As a child, my parents always made me finish my food even if I was already full. Food definitely isn't wasted this way, but overeating is not good either.

What would be the advantages and disadvantages of making/forcing a child to finish their food even if they are already full?

For the sake of this question, disregard the child's food preference (i.e. he doesn't not finish his food just because he doesn't like the food)

  • 14
    There seems to be many variables here. Does the child control how much food gets put on his or her plate in the first place? Is the child really full from the food, or was he or she eating junk just before? What kind of consequences does failure to finish the food entail?
    – user7953
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 7:46
  • 10
    I would worry a bit about food being considered a 'discipline' issue.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 12:02
  • 4
    I'm glad this question is asking if it's appropriate, and not immediately assuming that it is.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 15:35
  • 4
    How old is this example child?
    – Jason C
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 18:18
  • 4
    I see only two cases when this might be acceptable: 1: if THEY (the child) added more food than they can eat, as a reminder to not over-estimate how much they intend to eat, but even then you don't to force-feed them. 2: if they ASK for dessert/etc. before they are finished with their plate. There is a 3rd case, which is where the child may not be able to eat in the future, but I find this unacceptable and should not be "fixed" by force-feeding them. Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 16:14

6 Answers 6


Advantages.... None

Disadvantages... It creates unnecessary conflict with the child, and it compromises the child's natural ability to self-regulate food intake based on nutrition requirements. As long as children are offered healthy food (no junk food) they will naturally eat what they need and no more. Forcing them to finish their plate can potentially lead to eating disorders, and/or obesity later in life. It teaches the child that they should eat food because it is there, not because they need it.

This notion that it prevents food from being wasted is complete nonsense. If the child is eating more than they require, then the food is wasted anyway, as the body can't effectively use it. It either stores it as fat, or simply passes it through not properly digested.

  • 26
    "I know you're full but I've put too much food on your plate and if you don't finish it it makes me look bad, so please force yourself to eat the unwanted excess...putting it in the fridge is too much like hard work".
    – user11347
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 10:45
  • 10
    Outside the scope of the original question, but this is not a great answer if the child is very fussy. They may then not eat "what they need and no more", which complicates the issue somewhat.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 12:11
  • 12
    I'd say if its rice or potatoes are what left then its ok but if it's only broccoli is what's left in plate then that vegetable needs to be stuffed in even if there is "no space". Because if dessert was offered the stomach would definitely find some free space for it.
    – Ski
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 14:35
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    Self-regulatory function of food intake of body is a joke. It hardly ever makes you crave for proteins. It does however make you crave for sweets even though you don't need them and even though you already had plenty of it. The self regulatory function is the first thing which if not put under control will give you diabetes.
    – Ski
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 14:43
  • 10
    I generally agree with you, but the Advantages: none gets a downvote from me. If you're not going to consider both sides - and you're free not to - simply leave that out, or if you truly believe there are no advantages, take up the various reasons people do it and explicitly argue them.
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 18:49

This is what my mother did with us (it wouldn't work with very young children; I can't recall what she did then):

We were never served food. It came to the table in whatever pot it was cooked in, and placed on a block of wood (to avoid burning the table). We then served ourselves out of that pot (or those pots, pans, whatever, depending on what the food was). And we were encouraged to take small helpings: take a large helping, and half the food is cold before you eat it; take a small helping, and when you go back for seconds the food in the pot is still warm.

To sum up:

You help yourself to a small amount. You then eat it. You are then free to come back for seconds. And thirds. Fourths too, sometimes. But you always clear your plate.

Benefit: Any leftovers are still in the pot, not scraped off a plate, so everyone's happy when they turn up again at the next meal. No food is wasted.

Other benefit: You learn to judge how hungry you are, and to serve yourself an appropriate portion size.

Worked for us.

  • 3
    +1 for practicality and not sticking to stupid preconceived notions for their own sake. Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 23:34
  • Hmm, not up or downvoting, but from a psychological point of view I would expect (not saying it is necessarily so) that you would eat on average more if you eat a lot of small portions. It could however well be that that only applies to people who are used to eating in big portions. Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 23:48
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    +1, it's perfectly cool in cultures where wasting food is frowned upon. It adds the message "feed only to keep you healthy" to "dont waste food". And nobody would eat a stomachful of stale sweets (or flat soda) because they feel guilty of "wasting" it; yes I've seen slim roommates impose it to the overweight one. Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 7:06
  • I like this for a lot of reasons and think I'm going to start doing this at my house. Doesn't work as well with hot dogs or other pre-sized servings, but that's not our mainstay anyway.
    – Acire
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 16:21
  • +1 I'd also like to note that a lot of animals also only kill what they intend to eat, so this is optimal behaviour for more than just humans.
    – Pharap
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 0:53

It's quite easy to find information on this study. The gist of it is that if you force to your child to eat everything on their plate, they are more likely to become obese as an adult. That's messed up, so... please don't do this to your child.

