Like many young children, my 4.5 year old daughter will often stop eating her supper (6 PMish - she has breakfast and lunch at daycare) and say she's not hungry. My instinctive initial response is to insist in some fashion because that's what my parents always did. The assumption seems to be along the lines that they're just being picky or distracted, and will get hungry later, and that they need to learn to eat on a schedule.

But regardless of whether she'll be hungry 3 hours later, what if she really isn't hungry now - aren't I doing her a disservice in her development by ingraining the idea that she should keep eating when she's not hungry? What should I do, just a gentle reminder that this will be her last meal of the night?

  • 5
    Sounds like a fight you might win, but and a cost not worth paying for a dubious payoff. Is she eating a healthy range of foods throughout the day? If so, I think you've already won the important fight. If not, when she eats isn't what you've got to fix.
    – Marc
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 17:46
  • 1
    I'm a brand new parent, so I don't have any experience here... but why not just take her at her word, put some foil or plastic wrap over it, and stick it in the fridge? She can eat it later if she's hungry. Is that bad for kids?
    – Patrick87
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 22:08
  • 6pm she stops eating supper, and is hungry 3 hours later. At 4 years old, when is her bedtime? By these numbers, it's 9pm? That doesn't seem right.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 2:17
  • 1
    This is a comment because I don't think it's detailed enough to be worth being an answer: It's better for them to take too little and get more later than to take too much and waste food. Give them a bit less when you give them food. If they're hungry, they will ask for more, and you should give it to them.
    – user7729
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 13:13
  • 2
    @Patrick87 I would have thought that when I was a new parent too - but when they get to 3-4 you find out they're completely insane and their opinion is not to be trusted. "I'm hungry", "Ok, go finish your dinner", "I'm not hungry". Not to mention the crisis of <tuck in> "good night I love you".... "i'm huuuuunnnngrryyyy". Agh, you should have finished your dinner, or are you just saying that to stay up longer, I'm losing my mind, arghhhhhhh!!!!
    – Jim W
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 21:21

13 Answers 13


A slightly more scientific perspective.

A study done called 'You Will Eat All of That! (A retrospective analysis of forced consumption episodes)' found that pressuring children into finishing their food may lower their natural appetite (perhaps because they're being told when and how much to eat, rather than learning naturally).

Other studies have also found that it may lead to over-eating in adulthood (as you may be encouraging them to eat after they've stopped being hungry), and that it may actually inhibit their growth.

You might also find it helpful to know that another study named ''Finish your soup’: Counterproductive effects of pressuring children to eat on intake and affect' found that in children who were pressured into eating certain foods (e.g. vegetables), those children were more likely to gain an aversion to those foods that lasted into adulthood.

This blog post has an overview on the topic, but he's an excerpt from the end: (emphasis added by me)

As a parent, you naturally feel anxious if your child is doing something that you think is unhealthy, like not eating "enough." Reassure yourself that in all but the rarest of cases, children will eat enough food to survive and be healthy.

Notice the times when you feel tempted to pressure your child to eat. Relax, take a deep breath, smile, and say to yourself "Oh well. His brain knows how much he needs to eat." Then go do something else to distract yourself. The following behaviors are perfectly normal! Don't get scared into pressuring your child to eat when he does them.

  • refusing to eat a meal
  • eating a lot of food for a few weeks, then eating practically nothing for the next few weeks
  • refusing to eat certain foods
  • eating less than a sibling, neighbor kid, or cousin
  • being so excited by toys and people that he doesn't finish his meal

To get your child to eat at mealtimes, try these techniques:

  • Sit down and eat the same food as your child.
  • Children often need to try a food many times before they like it. Feed your child healthy foods for each meal, and be patient in the knowledge that they will probably eventually like them.
  • If your child is easily distracted, you can gently call his attention back to his food. Do this only occasionally, so that he does not feel pestered, and only do it when he's first starting his meal, so that he does not eat when he is no longer hungry.
  • Don't worry.

