 21 years older, stole a treasured piece of chicken out of my bowl.

Here in this country, I hear parents say, “Eat your veggies” over and over. And over. My mother didn’t say that at all. We ate mostly veggies, and we ate them or went hungry.

It was after my own two children were grown that I overheard them laughing about having grown up as members of the “Clean Plate Club.” I don’t remember having to beg, trick, scare, humor or bribe them. They ate what was served and enjoyed it. And emptied their plates. So, what were they laughing about? What’s so funny? Something must have happened. Something must have changed.

Recently studies were conducted at Cornell University on whether “Clean Plate Club” kids have better eating habits away from home. Moms and dads of 63 kids filled out a survey that asked them how regularly they insisted on a clean plate. Some parents did this all the time, while others were basically saying, “Eat however much you want.”

Before the boys and girls showed up the next day, the researchers rigged their room with invisible scales embedded in the tables and hidden cameras that were operated by researchers with stopwatches and hand counters. While the kids poured their sugary cereal for breakfast and pawed at the dessert tray, the researchers weighed what they poured and counted what they took.

The kids whose parents insisted they finish their food at home gorged on twice as much presweetened cereal (47 grams versus 22) and took about one more dessert than those from the more laid-back households.

Talking to the kids afterwards, researchers found: When children have parents controlling how much they eat at home, they go wild elsewhere.

After reading about the Cornell study, I think I can better appreciate my son and his wife’s laissez-faire approach to my one-year-old grandson Mason’s feeding style. They place a variety of finger foods on his high-chair tray: avocado, strawberries, watermelon, mac and cheese, etc. Mason eats what he wants, feeds some to Bear, the family dog (and also Mason Bear’s namesake). When he’s done, with one sweep of his hand, everything still on the tray ends up on the floor.

His parents will ask, “Have you had enough?” He responds by arching his back and pushing himself away from the tray. That means “yes” and “let me down.” Once he’s down, the two Bears work on the food that’s on the floor.

I am sure that my grandson, being raised to have full control over how much he wants to eat, will not go hog wild over food when he is elsewhere. (Additionally, Mason is getting a jump start on building up his body’s defense mechanism).

Essentially, the Cornell finding is that when children have no internal control over their food at home, they act like it’s the last time they’ll ever see food when they eat elsewhere.

So, mandatory membership in the “Clean Plate Club” may not have as much benefit as their well-meaning parents are hoping for.

Benedictus benedicat.

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