The Lunch Box Note: Don't Tell My Kid to Eat

Hey, Grown-ups: Don't force my kid to finish her lunch. Her body—her choice.

Posted May 24, 2013

Stop Forcing My Kid To Eat! The Clean Plate Club is a Weapon of Body Mass Destruction

Forcing Kids to Eat Causes Obesity 

As school ends and we gear up for the first days of summer -- and summer camp -- I'm reminded it's time to write The Lunch Box Note.

I've written it at the start of my daughter's summer camp and school year forever. In a couple of weeks I will write it again, place it inside her lunchbox for her to use in case she must defend herself against the tyranny of the Clean Plate Club.

It continues to amaze me that no matter how old she gets, no matter how much evidence is available, there is always someone pushing her to eat beyond what her body is telling her it wants.

My daughter is an incredibly healthy, adventurous and varied eater. She knows how to eat healthy; she knows what to eat and what not to eat. She enjoys eating healthy food and is utterly competent to make those decisions on her own. I pack her a healthy lunch and she decides how much of it to eat. That is our deal and it has worked well.

If only everyone else would mind their own beeswax.

But they don't. So I must write The Lunch Box Note.

Every single time she starts school, camp or any place new where people in charge feel compelled to force her to finish all of her food, I write this note as a pre-emptive strike against those who try to force her to eat.

"Dear (teacher, day-camp counselor, somebody with enough training to know better):

Thank you for taking such good care of my daughter. This is her lunch/snack. The rule in our household is that she 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 our daughter 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 her healthy and happy!"

I then include this article from ScienceDaily:

The 'Clean Plate Club' May Turn Children Into Overeaters

ScienceDaily — "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.

"We found that the more controlling the parents were about telling their child to clean their plate, the more likely the kids, especially the boys, were to request larger portions of sweetened cereal at daycare," says lead author Brian Wansink at the keynote address of the Carolinas HealthCare System Obesity 2009 Conference in Charlotte, NC on Friday." 

And this article: Forcing Kids to Eat Can Result in Fat Adults

How to Help Kids Eat Healthy Foods and Make Healthy Choices 

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.

How to Eat Healthy: Eating Right by Thinking Right

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 and her body, 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 my daughter and their child: "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."

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."

What's the Secret to Kids and Food?

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, self-confidence, 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 unhealthy 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 rarely 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 told her teacher to write down: "octopus, sardines, avocado, smoked gouda cheese." I kid you not. We were living next door to Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., what do you expect? 

When we went back to Oregon she revised her favorite-foods list: "Smoked salmon, blueberries and boysenberries that I picked,' cheddar cheese made in Oregon, Izzy's All-U-Can-Eat pizza."

Food and Hunger

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 but I didn't want her force-fed either. When I talked with the teacher about it she was clear. She grew up seeing people starving, and nobody was going to waste food in her presence. It was a gorgeous cross-cultural moment for conversation. The teacher and I had a great relationship and we laughed and cried and talked and talked our way through the conflict and into resolution.

I shared my experience of having food as a weapon and a force for control and negativity. I explained how I really wanted my daughter to be able to read her body's cues and stop eating when full. We talked with my daughter about it and made some good decisions that included more mindfulness of waste.

At one friend's house, the parents were fanatical clean platers. My daughter told me  when she had dinner there she had to eat until she felt sick. When my daughter 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 of food at 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. "It's my decision. It's my body," she said.

It certainly is.

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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