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updated: 5/16/2012 6:55 PM

It's time to disband clean-plate club; choose healthy portions instead

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By Christina Fitzgerald

In response to my article last month on childhood obesity, I thought I'd spend this month addressing a concerned reader's question. First, an interesting health history tidbit:

The Clean Plate Club was an actual club! President Woodrow Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover as the head of the Food and Fuel Control Act first established in 1917. Hoover created the "Clean Plate" campaign targeted at schoolchildren with a pledge reading: "At table, I'll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate. And, I'll not eat between meals, but for suppertime I'll wait."

"Dear Christina, Thanks for your article this month. My kids do not have weight issues, but I definitely grew up being a member of the "clean-your-plate club." How do I change this mindset when I really am worried about wasting food and getting my kids to eat the healthy stuff? I don't want to push them into weight issues, but I do want them to eat well. I'm stuck."

Trust me, I'm very familiar with this club! I was a stubborn little girl who thoroughly enjoyed her meat and potatoes but not her veggies. I remember quite a few nights sitting defiantly at the table refusing to touch that green stuff on my plate. Now I've come full circle and often watch my toddler as he finally succumbs to tasting a bite of green beans and then defiantly spits it right back out. It's frustrating to say the least.

However, there is a difference between positively encouraging your child to taste the food versus insisting they clean their plate. Clean-the-plate management sends the wrong message by emphasizing quantity over quality. When you adhere to this style of eating, research shows that it often leads to significant overeating and obesity.

Transitioning out of the club

Because this club often emphasizes quantity over quality, the first two tactics to master in the transition are: focus on the quality of the food served and revisit age-appropriate portion sizes.

Kids can quickly feel overwhelmed when their plates are piled high with food and it can send them spiraling in opposite directions of food intake. A younger toddler can feel overwhelmed and turned off by the plate, while an older child can feel compelled to overeat and to normalize these large portions. See the chart on this page to check in on how much food your child may need.

Focus on quality over quantity

It often can feel as though kids are eating only junk or eating the same food every day. Changing the focus at meal time to the quality of food served as opposed to the overall quantity can improve your child's nutritional status. ChooseMyPlate.gov is a great resource to provide balanced plate illustrations and sample meal plans for all ages. If you are still concerned that your child seems to just not eat, think about their intake over a week's span as opposed to on a daily basis. Your child is eating a healthy diet if he consumes:

•A variety of foods

•Fruits and vegetables that are colorful

•Calcium-rich foods, such as milk, yogurt, broccoli, and almonds

• Meals and snacks every three to five hours while awake

• Protein-rich foods, such as eggs, meat, fish, beans, chicken, or tofu

• Water in place of sugary juices and sodas

• Foods that are iron-rich, such as meats, beans, and leafy green vegetables

• Whole grain breads and cereals

Contact me: If you have any feedback, comments or questions on this topic or any others, I would love to hear from you! You can send me an email at christina@nourishedliving.com with your thoughts.

•Christina Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, is the owner of Nourished, Nutrition and Wellness, nourishedliving.com. She lives with her husband and two young sons in the Northwest suburbs.

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