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Closing Down the “Clean Plate Club”

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When we were kids, we were constantly reminded to join the “Clean Plate Club.” But in a time of childhood obesity, out-of-control portion sizes, and learning to eat only until you are full, this little mantra seems outdated at best and perhaps even harmful at worst. And yet why do we keep hearing it? Because it feels “better” to us when kids polish off every morsel of food? Or because it feels bad to see food go to waste?

We were reminded of this earlier in the week when we read about a restaurant in Australia that charges 30 percent more to patrons who don’t finish all of the food on their plates (via LA Weekly’s Squid Ink blog). In this case the chef is concerned with food being wasted, but the end result is the same in terms of creating an incentive other than hunger to clear one’s plate. The restaurant is essentially saying that it has the right to decide on food choices and portion sizes for everyone else. But if they’re so concerned about wasting food, why can’t they just insist that customers take home the leftovers if they are full? Why should our otherwise satisfied tummies have to take on more than they need or want?

Then our heartstrings got tugged upon hearing of nutritionist Lindsay Ek’s visit to an elementary school cafeteria, in which an otherwise happy little girl was shamed by the lunch aide for not finishing her sandwich. Ek puts it this way:

If the young girl is repeatedly scolded for not finishing her meal how do you think she is going to respond? This is going to push her to ignore her body’s fullness cues in order to please the noon duty, her mother and whoever else wants her to eat “one more bite.” Furthermore, telling a child she is “good” or “bad” based off of the food she eats is confusing for her. Young children want to please. If she gets praise from an adult for what or how much she eats that is another reason to ignore her internal cues and rely on external cues and praise to guide their eating. Not to mention the emotions (negative and positive) that can begin to form around food. Children are “good” because they treat their friends and family with love and kindness, not because they can finish their sandwich.

But of course jumping in and correcting your parents, your in-laws, or your child’s teacher comes with its own set of baggage. You want to keep them involved and engaged in your child’s life, and you don’t want to insult them by rejecting or negating their advice.

The best you can do to mitigate any sort of unwanted advice is to keep reinforcing your own positive messages at your own home. Teach your kids to eat a good meal, and let them stop when they say they are full. (Of course, don’t offer snacks before meals, and make sure they come to the table hungry.)

When some other adult comes over and start pushing the “Clean Plate Club” mantra, you can teach your child to say, with a smile destined to melt their hearts, “It was delicious, but I feel like I’m full now.” At that point, you can jump in, agree with your child about what a delicious meal it was, and then ask them to help with the dishes. In other words, just let it go with a smile, and continue on with the day. Club dismissed.

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