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Closing Down the “Clean Plate Club”

When we were kids, parents constantly reminded us 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, does this mantra still make sense? It seems outdated at best and perhaps even harmful at worst.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?

clean plate club

Finish Your Plate – Or Else?

Earlier this week 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. In this case the chef cares about food being wasted, but the end result is the same. It creates 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 care so much about wasting food, why can’t they just insist that customers take home the leftovers? Or why don’t they make smaller portion sizes? A person who is truly hungry could order more. Why should our otherwise satisfied tummies have to take on more than they need or want?

Clean-Plate Shaming

Then we heard about nutritionist Lindsay Ek’s visit to an elementary school cafeteria. There, she saw an otherwise happy little girl 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… 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.

Hearing It From Other Adults

But of course jumping in and correcting your parents, your in-laws, or your child’s teacher comes with baggage. You do want to keep them involved and engaged in your child’s life. Plus, 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. 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.)

What if another adult comes over and starts pushing the “Clean Plate Club” mantra? You can teach your child to say, with an adorable smile, “It was delicious, but I feel like I’m full now.” At that point, you can agree with your child about how delicious 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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