"New findings have shown that pushing children to eat everything on their plate has a direct link to obesity. The University of Minnesota has published a study that shows this forced eating can be linked to unhealthy eating habits when the child gets to adulthood. Interestingly, while these kids may be at a normal weight at the time, this changes later in life." - http://www.dietsinreview.com/diet_column/04/forcing-kids-to-clean-their-plate-may-cause-obesity-study-suggests/#18YHSxWgA2Pqu83z.99

  • 4
    This was something that came in with rationing in WWII. Before that it was courteous to leave food on your plate (you are too generous!). Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 18:46
  • @TheWanderingDevManager Wow I looked into this and apparently there was something called the "Clean Plate Club" in the 1940s. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_Plate_Club Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 16:03
  • @m-dudley - And at the same time science was being tasked with making more food, with more nutrients(or even calories) that last longer, then teach us to always clear the plate. No wonder we have an obesity crisis in the first world... Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 16:27

The reason "for", generally, is grounded in a largely depression-era concern that you may not have enough nutrition/calories in the future. Literally, you need to eat it or you might starve. That was a concern in the 30s, and people raised then often took that to heart and kept it in the 50s and 60s when they were having kids.

That said, there is an additional issue worth addressing. Kids often prefer not to eat dinner, because:

  • They want to play
  • They want to have dessert
  • They don't want to try new things

All of those things are important, and need to be addressed as separate issues (which we have many questions about). "You must finish your whole meal" isn't likely the right answer, though; see the other answers for some links to studies specifically covering why not.

We have two well-built children (neither fat nor slender, and height-wise in the 80-90th percentile for their age). We mostly don't worry about how much they eat, unless there is a dessert; in that case we enforce minimums, but fairly low minimums - on the principle (which we tell them) that if they're not hungry at all, they shouldn't have the dessert either.

It's not optimal, but we don't want them skipping all of the nutritious food. It almost never needs to be done, though, because we a) give them food that tastes good, and b) have worked to teach them why they eat dinner. We also require them to be at the dinner table for the duration of the meal, regardless of how much they eat, which sometimes can be a struggle, but works out okay for us.

  • +1 for the comments about dessert, and that you don't want them skipping all of the nutritious food. Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 21:08

We had significant battles with both of our children (still ongoing with our 2 year old) over eating more, and we've had to force the issue on occasion. A couple points to keep in mind:

  1. Our children are both built very slender, and they are considered under weight. We've been encouraged by their doctor to do what we can to get more calories into them (and if we allow them to stop early sometimes, they usually complain of being hungry later)
  2. Even with that, we have never forced them to "clear their plate". The amount of food on their plate is an arbitrary measure compared to the amount of nutrition that their body needs to function properly.

So, the "pro" to making your child eat more is that sometimes you know more than your child what is actually good for their body, but you shouldn't necessarily assume that unless you've been given advice by your doctor.

The "con" is pretty much everything else. There's no reason to force a child to eat if they've gotten enough nutrition and they are full.

  • Depends what you mean by "force the issue". Hoping you don't mean literally force-feeding. "Force-feeding includes a spectrum of methods to get children to eat against their will. Tactics range from restraining the child's arms, forcing the spoon/food onto the lips or into the mouth, feeding while the child is sleeping, to tricking a child to open his/her mouth. In such cases, children don't have the opportunity to assess their hunger to guide their feeding choices." parkhurstexchange.com/clinical-reviews/ud_08_vol14
    – A E
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 20:02
  • "The problem with force-feeding is that it ultimately leads to unhealthy food habits. Findings from a study in which over 100 individuals who had been force-fed as kids were interviewed revealed the psychological damage that force-feeding inflicts on kids. Despite the fact that it had been more than 20 years since these individuals had been force-fed—they were adults when the study was conducted—they could distinctly recall the emotional pain." psychologytoday.com/blog/sapient-nature/201403/…
    – A E
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 20:14
  • 4
    I understand both of your points, and don't disagree. It's an extremely delicate issue and we treat it as such. The lack of true brute force (in this and so many other areas of dealing with a 2 year old) is part of what makes this a true battle and not just a "disagreement". The situation, also, might not be what you're thinking... our son tells us he's hungry, unprompted, when it's dinner time, he sits down, takes one bite and then wants to be done with dinner. Regardless, I appreciate your concern but I think we're OK.
    – Jason
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 21:02
  • That's all right then. :)
    – A E
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 9:17

You will have disputes with your children. That's inevitable, so you should avoid creating them when unnecessary.

I often ask myself "Is this a fight worth winning?" If the answer is no, I don't make it an issue. I think "cleaning your plate" is such a case.

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