You might also want to consider why you are pressuring your child to finish. Did her supper take a lot of work, and perhaps you don't want to see it wasted? Perhaps you should prepare lighter suppers in the future. Are you worried that they will snack later? Why not buy some healthy snacks, like apples, breakfast bars, or healthy crisps. Or, if you're worried about a snacking habit developing, perhaps you need to move around your dinner times a bit to suit your child's appetite?

Try to consider these things from your child's perspective, and remember they aren't intentionally trying to waste food or annoy you. Best of luck!

  • 1
    It's not just children who often need to try a food many times before they like it...
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 22:30
  • 2
    Me: real proof that being told I had to finish my asparagus made me hate it as an adult. I can't give any advice on how to raise kids, only my perspective on how things like this influenced me when I was a kid. Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 3:51
  • +1 for links to multiple controlled studies. -1 for Elsevier. +1 for non-predatory journal links. -1 for PPV. +1 for effort. +1 net.
    – coburne
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 19:17
  • 2
    Our 'house rule' is that you sit with the family for dinner, and you take one bite. If you are not hungry, you have to sit with the family for some time (tailored to child's age), before you can be excused.
    – Ida
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 16:50

Another anecdote, from an Asian background. When I was growing up, we generally wouldn't have individual portions set out for us on our plates at mealtimes. All the food would be seen as "shared" food - it would be set out in the middle of the table, and we'd start off with a plate of rice (often dished out by negotiation) and help ourselves and others to the food with a focus on not taking more than you can eat (and also not being selfish and depriving others at the table). If you take it, you eat it. Once you put it on your plate, it's a commitment. Not wasting was strongly emphasised. But by helping yourself incrementally to shared food, you really self-regulate and aren't in the position where you have to eat it just because it's on your plate.

It should be noted that this wasn't consciously "taught" or anything - it was just how it was. It was initially surprising to go over to friends' places for dinner and find that your plate came pre-loaded (in my case, often with more than I could eat. I'd eat it anyway because I didn't want to waste it. But it felt like having to go through with a commitment that I didn't make). It was only in later life that I started actually thinking about these dinner differences - I found that shared food helped me realise my own eating limit, and I'm glad that this was a practice I grew up with.


Here's my $0.02:

  1. I assume that a healthy child knows when it is hungry and when it is not. Reasoning from there, it seems to me that talking kids into eating when they do not feel hungry does harm, as it would hinder this self-consideration to develop.

  2. However, I also assume that a healthy child at 4 is able to learn that there are meals and that meals come at certain times. If one of the children does not want to eat at the time of a meal, then that's fine with me. I will remind them how long it takes until the next meal, and if they insist they're not hungry, then I shrug it off.

    Of course, I will equally shrug off any complaints about them being hungry an hour later. I suggest they have an apple, and then that's it. Where I live kids aren't getting hungry to the point where any harm is done. Being a bit hungry for two or three hours is no harm.

  3. I also assume that children will have to learn to estimate how hungry they are. Therefore, I will usually suggest an amount of food to put on the kids' plates, but very soon (beginning around the age of 2) I took input from them about it. If they insist on having more than I suggested, against my recommendation even, then they will eat that. All of it. That doesn't mean I'll tie them to the chair until they've got it down somehow, but it means that there will be no other food for them until they're done. That might mean that a child which was stubborn might choke on the cold remains from a previous meal while we enjoy a piece of cake on Sunday afternoon.

  4. I insist that kids do not only consume proteins and carbohydrates, but also have a fitting amount of vitamins. Again, that does not mean a child has to eat lots of green beans if that child hates green beans. But with a piece of meat and potatoes come some vitamins. (If a child then decides it rather eats nothing, then, again, this is fine by me.)

  5. I only cook on weekends (the kids eat cooked food in kindergarten/school during the week), and we all together decide what we want to eat on the weekend (either at dinner on Friday or on Saturday morning, before I go shopping groceries). Being the one who cooks, I reserve the right to veto any decisions, but since the kids have very diverse opinions about what they want anyway (their ages span more than a decade), the whole idea of deciding together relies a lot on the reciprocate concern that none of the other will be too disappointed.

