"Finish Your Plate or No Dessert!" - Rethinking Our Eating Habits

Intuitive eating
Weight loss
Healthy eating
Plate with orange and benedict egg

Does the phrase "Finish your plate or you won't get any dessert" sound familiar? Is it something you often heard from your parents, or maybe something you tell your children now? In my consultations, 9 out of 10 clients confess they always finish their plates at every meal. If you identify with this habit, rest assured, you're not alone. It's a practice rooted in many parental instincts - wanting to ensure their children get enough to eat, trying not to waste food, or insisting that all vegetables on the plate are eaten. The long-term impact of this habit, however, is often overlooked. Many children grow up with the ingrained idea that it's mandatory to finish our plates.

The Visual Cue of An Empty Plate

Over time, if this practice persists, the amount of food we need to consume becomes determined by a visual cue - our plate. However, predicting the exact amount of food you need to feel satisfied is challenging. The required quantity varies based on your energy expenditure throughout the day and the energy density of the food on your plate. For instance, you may need a larger volume of salad to feel satiated compared to other foods. So, relying solely on the volume of our plate to determine the amount necessary to satisfy our hunger is flawed. The only way to truly understand our body's needs is to listen to the signals it sends us as we eat.

Why Using Your Plate as a Measure of When to Stop Eating Isn’t Ideal

Here are a few reasons why using your plate as a guide for when to stop eating is not recommended (even if you serve yourself small portions).

1. Loss of Ability to Recognize Satiety

It may surprise you when your child doesn't finish their birthday cake or mentions they're full halfway through their favourite meal. However, this is perfectly normal because children are naturally adept at recognizing satiety.

Adults accustomed to finishing their plates, on the other hand, may lose the ability to perceive the various signals our bodies send to stop eating. Eventually, we eat whatever is on the plate, regardless of the portion size.

2. Difficulty in Maintaining Weight

If you're full and only two bites are left on your plate, leaving them might seem inconsequential. But if you do the math (2 bites x 3 meals/day x 7 days/week x 52 weeks/year), this could amount to a gain of 10 to 15 pounds over the year. Moreover, if you're used to finishing your plate, it can be challenging to stop eating when served large portions, as is often the case in restaurants or at dinner parties. Over a year, these instances can add up, leading to gradual weight gain without any noticeable changes in your eating habits.

3. Conflict at Meal Times

Forcing your child to finish their plate can gradually create a confrontational atmosphere at meal times, which detracts from the quality of family time.

If your child dislikes a particular food and you insist they eat it, this could diminish their enjoyment of food and even generate anxiety around meals.

Dessert should not serve as a reward. Allow your child to have dessert even if they haven't finished their main meal.

How to Rediscover Your Body's Signals

If you're one of those who no longer recognize their body's signals, it's possible to relearn them. Here are some tips to better recognize your satiety:

  • Don't wait until you're starving. Respond to your hunger when it's moderate.
  • Eat slowly and mindfully, without distractions or screens. You'll better sense satiety setting in gradually.
  • Take a pause halfway and three-quarters of the way through your meal and ask yourself: Am I still hungry?
  • Serve yourself smaller portions. Then re-evaluate whether the portion was enough or if you need more.
  • Don't like to waste? Save leftovers for the next day.
  • What if there are only two bites left (too little for leftovers)? If you eat them when you're no longer hungry, that's also waste. It's better to throw them away because your body shouldn't replace the trash can.

Feel free to consult a registered dietitian to guide you in better recognizing your satiety.

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist