It’s Time to Ditch the Happy Plate

Tim Regan
Tim Regan

By Janaya Greene (Intern 2015)

I remember anxiously waiting for my sister and my parents to arrive at the dinner table when I was about five years old. After a long day of school and an unpleasant school lunch, I was overwhelmingly excited to eat a home-cooked meal. But that excitement turned to dread when my stomach seemed to reach capacity and I still had food left on my plate.

More often than not, my father would tell me that I needed to finish all of my food because there were people who could not afford consistent meals, and others who could not afford to buy food at all. While this was a legitimate concern, it was not, and is not, justifiable reasoning for making me feel that I should continue to eat when I felt like I wanted to stop. Controlling how much children eat without their consent can be the start of children developing skewed and unhealthy relationships with food that can follow them into adulthood.

The “Happy Plate,” a phrase that describes a plate with all food eaten from it, is usually used with more good intentions than bad. Most parents don’t want their children to eat junk food to be full, so they encourage their children to make a Happy Plate, ensuring they’ve eaten a well-rounded and nutrient-rich meal. Most importantly, parents just want to be sure their children are adequately fed. But sometimes these good intentions can lead to unintentional negative outcomes.

According to family nutritionist and dietician Maryann Jacobsen, parents controlling how much their children eat can have adverse effects. It encourages children to ignore the signals that their bodies give them when they are full. Many people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, anorexia athletica, or binge eating disorder feel like they have little to no control over what they eat and how much they consume. Instructing children on how they can interact with food at such an early age of development can increase the likelihood that they develop eating disorders that could affect their relationship with food for the rest of their lives.

It wasn’t until a semester into my first year at college that I realized how making a Happy Plate as a child played into my relationship with food as an adult. Like many first-year college students, the freshman fifteen hit me and I hadn’t realized it until mid-semester of my first academic year. Aside from feeling shocked at how my slight body changes seemed to sneak up on me, I felt trapped. My mentality was that college food was unhealthier than home-cooked meals, so gaining weight was something that I had to accept unless I dug into my finite pockets to buy food and cook for myself. But the food itself wasn’t the cause — there was something else affecting my food choices.

It did not occur to me that I was still making a Happy Plate until I began to analyze how and why my eating habits were making me feel cornered. I noticed how every time I ate, I made it a goal to finish all of my meal. This may sound like a natural thing to do, but I would continue to eat despite feeling full. Now, don’t get me wrong. Eating when you’re full is perfectly normal from time to time, and it is a part of the human experience. I mean, who doesn’t love a few Oreos after a hefty dinner? But it had become instinctive, and I couldn’t even recognize it. After asking myself why I always felt obligated to completely finish my meals, I had a flashback to my parents telling me that I had to.

Research studies at the University of Minnesota suggest that people who eat intuitively are not only less likely to binge-eat, they have fewer cases of eating disorders and disordered eating habits. Unlike my eating habits in college, intuitive eating is eating based on responding to bodily signals like feeling hungry and feeling full. Intuitive eaters usually stop eating when their bodies tells them they have eaten enough food to satisfy their hunger — something I was not doing. I can’t help but think that if I had more control over how and what I wanted to eat as a child, I could have been an intuitive eater my first year at university.

Though old habits do die hard, the good news is that they can be broken. A great way to promote children developing healthier relationships with food is to give them more control. One way to do this is to allow children to decide how much they want to eat. This way, they can determine how much is too much and how much is too little. Another way is to stick to consistent meal times and snack times. By keeping an organized eating schedule, children will be encouraged to make food decisions that are to their liking (likely through trial and error) so they won’t be hungry before their next meal or snack. Lastly, do not reward children for finishing their meals. Everyone’s body is different, and two children may have two different levels of hunger at a specific point in time. No one child deserves more praise than another for doing a natural thing like eating.

Most parents wouldn’t want their children in charge of what they eat, as lollipops and ice cream would likely be the primary foods of choice. But ditching the Happy Plate may not be such a bad thing after all. Allowing kids to choose from an array of foods (with some parental guidance) while letting them choose how much they want to eat could help children develop a healthy relationship with food that can last into adulthood.