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Should Parents Force Their Children to Eat When They Don't?

by Maggie McCormick

When your child doesn't eat the healthy meal you've set before him, it seems so wasteful to just throw it away. You might recall your own parents forcing you to clean your plate because of "starving kids in Africa" or serving you the same plate of liver and lima beans for every meal until you ate it. Times have changed, though, and experts generally say that forcing your child to eat when he doesn't is a bad idea, according to HealthyChildren.org, the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Cleaning the Plate

You may think that encouraging your child to clean her plate teaches her respect and the importance of not wasting food. While understandable, what it can also do is teach her to ignore her body's signals of fullness, a problem that can lead to obesity later in life, according to child development experts at the Kids Health website. If you're worried about wasting food, serve small portions so that you can easily save the leftover food still in the pan. If your child wants seconds, it's easy enough to get more.

Trying New Foods

Many children are reluctant to try new foods and will reject these when they show up on their plates. You might find success with a "one-bite rule," where your child has to try at least one bite of the new food and if he doesn't like it, he doesn't have to finish the serving. If even that presents a challenge, try serving the food in different ways that might be more kid-friendly, such as with a dip or covered with cheese. You don't have to make a big deal out of it. As long as you keep presenting the food, there's a chance he'll try it.

Avoiding Short Order Cook Syndrome

If your child doesn't like the food on her plate, she may start requesting a special meal. Avoid falling into a "short order cook" trap. Serve at least one food that you know she'll eat at each meal, even if there are other "yucky" foods on the plate. Refuse to make a new meal for her once the family sits down to eat. If she doesn't want to eat what you've served her, she can wait until the next meal or snack time. The hunger she feels during this time may encourage her to eat up next time.

Strategies to Encourage Eating

Set standard times for meals so that your child always knows when he'll eat again. If he knows you won't give him a bowl of his favorite cereal only 30 minutes after he refused to eat lunch, he might be more inclined to eat some of the lunch. Sneak healthy foods into his diet by blending them in a fruit smoothie or or into spaghetti sauce. Most importantly, don't fret if your child isn't eating. Some children simply go through stages. He won't starve himself to death.

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