    Still, each of us will once in a while tell the others that, while we don't like some food, we will put up with it that day, because the others like it. Since I consider it very important that they learn to do this, I also step back sometimes and cook something I dislike.

    (Also, my oldest is now old enough to cook herself. Of course, if she cooks, she's got the right to veto, and I must not veto. And, of course, I will have to put up with what we agreed on and she cooks, even if I dislike it.)

I guess at the heart of all this is my assumption that a child will behave responsibly when it is expected to do so, given the freedom to have to decide on its own, and when it sees the others living up to such expectations. I try to retreat to the role of a consultant as much as possible as soon as possible. Of course, as every parent I do everything within my powers to prevent my children from permanent harm. However, I will not protect them from minor injuries (to the body or the soul) that result from them disregarding counsel.

In my experience, the result of taking children and their opinions serious at what the society around me considers a very early age for this results in them learning to seriously think about things for themselves and to listen to counsel.


Absolutely do not insist on finishing a meal, especially if you're the one who determined the portion size. Your child may be genuinely full, and you're going to feel horrible if she throws up as a result of you overstuffing her against her will. (It can happen! She probably won't know how to tell you if she is feeling ill.) It's pretty difficult for children to intentionally starve themselves. On average, they'll consume just the right amount.


  • If she just asked for a huge helping of seconds, against your advice to eat in moderation, then I'd give her a stern lecture about wasting food.
  • If she is just two bites short of finishing everything, encourage her to finish. In such cases, cleaning the plate is an issue of politeness, not of appetite. You won't be causing eating disorders with just two more bites.

My house rules:

  • Wrap up leftovers and set them aside. If she's hungry later, bring out the same food again. Otherwise, they'll say they're "not hungry" as a ploy to get something different to eat.
  • Corollary: If you're not hungry enough to finish dinner, you're not hungry enough to have dessert.

If there's a consistent pattern of being not hungry at standard mealtimes, adjust exercise and snacks as appropriate (including sugary drinks). Check with the daycare about the timing and content of their afternoon snack, if dinner is a problem.

  • "How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" - a wise philosopher whistles quietly to himself
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 2:14
  • @corsiKa Pink Floyd?
    – user7729
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 13:10
  • 8
    It seems like encouraging kids to "leave a clean plate" is probably not a good idea either, since a common problem with obesity is that people will eat their entire meal, even it's much larger than they need. Letting kids know that they don't have to do that might help. Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 19:30
  • 3
    @Brendan By "clean plate", I mean only one last spoonful or the last few crumbs. That's an issue of politeness, and has nothing to do with obesity. Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 19:59
  • 1
    dessert isn't a reward for finishing the meal, it is part of the meal. Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 14:28

I have this same problem. My stance on it is if they take the food they should eat all of it. Now if they are truly full then they shouldn't be hungry for a "meal" later that night. A bedtime snack (piece of fruit, some crackers, etc) I'm ok with but when she come to me and says I'm hungry and I ask what she wants and she asks for a second meal or I get her one of the items listed and then she asks for more that's when I stop.

So I've started telling the kids (6 & 9) if they don't eat their supper then no snacks later, it was to a point where we would eat dinner and no kidding an hour later they would ask for more food. That's when it became a problem to me.

I agree I don't want my kids to think just because there is food there they need to eat it but I also don't want their eyes to be bigger than the stomach. We eat out alot so it's hard to tell them only take what you can eat since it comes pre portioned but I will make sure they know to limit other intake like drinks which give a false sense of fullness or snacks right before dinner. Another thing I've found is they will order more than they can eat so before ordering I make sure it's a proper portion and we discuss why it's not if I don't think it's right portion.

My other take on it is as long as the doctor's aren't concerned and they are getting a balanced diet it will eventually even itself out. I don't want to start a bad habit on either side so it's one of those battles that I sometimes don't fight.

