Dinner ladies, don't tell children they must lick their plates clean

18th April 2008 at 01:00
Forcing children to finish their school dinners could lead to eating disorders and obesity, according to medical researchers.

Kati Hajibagheri, academic paediatric registrar at Imperial College, London, said that teachers had a vital role to play in ensuring that pupils grow up with healthy attitudes towards food. She recommends that children, rather than adults, dictate how much is appropriate to eat at mealtimes.

"Schools should not be saying, 'You have to finish everything on your plate'," she said.

"If children don't eat when they're hungry, they'll learn that they will be hungry until the next meal." Compelling children to eat once their appetites are sated teaches them to ignore their own hunger cues.

And learning to eat even when they are full can lead to over-eating and to obesity.

Similarly, forcing children to eat strips them of control. This can lead to negative associations with food and, ultimately, eating disorders.

"You should never dictate to children what they're eating," said Dr Hajibagheri. "They should have a choice of food. You need to give them control, but healthy control."

Her views are echoed by Lisa Mohebati, nutritionist and consultant on international health.

She believes it is particularly vital that early years teachers encourage healthy eating habits: most lifelong eating patterns are formed then. "You can teach children to listen more closely to their hunger signals," she said. "You teach them that, when they are full, they really don't need to eat any more."

Dr Mohebati added that it was vital that teachers worked with parents to ensure that the lessons taught at school are not undermined at home. "There needs to be a partnership," she said.

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