Quitting the “Clean Plate Club”
Growing up in my house, it was expected (and in some cases, demanded) that I would “clean” my plate, finishing every bite. My loving, but firm, parents tried everything from threats such as “no dessert until you eat everything” to classic guilt trips about starving children in other parts of the world. While I might have hated and resisted this pressuring as a child, years later I still find myself feeling required to leave a clean plate after every meal, making it difficult to maintain an appropriate caloric intake.
Kicking an Old Habit
As I recently discussed in Life without the Scale, traveling long-term as a backpacker has forced me to ditch daily weigh-ins on the scale and forgo the practice of recording every single calorie consumed. In short, I’ve been learning to eat intuitively, listening to my body signals and trying to only eat until I’m satiated.
Shifting to Intuitive Eating has also required getting over the habit of cleaning my plate. As a budget-minded backpacker, this has been especially difficult. Since I’m trying to stretch my traveling dollar, I often have the urge to eat every morsel and get my money’s worth. In addition, I often eat in restaurants, where I have little control over portion sizes, and finishing an entire meal could leave me stuffed and over my calorie target. Finally, the guilt my parents laid on about the starving children still plays a part – as a traveler to fairly poor countries where food is a valuable resource that is not wasted, I genuinely feel guilty and ashamed about leaving anything on the plate.
Origins of the Tradition
I was surprised to find this mentality is deeply ingrained in most Americans, passed down during childhood by other well-intentioned parents. In fact, a survey found that nearly 70% of Americans always finish their entrees at restaurants, regardless of the (likely gigantic) size.
It turns out this idea was first introduced when President Woodrow Wilson created the US Food Administration in 1917, which aimed to conserve American food resources during World War I. At the time, patriotic schoolchildren took a pledge which stated, “At table, I’ll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate. And I’ll not eat between meals, but for supper time I’ll wait.” The Food Administration was scrapped later on, but the idea came roaring back in 1947 when President Harry S Truman assisted in officially forming the “Clean Plate Club” in elementary schools, this time in response to the food shortages following World War II and the efforts to assist starving Europeans with the Marshall Plan.
Dealing with the Aftermath
Of course, times have changed, but the clean plate doctrine continues to be passed down to children. These days, Americans no longer face food shortages as we did 60 years ago – in fact, portion sizes have nearly doubled in that time. Unfortunately, this mentality is contributing to our increasing obesity epidemic and not teaching us to have a healthy relationship with food.
Waste Not, Want Not
Admittedly, it has been difficult to leave the “clean plate club”. Seeing uneaten food on a plate still makes me feel like I’m being wasteful and triggers all sorts of childhood memories of sitting at the dinner table. At the end of the day, though, that food is wasted whether it sits on the plate or whether it ends up in my already full stomach. And wasting the food on myself means I’m going to consume too many calories and ultimately be more unhappy with myself than just leaving it on the plate.
Are you a member of the “Clean Plate Club”?
Calorie Count co-founder Erik Fantasia and his girlfriend, Heather Curtis, are currently traveling through Central America as part of a trip around the world. You can follow their adventures online with Facebook and their blog.