  • 5
    Personally, I don't eat just three times a day. I eat many more small meals. I don't think there's just one set of meal times that works.
    – Marc
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 21:17
  • +1 for "I don't want to start a bad habit on either side so it's one of those battles that I sometimes don't fight." Nothing like having mealtime discipline backfire spectacularly into an eating disorder when they're older.
    – Septagon
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 23:14
  • I have no problem with my daughters eating at a comfortable time. My issue is that eating too close to bed causes them 1) decreased appetite for breakfast the next day, making them cranky, and 2) keeps them up way past their bedtime again making them cranky. So I try to get them to eat at a regular time so they can get to bed at a regular time.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 2:13

I have three boys, 6 - 17 years of age. They are slim and fit, and we never make them eat. Ever. They have learned to self-regulate their intake. If hungry, they eat, if not, they don't. If they cannot finish, it's fine. They rarely take more food at the table. In-laws would negotiate and complain about them not finishing food. I put a stop to it. Basically, wanting to stop eating implies that self-regulation is working properly. Overriding it is a mistake.


Our policy has always been "stop eating when you're full". Three girls, all in excellent shape (soccer and gymnastics helps). If they leave food on their plate - well, I'm not entirely thrilled, but IMO better that than forcing them to eat just for the sake of a clean plate.

  • 2
    I think the problem is that in OPs case (and mine) our children stop eating before they're done, and then want to eat again later because they're hungry (or because they know it will postpone their bedtime...)
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 2:16

You absolutely should not. Obesity is epidemic in the western world. It's less of a waste to throw food out than to overeat with it, and a middle solution is to refrigerate or freeze it. Or give the food to the dog. (Not surprisingly, having a dog has been linked to living longer.)

I was overweight from ages 27 to 40, and it not only damaged my knees, but it put me at higher risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart attacks. It made it much harder to get a date as well. Prof. Walter Willett at Harvard has some good layman books about what you should eat, although if you're hard-core then you can read his medschool textbook.

If you want to save food then make sure your refrigerator has a thermometer in it (as is required for restaurants) and that the temperature is kept slightly above freezing.

Furthermore, on rare occasions a kid won't like some food because there is actually something wrong with it. I remember when I was 7 going to a restaurant and being ordered by my grandparents to finish a bowl of frosted flakes. My uncle noticed that it was very unusual for me to loose interest in frosted flakes, and so he smelled it. The milk was sour, but I had a bad cold at the time and couldn't smell/taste very well.

If someone ever tells your kid to eat up because of the people starving somewhere in the world then invite them to drink your bathwater: Indeed there are also people dying of thirst. Shouldn't we all feel guilty?

  • 1
    "Or give the food to the dog. (Not surprisingly, having a dog has been linked to living longer.)" - That would be funny if that was the connection and not the stress-relief that everybody assumes.
    – coburne
    Commented Jun 17, 2014 at 13:52

Having walked a long road with weight problems myself, I can attest that one of the core tenants of healthy eating habits is eating only until you are full.

So, no when a child is satisfied forcing him or her to continue eating is not healthy. It may promote a eating disorder. It may lead to an emotional attachment to eating, that may lead to weight problems in turn.

Do realise that if you are around the age of 40 then you may have grown up in an era of austerity measures and cold wars and the looming threat of communism.

Those eras of parents just operated under a lot more uncertainty. It just made parents feel better if they knew there children went into the world with a full stomach. Even if that stomach was a bit fuller than what was strictly necessary. That may not been unreasonable to be quite honest.


First a bit of anecdotal evidence :)

When I was young, I remember not wanting to eat some spaghetti my mum had made. When I adamantly refused, saying I wasn't hungry, she said ok and had me stand in the corner. It wasn't long before I got hungry.

I've read the answers here and I've got a different take. I know food's abundant in highly developed countries, which can give way to obesity and "aversion to foods" lasting until adulthood. Wow, what a luck society.

But what countries that cannot afford food on the table three times a day? While we throw out our vegetables, etc, these people would happily eat them.

My point is, the reason why your daughter (and everyone else!) should finish their plate, is because we shouldn't take food for granted. There are still people who can't enjoy the privileges we have and I think that's good enough a reason to clean a plate.

