Are You Making Your Child Fat?

Do you force your child to eat up everything on their plate at mealtimes?

By which of course I mean do you gently motivate them into finishing all of the healthy and nutritious food that you lovingly set before them? Because if you do, you could be contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic that some would have you believe is currently sweeping across the nation, to the detriment of our (not so) little darlings.

Now I get the premise behind this logic - that portion sizes have grown bigger and food has become more plentiful since the 1950s when this heinous habit snuck into parenting practice, so licking your plate clean perhaps isn't the necessity it once was. I can even appreciate that being forced to finish all your food can inhibit a child's natural capacity to tell when they feel full up. But come on, give us mums and dads a break.

Don't we all know that most kids of a certain age would rather play than eat and that given half the chance they'll take two hurried bites of their tea before declaring themselves 'full' so as not to impede their playtime? Only to be back, later, howling with hunger and demanding to be fed all over again.

I reckon the problem isn't that we risk raising a nation of fatties if we insist they finish their food - it's that if we let kids off the hook with that approach to mealtimes they'll become picky eaters who never master the art of table manners.

And there's something to be said for simply finishing the food that's put before you on the basis that someone has gone to the trouble of buying, preparing and cooking it for you. Especially when that someone is me.

But my friend Jackie, a mother of two, thinks my approach is precisely what causes obesity. (I should have known from my children's protestations that I've been doing this all wrong.)

"I tell my children to eat until they feel full up and then stop, and I encourage them to eat their vegetables first," she says.

"I have a seven-year-old who's slightly tubby and always wants more so I generally tell him to wait until whatever he's eaten has reached his tummy, and by then he'll probably feel full."

And mum of two Sara agrees that habits formed in relation to food in childhood can have lasting repercussions.

"I"m overweight now because I'm incapable of leaving anything on my plate," she says.

"So I purposely don't make my children finish all the food on their plates. And anyway, leftover chicken nuggets are tasty and, as everyone knows, if you eat them from someone else's plate the calories don't count."

So it seems I really am alone in the belief that children should be actively encouraged to finish all the food on their plates at mealtimes. And while some friends concede that their partners play taskmaster at mealtimes (with a few Dads insisting their kids eat everything on their plates or forfeit Wii time) not one of my friends is supportive of persuading kids to clear their plates in general.

But mum of two, Catherine, has a cunning ploy to entice her children into eating well at mealtimes. "If they don't finish their food at mealtimes then they're not offered anything else to eat," she says.

"It drives me crazy when other kids visit who get down from the table without finishing their dinner only to come back half an hour later asking for something else to eat. And their parents invariably say yes. If my children finish their food and are still hungry then of course they can have something else to eat, but if not, no way."

Keen to justify the years I have apparently spent force-feeding my kids, I asked Rachel, a GP and mother of two, whether making my kids finish all the food on their plates at mealtimes is really running the risk of making them obese.

She was at pains to point out that her view is her personal opinion and not necessarily representative of all doctors, but within the context of a healthy balanced diet she doesn't advocate asking children to eat everything on their plates.

"I believe finishing meals leads to a lot of obesity," she said, diplomatically. "And encouraging a habit of eating when not hungry is a poor message to send to children, in my opinion."

But Rachel does admit to using a marginally more militant approach to mealtimes when her children were younger and fussier about food than they are now.

All of which leaves only this to say: Sorry kids. I've finally seen the error of my ways. I'll take one large helping of humble pie.