How to manage uneaten food: plate waste and unfinished lunches - Feeding Littles

How to manage uneaten food: plate waste and unfinished lunches

We like to show examples of what I (Megan) pack for school lunch on our Instagram and Facebook pages. Recently I also showed our Instagram Stories viewers what my kids’ lunchboxes look like when they get home.

The number 1 response? “But they didn’t eat all of it. How can I get over my anxiety about that?”

As a trained Intuitive Eating Counselor (and dietitian) who has worked with hundreds of clients on becoming a more intuitive eater, I want to give you a secondary perspective about plate waste that you might not have considered before.

The “clean plate” club.

Children are born intuitive eaters. They are built to self-regulate based upon their own individual hunger and fullness cues. Most kids remain intuitive eaters until their hunger and fullness cues become interfered with, like when we make them finish their plate or they don’t have access to enough food. (Read more research about eating competence via the Ellyn Satter Institute here.)

You may remember dinnertime battles with your parents where you were forced to clean your plate. This was likely done out of love, responsibility, saving money and doing what your parents thought was best. However, it may have taught you to eat more food than your body needed and stop listening to that “off switch” inherent within you. It may have also made you never want to eat that food you were forced to eat again. (I personally have this experience with raisins – my grandma forced me to eat them, and I will never eat them again!)

What happens when we don’t know how to stop eating? We continue to eat more foods than our bodies need and stop trusting our internal cues. Our body size might change – which is OK – but furthermore, we might not feel our best. Feeling overfull frequently can prevent us from doing things we enjoy. Furthermore, this can complicate our relationship with food and our bodies. For many people, food becomes both our biggest obsession and our most hated enemy. Most of my chronic dieting clients can remember a time when they were either overfed or underfed/restricted, and it eventually led to issues with appetite dysregulation, changes in metabolism, and issues with their emotional health and sense of self-worth. I wonder what would have happened if they were simply allowed to eat what they were hungry for at meals and snacks.

It is imperative that we let our children learn about food in a positive, safe way and trust that they know how to eat enough. Yes, sometimes they don’t eat at a meal and want a snack 10 minutes later. Perhaps they only eat one type of food or are very selective. Maybe it’s hard to know if your child is eating enough. All of these topics (and much, much more) are covered in our toddler course – complete with realistic, professional strategies that help get your toddler’s eating back on track.

This doesn’t mean that we recommend grazing or constantly eating food. To help our children (and ourselves) have regular appetites and enough hunger to enjoy balanced meals, it’s important to have regular meals and snacks with breaks in between where we do other things like play, learn, sleep and work (adults). A child that grazes all day will not be hungry enough for a wide variety of food and mealtime behavior usually suffers as a result. Plus, food tastes so much better when we’re hungry and the process is much more enjoyable! 


Most intuitive eaters do not finish their plate every time.

It is hard to estimate how much food your body needs on a given day. Our appetites change due to physical needs, illness and recovery, mental stress, medications, time of year and temperature (some of us eat less when it’s hot), and changes in our metabolism. When we listen acutely to our body’s signals of fullness, we oftentimes have to leave food on the plate.

Kids do too.

Children have wildly variable appetites, especially since their body is growing. Some days they want all the food in the world; other days they hardly eat. This is normal, especially in toddlers and preschoolers. Annoying? Yes, but normal nonetheless. Just like ourselves, we can’t expect our kids to finish their plates. Many of us leave food behind too, especially when we’re closely listening to our fullness cues. When we eat, cleaning the plate shouldn’t be the goal – eating until we’re satisfied and nourished is what really matters, independent of quantity of food.


Overeating is wasteful too.

We worry about wasting food for good reason. We hate throwing away food that could have been eaten and enjoyed by someone else. Yes, so many people don’t have access to enough food. Minimizing wasted food is definitely important when possible.

However, teaching your child to overeat or making yourself eat something your body doesn’t need in order to “avoid waste” is even more wasteful than throwing away uneaten food. It can make food a struggle for life.

Eating too much food for your body does not put food on the plate who doesn’t have enough food to eat. 

As one of our wonderful followers and longtime Feeding Littles clients Angie put it: “Yes, food waste sucks, but a poor relationship with food sucks even more.”


The importance of variety.

Kids learn to eventually eat most of the foods served to them. Many kids take 20, 30, even 50 exposures of something before they willingly eat it, and sometimes they never warm up to a given food. That’s normal, OK, and expected. Your response to those behaviors is what matters. When we get frustrated that our children aren’t eating what we serve, we start to cater to their food preferences. The variety of food offered to them begins to dwindle, and suddenly they may only see 5-10 different foods in rotation. In response, they only learn how to eat from this short list of food.

Offering lots of variety is one critical way to help your child eventually eat all safe foods. The more you do this, the more they will expect different foods on the plate too. Perhaps they won’t eat it this time, but maybe next time it’s not so foreign. If we stop giving them a chance to learn about new foods, we inherently limit their palate. This leads to less nutritional balance, more frustrating mealtimes, and a sense that your child is missing out on a wide variety of foods available on this earth. 

How do we keep moving our kids in the right direction, toward eating lots of different foods (eventually)? Don’t stop offering variety. Keep portions small – think the size of a tablespoon or a few pieces of food – so as to not overwhelm your child. We oftentimes overestimate how much food is “adequate” for kids anyway. For example, one portion of veggies for a one-year-old is just one tablespoon. ONE TABLESPOON. (Of course, they can have more than this, but isn’t it nice to know that they’re probably eating more than you think?)


The school lunch dilemma.

We can minimize plate waste at home by using family meal-style serving when possible, as your child will likely take very little of a food he doesn’t want to eat. It also helps to serve small portions, making mealtime less overwhelming.

However, what happens when your child goes to daycare, preschool or elementary school?

There are so many factors at play at lunchtime when kids eat with peers that affect how much (or how little) they eat:

  • Time of day (many lunch periods are at 10 am, when some kids aren’t hungry!)
  • Socialization and distraction
  • Short lunch periods
  • Hunger or lack thereof
  • Peer pressure
  • Inability to open containers well or peel fruit, use silverware 
  • Anxiety or being overwhelmed about the lunchroom or school setting
  • Excitement about recess or subject after lunch
  • Pressure from adults

Maneuvering the lunchroom or preschool classroom is yet another transition that your child faces as they get older, and like everything else, they may experience bumps in the road. Sometimes my kids come home with a fully eaten lunch; other times they touch nothing. Usually, their intake lies somewhere in between. They may also only eat from a few sections of their lunchbox.

What most of us want to do in order to ensure that our kids will eat is serve them only preferred foods, but again…this doesn’t teach them to eat all foods in the long run and makes them pickier over time. If the end goal is an adventurous eater, this is actually counter-productive.

Furthermore, here’s the kicker: I can’t just serve them what I “know” they will eat because I can’t guarantee they “will” eat anything anyway! My kids will pass on their favorite foods on any given day, probably based on one or two of the factors listed above. The only thing I can almost guarantee they will eat is chocolate chips, but there have been times when those come home untouched too.

If I only send tiny amounts of food and obviously can’t give them more since they’re at school, they may not have enough to eat should they choose to only enjoy the cheese and {quartered) grapes. One grape and one tiny bite of cheese is great at home when I can offer more, but it probably won’t keep them satisfied if that’s what they choose to eat at school.


Can’t I just make him eat his lunch as a snack?

This is tricky. If the food is still safe to eat (non-perishable food or the ice pack and perishable food are still cold), you may want to re-offer the food after your pick up your child only if they’re interested in eating it. We strongly advise against re-serving meals or snacks in a punitive way (“No snack at snack time because you didn’t eat your lunch”), as this leads to anxiety around food and is seen by your child as a punishment.

​Of course, use your judgement – many times I won’t have a snack handy but my daughter is famished and all we have available to eat is her unfinished lunch. I’ll ask her if she wants to open it up and eat what’s leftover as a snack, and oftentimes she will say yes. It’s not done as a consequence of her not eating – it’s simply because she wasn’t hungry or was too distracted but wants to try again.


OK then…how do you deal with waste?

I was asked many times if I personally eat the food left behind or if I save it for another meal. To both questions, the answer is almost always no (for a few reasons):

  1. I don’t need to eat when I’m not hungry either. I usually have meals and snacks planned for myself (and eat them with my kids when I can), and emptying their lunchboxes doesn’t usually coincide with my hunger patterns.
  2. The food is likely unsafe. By the time I get home nothing is cold, and since we serve  fresh produce, dairy, and animal products it’s not safe for me to eat the leftovers or keep them for later.
  3. I’m kind of grossed out by eating someone’s half eaten food, especially from preschool or elementary schools…because germs.

Yes, I know that many people on this planet are hungry, and I don’t take access to food for granted. I know how blessed my family is to have full tummies each night. Eating my kids’ potentially unsafe leftovers when I’m not hungry is not the solution to our global food crisis. 

Here are ways you can deal with the waste (besides trashing the food):

  1. Use a composting service that will pick up your food and compost it weekly. Some cities or counties do this for free; other services charge a small fee. Oftentimes you can keep the soil or donate it to a farmer.
  2. Compost food at home. We’re looking into this option, as according to our wonderful followers, there are many inexpensive composting bins at Home Depot and Lowe’s.
  3. Feed leftover food to chickens! Our followers have told me all about how open-minded chickens are to scraps and leftovers.
  4. If you give any leftovers to your pets, please check out this list of foods that may be unsafe for pets.
  5. Repurpose or reuse the food in another meal or snack, only if it’s safe (the food is non-perishable or has been consistently kept cold and touched by washed hands), and it’s not used in a punitive way.

So, in summary…yes, food waste isn’t great. However, in efforts to feed my children a variety of food and teach them to eventually become adventurous eaters, it’s oftentimes part of the process. Try to reframe your thinking about food waste and see it as “uneaten” food, not “wasted” food. Like many of the other things you will buy for your child and then get rid of, it’s an investment in your child’s learning, health, and future. Try to minimize waste by composting, repurposing, or wasting less food if you can, but remember that some food waste is unfortunately inevitable.

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