Daycare May Be the Starting Point of Poor Eating Habits

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

Babies cry when they are hungry. They also tend to clamp down and not want to finish a bottle if they are full. As they hit age and growth milestones and begin to eat solid foods, babies may spit food out or refuse another spoonful of food when they are adequately full. These behaviors are crucial as these young ones learn to heed hunger and satiation.

One way to interfere with this natural process is when a parent pushes a child to eat beyond satiation and clean their plate (clean plate syndrome) regularly. This concept is known as creating a controlled feeding environment by using controlled feeding practices (CFP).Daycare is a space that seems to abide by these feeding principles. In fact, your local daycare center may be part of the clear plates club.

According to a recent Reuters report, daycare workers may actually believe that forcing a child to clean their plate and finish every morsel of food helps kids to develop a healthy appetite and healthy eating habits. There have been studies that suggest that when kids experience controlling patterns to guide their eating habits, they lose the ability to feel true hunger cues and also to stop eating when they are full. Food experts also believe that forcing snacks and food on a child who is not hungry is a gateway to overeating.

Here in the U.S., parents and individuals entrusted with the care of young children will often offer “anything,” including unhealthy foods and snacks “just to get the kid to eat.” Perpetuating this type of feeding approach opens the door to a sugar habit and risk of obesity down the road. This can even occur in normal weight babies and children whose parents become concerned when natural hunger guides feeding patterns.

The survey and findings published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in November 2016 examined childcare professionals’ perspectives regarding use of mealtime practices to see if CFP were largely at play (or not) in most daycare centers nationwide. The survey included a range of daycare centers, many with different funding sources or socioeconomic levels in terms of the community they were serving. All respondents in the survey were full-time employees, so they were with the child all day long for most days of the week. The children attending these daycare facilities were age two to five, and the respondents were responsible for serving meals and snacks.

Results of the survey showed that CFP was largely employed during meals and snacks at most facilities as a regular policy. Respondents viewed the practice as helping to guide healthy, adequate consumption of food. These respondents suggested that CFP helped to meet the expectations of parents and avoid negative interactions with parents with regard to children consuming sufficient food daily. Many of them also viewed CFP as an “encouragement practice” rather than a force-feeding practice, despite the fact that CFP typically involves the “clean plate” philosophy, asking a child to finish more food despite the child’s indication that they are not hungry. These respondents believed their practices were positive in nature.

Those respondents who did not engage with CFP suggested that it was not deemed necessary in order to get their groups of kids to eat. They also were aware of research linking CFP to negative eating habits and to an increased risk of childhood obesity. Those who did not engage with CFP shared that they used:

Role modeling - Eating healthy foods in portion controlled amounts in front of the children to set a healthy example

Peer modeling - Having kids who exhibit healthy eating patterns sit by children who show signs of food selectivity or reluctance to eat

Sensory exploration of food – Using moments to teach kids about food texture, smell, and other differential attributes in order to help them to learn about foods and (hopefully) develop preferences for healthier foods.

This was a small survey and does not prove that current daycare practices result in obesity or bad eating habits.

However, parents can still learn a few things based on the survey observations:You should query your daycare on feeding practices and make sure that they are in line with yours.

  • You should ask your child daily about what they ate at school, whether it was enough or too much food, whether the food was to their liking or not.

  • You should be aware of the research that does not support forced food feedings or continuing to empty a plate beyond satiation.

  • You should realize how pivotal feeding practices are in childhood, and how crucial they can be in helping a child to prefer mostly healthy foods and appropriate portion sizes.

You should also value spending time playing “food games” with your kids, helping them to understand where food comes from, how to prepare it, how to appreciate it. You can have them weigh food in scales at the supermarket, play “find the color” in the fruit and vegetable section, enjoy taste-testing, which often occurs in the produce section, and “find the word” in the ingredients label to help kids begin to appreciate unhealthy ingredients.

Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”