  • 1
    I have to disagree with your logic. Just because someone else does not have access to something does not mean I should use/consume/etc more than I need of that thing. Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 0:32
  • 5
    This seems to be more an argument for carefully anticipating what a needed/desired serving is.
    – Acire
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 1:45
  • I don't think you should turn your child's meal times into a penance for their supposed privilege. It serves no purpose at all. Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 14:24

As long as food is cheap and plentiful then there is no reason IMO to force a child to finish a meal. It just turns into a battle of wills and there isn't even a good reason for it.

My parents used to force me to finish all the food on the plate before i could leave the table, I remember sitting there for hours and there are types of food that I do not eat to this day, such as fish, because it just put me off.

My wife's mother did the same to her and she has struggled with eating disorders because of it.

In my house the rules are you can stop eating when you are full and you don't have to eat anything you don't like, but only if you properly try it first. We also keep a fruit bowl on the table in case of hunger between meals so they can help themselves to an apple or something.


I find this answer mostly pretty good, but want to add some things and directly answer all of your questions.

Should I really be insisting that my daughter finish eating her meal?


My instinctive initial response is to insist in some fashion because that's what my parents always did.

It's not an instinct as it isn't inborn. It's a bad cultural impulse.

The assumption seems to be along the lines that they're just being picky or distracted, and will get hungry later, and that they need to learn to eat on a schedule.

If they're "picky", that's their prerogative; so is getting hungry later. Why anyone would have to learn to eat on a schedule, I do not know. But if such a schedule really is a good idea, parents should have no problem persuading their children of that. Though our stomachs don't exactly keep track of the time...

But regardless of whether she'll be hungry 3 hours later, what if she really isn't hungry now - aren't I doing her a disservice in her development by ingraining the idea that she should keep eating when she's not hungry?


What should I do, just a gentle reminder that this will be her last meal of the night?

Why does it have to be her last meal? If you're not hungry at dinnertime but get hungry later that night, there wouldn't be some arbitrary rule preventing you from eating then. You'd just eat. This doesn't have to be complicated. You may not be able to cook an extravagant second dinner, but having ready-made food on hand, something that you can microwave, etc, would solve that problem.


Yes, your daughter should finish the meal.

  1. Food must be valued because it costs money and because living beings died - their deaths should at least be usefull to us. Sending food to trash sends a wrong message of waste and negligence.
  2. Mentally, to leave food in the plate is a failure, to finish the meal is a success, it is allways better to achive the goal.

The trick is to give only the amount of food that you are sure your daughter will eat. Then if she asks for more, give it to her, she will be proud of herself.

  • Wow honey, your 4th packet of Oreos, you're doing great, aren't you proud! I'm glad all those vegetables in the oil didn't die in vain, nor will the pig they need to kill to take the new artery for your bypass... Yeah right, you'll be using a sledgehammer to knock the bedroom wall out when the firemen lift her to hospital at the age of 17. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 13:32
  • @TheWanderingDevManager, in case that was not just a joke: I am not saying that children have to eat a lot (I even say "give only the food that you are sure your daughter will eat") neither they should have Oreos for lunch. Actually, I think that when children don't eat well - during the meals - most of the times after a short time they are hungry and then eating Oreos :) I have a very healthy well shaped daughter, so I am sure my advice is not going to send no children to hospitals.
    – dxvargas
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 15:02
  • Not just a joke. I have a 6 year old who is very picky and would gladly eat french fries and oreos and nothing else (he's only the fittest in the family as he spends is time playing soccer and doing karate). Luckily I'm intelligent enough to see a phrase like "give only the food that you are sure your daughter will eat. Then if she asks for more, give it to her" and not take it literally, but there are plenty where I live who would, you only need to see the other kids getting breakfast from coke and chips for breakfast. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 17:53
  • 1
    Oh, only now I understood the confusion. I ment "give only the AMOUNT of food that you are sure your daughter will eat. Then if she asks for more, give it to her"
    – dxvargas
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 18:38

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .