Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum

Because I'm the Mom

Stop Forcing My Daughter To Eat!

Weapon of body mass destruction

Posted Jun 30, 2009

The tyranny of the Clean-Plate Club. Here's the note I must write, as I did yet again this morning, and tuck into my daughter's lunchbox, every single time she starts school, camp or any place new where people force her to finish all of her food:

Dear (teacher, day-camp counselor, somebody with enough training to know better):
Thank you for taking such good care of Leah. This is her lunch/snack. The rule in our household is that Leah decides how much food she wants to eat. She mentioned today that at lunch/snack-time you required that she "must eat everything" in her lunchbox/bag. That is not a rule we are comfortable with. In following all of the most thoughtful and current research on kids' healthy eating habits, relationship with food, and causes of obesity, we want to be sure that Leah listens to her body to decide how much food she eats and when she is full. Pushing her to eat beyond her natural hunger is not okay with us. If she comes home with food in her lunchbox/bag, we're okay with that. Thanks so much for helping us keep Leah healthy and happy!
Leah's Mom

P.S.: Here are some resources you might want to explore on this topic:
The 'Clean Plate Club' May Turn Children Into Overeaters
ScienceDaily (Mar. 9, 2009) - "Finish your broccoli!" Although parents may have good intentions about forcing their kids to eat cold, mushy vegetables, this approach may backfire the very next day, according to new research from Cornell University.........
For more, see: Wansink et al. Consequences of Belonging to the "Clean Plate Club". Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2008; 162 (10): 994 DOI: 10.1001/archpedi.162.10.994
Cornell Food & Brand Lab (2009, March 9). The 'Clean Plate Club' May Turn Children Into Overeaters. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from

I should say up front that my daughter is a strong, healthy, active, athletic, vibrant kid who is fabulously tall and well proportioned. Her teachers and counselors are not forcing her into the "clean plate club" because they think she needs the nutrition. It's a constellation of beliefs. The odd thing is the wide range of people who try to make her eat. It defies age, class, race, cultural, geography. I have had to tell people to stop forcing my daughter to finish her meal or snack in Boston, Chicago, Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles; I have had this exact conversation with a middle-aged kindergarten teacher from Haiti to a teenaged camp counselor.

This is what I know: I have made my fair share of lousy parenting decisions, no doubt. But one of those decisions I made early on is one of the greatest sources of pride for me - and the fruits of that decision continue to be a great source of health and well-being for my daughter:

I do not get between my daughter and her relationship with food. Frankly, I have ROCKED this particular parenting (so often Mothering) minefield. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if there were a MacArthur Genius Grant for staying out of your daughter's way so she could have a healthy, attuned relationship with food, well, I would get it hands down.


We're at a restaurant with another family. The kids are restless and goofing off. The parents of the other child threaten Leah and their kid: "If you don't stop playing around and start using restaurant behavior, you won't get dessert."

Stunned, my daughter replies: "In our family, food is not a reward or a punishment. It's fuel for your body." (Okay, so then she got all smirky at the other kid because she was figuring she was getting desert and he wasn't....and I was getting all smirky because my kid just demonstrated my most brilliant parenting victory to date. And I knew I, too, was getting dessert.)

More proof?

She eats until she is full, a sensation she actually understands and recognizes. She doesn't crave sweets, demand or fetishize foods. She will try anything, and if she doesn't like it, she says, "No thanks, Mama, it's not to my style."

She thinks "diet" means "what you eat." She doesn't associate foods with any moral judgment or self worth or self loathing or her identity, her self-esteem, her right to take up space on this planet and how much. Food is not "good" nor "bad" but "healthy" or "not so healthy." Starving, restrictive eating, or dieting, do not mean being "good" to her; eating crap or eating too much or eating at all are not "being bad." No foods are off limits, but she is an active participant in making good choices. We have a rule I worried about creating: Fast food once per month. She remembers it at airports and cashes it in, but often goes months either forgetting entirely or just not being interested.

I have definitely blown it with soda. Total restriction. She's had it at friends' houses, birthday parties, but never with me. So I know I'm sunk there. But she doesn't associate it with weight, only that it is filled with "sugar that rots my teeth and chemicals that rot my brain."

In kindergarten, when she had to write a list of her favorite things, on the line for favorite foods, she wrote: "octopus, sardines, avocado, smoked gouda cheese."

It was also in kindergarten that she had two wonderful teachers, both from Haiti, who demanded she eat everything in her lunchbox. I didn't want to give her skimpy lunches. When I talked with the lead teacher about it she was clear. She grew up seeing folks starving, and nobody was going to waste food in her presence. It was the gorgeous cross-cultural moment for conversation. The teacher and I had a great relationship and we laughed and cried and talked and talked. I shared my experience of having food as a weapon of mass destruction and how I really wanted Leah to be able to read her body's cues and stop eating when full. We talked with Leah about it and made some good decisions that included more mindfulness of waste.

At one beloved friend's house, the parents are fanatical clean platers. When Leah told me this I suggested she take only a little bit of food at first and then go for seconds if it's not enough. The parents put the food on the plate, she lamented. We strategized about - and even role-played-the conversation she might have with the parents, saying she only wanted a little bit first to be sure she could finish. I asked if she wanted me to talk with the parents.

She was emphatic that I not get involved.

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