Telling your kids not to waste food makes them fat

One more thing that really bothered me about Disneyland– and again, it’s not so different than San Francisco: I heard parents berate their kids for wasting food. I heard a mom yell at her kid because the girl did not finish her pink mountain of cotton candy. Seriously.

It’s not that I can’t understand parental frustration and anger when your child doesn’t eat what she’s asked for. You’ve stood on the line. You paid $5 for the cotton candy and the kid doesn’t eat it? It’s annoying, no doubt. But take a look at what you’re doing: you are making your kid eat that crap because you don’t want to “waste” it?

I suppose your other option is to refuse to buy your kid the cotton candy. But in my experience, not allowing her to have the “forbidden” food only glamorizes it, making her want it even more.

My daughter did the same not eating thing to me when I got her the cotton candy (which is HUGE otherwise how could they charge that much money?) She had about three bites. Literally. There was a tiny, furry cave in the mountain. Then she said her tummy didn’t want anymore. I always tell her to listen to her tummy about how much to eat. I threw it out in one of the many waste baskets that Disneyland so generously provides. (I’m not being sarcastic here. I was really impressed by all of the waste baskets at Disneyland, color coded for recycling, again just like San Francisco. There are also water fountains everywhere. Disneyland is also incredibly well equipped for people with disabilities, all of the rides and swimming pools, but I digress.) Wow, just realized I wrote my daughter “did the same thing to me.” See? We take it all so personally.

Here is what you are doing when you tell your kid not to waste food: you make her feel shame, guilt, and worry associated with eating. (And for goodness sake, haven’t you ever thought you could eat more than you actually could? Do you want someone berating you? Or do you just do it to yourself in your own head? Stop that, too.)

When you berate your kid for wasting food, not only do you make her feel shame, guilt, and worry but you make her concerned about your approval in association with her eating. In this day and age, your kid has enough to do maintaining her ability to listen to and respond to her own hunger cues, to her own body. Your focus should be supporting her in that. Unfortunately, there are many ways in our current culture for a brain, especially a female brain, to get wired up to make guilt, shame, and worry part of the human eating experience. Many of those factors parents can do very little about. But no longer ordering your kid not to waste food is one thing you CAN do something about. So bite your tongue. Think about or feel your own issues around “wasting” food, but don’t project your issues onto a little kid.

To be sure, food waste is a national problem: 20 to 30% food in the U.S. is wasted. Not only that,  10% of U.S. energy is used to put food on the table so global warming is affected by food waste. Nor is it debatable that American rates of obesity are growing, believed to hit 42% by 2030. Americans have a disordered relationship with food, but berating a kid is a short-term, simplified, superficial “solution” that exacerbates the problem instead of healing it. Also, in the long run, a kid with who has a healthy relationship with food is less of a strain on the family budget than a kid with an eating disorder. So get creative with leftovers. (There are more great tips for raising healthy kids on a budget in the book Preventing Childhood Eating Disorders.)

Admonishing your kid not to waste food may not make her fat (I just wrote that as a headline so people who put their kids on diets would read this post) but it can easily contribute to making her eating disordered and her mind crazy. It’s not worth it. One might even call it a waste.


13 thoughts on “Telling your kids not to waste food makes them fat

  1. I’m sooo with you on this. I’ve read that there are more overweight people in the world now than malnourished ones – and I can believe that. What do you gain by stuffing your face with food you don’t need? What does it help the hungry kiddies in Somalia if you’re dying from diabetes?

    As for not playing with food: what could be more fun than yummy, round baby peas?! My toddler loves those. She loves playing with her oats. She loves making trains from her cheese cubes.

    If we lived 200 years ago, I’d probably have said otherwise, but if you tell your kids not to play with food today, you’re in my (maybe not so) humble opinion, an idiot.

  2. I think it’s foolish to judge other parents for observing 10 seconds of that parent’s behavior. That kid could have a very nasty habit of asking for something then deciding they don’t want it.

    One could easily say about your behavior “look at that wasteful woman, throwing out perfectly good cotton candy, she could have saved it for later when the kid decided they wanted something else.”

    Must be nice living in that glass house of yours.

  3. I understand what you’re saying, but this is hard for families on a tight budget. As a single mom, I can only afford to spend so much per week on groceries–I can’t keep a limitless supply of “extras” in the house, and I also can’t afford to prepare my kids a nice, nutritious meal, then have them toss it in the compost bin so they can eat a bowl of Lucky Charms 🙁 I would never, ever berate them, but I also can’t have them throwing out perfectly good food. Perhaps there is a middle ground somewhere?

    • Hi Aggie,

      There are many great suggestions about budget in the book I read Preventing Childhood Eating Disorders. I do let my kids eat cereal for dinner if they don’t like what I made. Usually they opt for the Special K with strawberries. I recycle lots of food into leftovers. I personally love left overs, one pizza can last 3 days in my house. But read the book, lots of ideas for how to adapt to your life style and for kids with allergies, I have a daughter allergic to eggs.


  4. I don’t throw out my candy floss. I usually keep it for days lol. Seriously its like McDonalds chips. Have you ever left McDonalds chips on a table for a few months? The stuff never goes off! (It’s like supernatural food! Immortal chips! Which leads me to question of what is in it and should I eat it?)
    Anyway, I agree. I can see how shaming a child into not wasting their food can make them fat. I mean eating way too much food tends to lead to gaining a bit of weight. Is this seriously news to some parents? I hope not! I hate wasting food to, that’s why I have embraced the leftovers system! I keep buying food that serves 4 people. But seriously? Just for myself and my cat? We don’t need that much! That’s why God invented refrigerators!
    The leftovers system is great! And if that doesn’t work, buy a pig 🙂

  5. I struggle a bit with this, when my child asks for something, i prepare it and then she changes her mind! It feels like I wasted my time and energy, not just the food. I know they’re too young at 5 to think through what it means when they change their mind but it’s infuriating!

    Conversely, I am always happy when they want to throw out treat leftovers.

    • Hi Tamara,

      Yes, totally get this. You are not a short order cook. I make one thing for my kids, if they don’t like it they can go to their foodshelves and get something they want (cereal, gogurt, bagel etc)


  6. I both agree and disagree. Throwing out a huge bag of cotton candy at DisneyLand, not a waste. Choosing to serve yourself a huge dishful of food that could not possibly fit into your tummy is a waste. (I’m thinking of an at home stituation, although I think it holds for buffet restaurant situations as well.) It is a waste of all the energy that went into producing the food, bringing it to market, earning the money to buy the food and bring it home, and the effort to put it on the table. Should a person be shamed into eating it? Absolutely not. But there is a lesson to be learned about waste there. Only put on your plate what your stomach can hold.

  7. Bravo! and in the words of Geneen Roth “you’re either throwing it out, or throwing it in – either way it’s a waste”

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