The Harmful Happy Plate

The Harmful Happy Plate
by Julie Dillon, MS, RD, NCC, LDN, CEDRD
My everyday mealtime chaos includes my six-year-old daughter singing at the top of her lungs while my two-year-old son eats one bite then jets from the table. I think that it would be much easier if he still used his high chair, yet he rejected that contraption as soon as he could walk. This makes mealtime a bit messier and acrobatic in nature. In the blink of an eye, he goes from noshing on dinner to dancing in the living room. “We sit to eat” crosses my lips throughout the meal, and I lead him back to the table. Toddlers are distracted by nature, so we try to keep distractions to a minimum (no TV) and give him a high five when he sits safely at the table. We are clear about when meal time is over so he can get his fill, and he will sign “All done!” when his body communicates fullness. Sometimes this happens with a bite or three helpings.
Recently I received a text from a dear friend. She is raising her children to be intuitive eaters and modeling healthy ways of relating to food. With intention, this family neutrally represents food and teaches kids to eat when their tummies have the amount they need.
Luckily, our children are born intuitive eaters—yet our world is not. My friend and I often lament about how hard we need to work in order to shield our children from learning body distrust and body hate.
So imagine her surprise when my friend’s daughter finished dinner and announced that it was now a “happy plate.” I felt sadness when she texted the details. After getting clarification, my friend learned the Happy Plate practice exists at her daughter’s childcare center.
What is the Happy Plate? Often at daycare and family dinner tables, “Make it a happy plate!” can be heard when a child wants to leave the meal with food remaining. I have been told that it is done to encourage children to eat enough and be sure they won’t ask for more food shortly thereafter.
As a pediatric dietitian and eating disorder specialist, I strongly discourage this Happy Plate nonsense. My top three reasons include:

  1. The Happy Plate mantra encourages children to discount hunger and fullness cues. When we plate a child’s food or pack his/her lunch, we are not in his/her body nor are we able to predict with 100 percent accuracy the exact amount of energy he/she will need at that meal. If a child is full, do we really need to encourage him/her to eat more? What’s more, teaching a child to ignore hunger and fullness cues lays a foundation of negative body image and body distrust.
  2. “Make It a Happy Plate” cajoling teaches a child to eat to please rather than fueling his/her body. Eating to make another person happy normalizes disordered eating while omitting innate hunger and fullness wisdom.
  3. Happiness feels good and easy, so of course we prefer it. On the other hand, the human experience includes sadness, frustration, boredom, loneliness, anger, and a myriad of other emotions. Some feel comfortable while others do not. Discounting the fullness experience in favor of a Happy Plate transforms the eating relationship—and not in a good way. It spells out that eating past fullness can make us feel happy. It also makes our loved ones happy. Do we want to teach children to eat in order to make happiness?

What’s the alternative to the ease of the Happy Plate? Here are things to consider:

  1. Be sure to structure consistent meal and snack times. This helps a child respect hunger and fullness while tolerating hunger if he/she is hungry a bit before an eating time. When a child says he/she is all done, kindly remind her when the next eating time will occur. Do not provide between-meal handouts besides planned snacks.
  2. Children make mistakes when plating their own food. In order for a child to become a competent eater, you will have food waste. Save the starving children comments and acknowledge when a child listens to his/her body. An example: “You served yourself, and you decided you didn’t need all of it.” Keep it neutral because food decisions are not good or bad.
  3. If a child eats little at a meal and requests food outside of mealtime, kindly remind him/her of the next meal or snack time. If the child says he/she is hungry, teach him/her what to do. Say “Your tummy is hungry, so remind it that food will be available soon. It is just not time to eat.” NOTE: Need to consider child’s age and time until next meal. 
  4. Hold back the praise when a child eats everything on her plate. A child who ate all of her food and another child who ate half of the food served did an equally good job at that meal. This may feel unnatural, but it is the way to promote healthy ways of relating to food and positive body image.


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