You Don't Have to Clean Your Plate

Photo by  Hermes Rivera  on  Unsplash

"You don't have to clean your plate."

I was sitting across a table from my husband in our favorite Mexican restaurant, finishing dinner.  He had finished before me.  After eating half his food, he had set his plate aside.  

Because I had been talking, I had been eating more slowly. 

I continued to talk and eat, waving my fork in the air to punctuate my sentences, while mindlessly scooping food into my mouth.

It wasn't a completely unhealthy meal.  Carne asada, rice, beans, guacamole.  Oh, and the three flour tortillas that come with it.  And cheese dip.  And tostada chips.  It was a big meal.

I was down to the last few bites.  

"You don't have to clean your plate," Joe said quietly.

My loaded fork, on its way to my mouth, paused in midair.  My first reaction was hurt.  My brain raced around a few thoughts:  "Seriously?"  "Are you saying I'm a pig?"  "How could you say that?!"  "How rude!" I thought to myself in indignation.

Fortunately, in that little pause, the cognitive part of my brain took control over the emotional part that wanted to lash out.

Calmly, I set my fork down, and pushed my plate aside.

"You're right," I said.  "I don't have to clean my plate.  That's just my programming."

"I know," he said.  "You can stop eating when you feel full.  You don't have to clean your plate.  I love you."

See, he knows that I've been focusing on portion control lately.  He knows that most of the time, I eat healthy, but the portions I eat are too large.  

I grew up in a "clean your plate" household.  "Clean your plate - there are starving children in China," my mom told me.  Or Africa.  Or Russia.  Or wherever the starving children happened to be that night.

Even as a small child, I knew her argument didn't make sense.  How would my cleaning my plate help those poor starving children?  A few times, I dared to say, "Well, then, how about you take this food and send it to them?"  But over the years, my mother's programming took hold in my brain and stuck there, as mom programming usually does.  Having grown up poor, the thought of wasting any food was abhorrent to my mother.  So she passed that mindset to me.

As a young mother myself, I found myself using the same arguments with my children.  Of course, they also asked why I didn't just send the food to the starving children in Africa.  "Because!  Now clean your plate!"  The same answer my mother gave me.

I often eat mindlessly, while working on some other task or talking or watching television or reading.  I barely taste the food.  I mindlessly clean my plate because that's my childhood programming.  

My husband's quiet reminder to me was that I can break with my programming.  Just because that's the program my brain has been following all these years, doesn't mean I can't change the program to a better one - a program that makes sense, that isn't borne from a lifetime of scarcity.  

You, too, may have been brought up with the "Clean Your Plate" fallacy.  You, too, may have found yourself mindlessly cleaning your plate because that's what you grew up with and it feels somehow "wrong" to waste food.  If so, here are some tips to change the program, or trick the program if you just must clean the plate.

1.  Practice eating mindfully. 

In other words, when you are eating, focus on eating.  Not on reading, watching TV, playing computer games, or all the other things we do when we are eating (but do engage in conversation with family and friends if you are eating in a social group - we don't want to be anti-social!)  Actually taste the food you are eating, pay attention to how much you are eating, and how you feel as you eat.

2.  Stop When You Are Full

It sounds so simple, right?  Just stop and push the plate aside.  This technique does take mindfulness and willpower.  First, you must learn to recognize when you are full.  Not so full that if you take another bite, you will explode like the fellow on the Monty Python skit who ate "just a thin mint."  No.  Just comfortably full.  You have to learn when you've eaten enough that you feel nourished and comfortable for the next several hours.  And then, you need to not pay attention to the uneaten food on the plate.  When you have grown up with the "clean your plate" mentality, it is hard to see food left on a plate and wasted.  It disturbs you.  It distracts you.  It calls to you - "Eat me!"  Don't listen to the siren song - remove the plate from the table, and dispose of the food.  Either throw it away (it gets easier) or put it in the fridge for the next meal if you can't stand to see it go to waste.  Remind yourself that it's okay not to eat it.

3.  If You Absolutely Must Clean Your Plate

If you're programming is so strong that you just must clean your plate, no matter what, then we have to trick the programming.  There are two ways to do just that.  The first way is to use a smaller plate.  Downsizing your plate will automatically downsize your portion size.  Use a saucer, instead of a full-size plate, and do not go back for seconds.  The other way to trick your programming is to change what you put on your plate.  Load a larger portion of your plate with green leafy vegetables which will add bulk and fiber and many fewer calories.  Add a healthy protein, a healthy fat, and if your diet allows, and healthy carbohydrate such as a bit of sweet potato.  Consider using the Healthy Eating Plate created by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard School of Medicine as a guide for choosing your foods.


Remember, we do not have to be slaves to our childhood programming.  We have the power to choose ways of eating that help us to be healthy.

Do you have any tips to overcome the Clean Your Plate mentality?  Share them in the comments below.