Some daycare centers may find "clean plate club" policies hard to resist, even though working too hard to control what kids eat can backfire and make them more likely to gain weight, a recent study suggests.
Plenty of previous research suggests that when kids experience controlling feeding practices, they can lose their ability to follow their own hunger cues and to stop eating when they're full. Over time, children forced to clean their plates at every meal may gravitate toward sugary foods and snacks and run the risk of becoming overweight or obese.
In a recent survey, however, some daycare workers mistakenly believed a clean plate club approach would encourage kids to develop a healthy appetite, researchers report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, September 17.
"This study also found that childcare providers use controlling feeding practices because of fear of parents' negative reaction if they find that their child did not eat," said lead study author Dipti Dev, a child health behavior specialist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
"Childcare providers should avoid controlling feeding practices such as avoiding giving food as reward, encouraging but not pressuring children to eat their food and avoiding to praise children for cleaning their plates," Dev added by email.
To understand how daycare providers think about feeding kids, Dev and colleagues conducted in-depth face-to-face interviews with 18 women at centers for children aged 2 to 5 years old.
All of the participants had at least some education beyond high school, and eight of them had college degrees. They were 42 years old on average, and had typically been working as a daycare teacher for around 12 years.
Some of these teachers said they used controlling feeding practices because they found them effective, particularly with picky eaters and stubborn children.
Plus, food or sweets make good rewards for tasks throughout the day, like using the toilet. Some providers said they thought toilet training would be a lot harder without the candy reward.
Even some providers who said they didn't use controlling feeding practices actually described advocating the clean plate club or repeatedly encouraging kids to taste everything on their plate.
When daycare providers avoided this type of feeding, it was often because they believed it would be ineffective or because they wanted children to learn to regulate their own food intake.
Some teachers also said they were aware of research linking controlling feeding practices to an increased risk of childhood obesity and avoided it for that reason.
In certain instances, they might instead try to encourage kids to eat more or sample more items by letting them touch, smell and play with food - all techniques that can turn eating into an exploration that kids enjoy.
The study is small, and doesn't prove that daycare feeding policies cause obesity or lead kids to have bad eating habits.
But the results still suggest parents should ask how child care providers approach mealtimes when they are choosing where to send their child, said Nancy Zucker, an eating disorders researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who wasn't involved in the study.
"Given that early childhood is a pivotal developmental stage for the emergence of healthy habits, altering daycare culture around meals is critical," Zucker said by email.
"I think parents should consider communicating to daycare centers that they are trusting of their child's hunger signals so whatever food amount the child is able to consume is adequate from their perspective," Zucker added.