Are you a member of the clean plate club?
Think twice before joining the club.
I’ll admit it. Until very recently, I had been a card-carrying member of the clean-plate club. A prestigious affiliation? Hardly. A unique one? Definitely not. Yet, at each meal I ignored cues from my body and instead took direction from the food on my plate. The mission was simple: Eat until it is gone.
This relationship with food is hardly unique—most millennials I know are reluctant to leave even a scrap of food on their plate. In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that adults eat 92% of the food on their plate regardless of their level of satiety—what I’d call “fullness”. Interestingly, though, children only ate about 60% of the food on their plate. We’ll get to that later.
We’ve been taught that it is disrespectful not to finish a meal. That we won’t grow “big and strong” unless we finish every bite of food on our plate. Well, our parents weren’t necessarily wrong. We did grow big. In fact, a recent study noted that millennials are the most obese generation since record keeping on obesity began.
Blame for our skyrocketing obesity rate cannot be rested solely the clean-plate club, but its impact on our collective psyche cannot be understated. We’ve grown up either feeling guilty about not finishing a meal, or we’ve been programed to mindlessly eat until no food remains. But therein lies the problem—we’ve defined finishing with the total consumption of every item on the plate. So, let’s start there and redefine what it means to be finished. Ready?
Eat until your hunger is gone, not until the food vanished from your plate.
Kids do a remarkable job of this. When an infant or toddler decides they are full, they stop eating. No questions asked. You cannot force another bite or it will end up dripping down the front of their little onesie. They will straight up SPIT IT OUT. And you know what? I applaud them. Kids eat about 60% of the food on their plate while we almost universally clean ours. In this case, youth is on their side. Children are better at listening to their innate “hunger cues” because their relationship with food hasn’t yet been corrupted. Once upon a time, every one of us shared this ability to mind our innate cues. But when we enter the clean plate club, we lose touch with this natural ability. When we join the clean plate club, and force our kids to do the same, we end up creating an unhealthy relationship with food that needs to be corrected later in life.
So how can we change this mentality and finally quit the clean-plate club? I’ve got a few suggestions.
1. Mind your portion size: One of the first steps is to stop overloading your plate. The National Institute of Health has a great tool to help you build intuition on the correct portion sizes. It isn’t about obsessing over numbers, but rather to help you learn to listen to your body rather than relying on visual indicators. You might notice that you have more leftovers. That is ok! You’ll learn to adjust over time, and you’ll get better at grocery shopping. But we have to start somewhere! We will be eating food for the rest of our lives, let’s start nurturing a healthy relationship.
2. Intentionally leave food on the plate: We need to rewire your brain to make decisions on internal cues rather than external ones. We want your stomach and brain to tell you when you’ve finished, not the visual cue of a clean plate. Do this gradually—leaving a bit more food on the plate as weeks go by. And by-the-way, this doesn’t mean waste food. Start getting used to keeping leftovers, even if it’s a bite or two.
3. Think while you eat: I mean this in a couple of ways. First, eat with someone else and have a conversation. The study in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that distracted eaters are inherently more intuitive, and are more comfortable leaving food on the plate. If you’re dining alone, maybe listen to a podcast. Keep your brain busy so it isn’t laser-focused on clearing the plate. Secondly, use your brain to check-in with your body. Be mindful of the emotions you’re are feeling, and dismiss them if you need to. Use your brain to listen to your body. You will know when you’re no longer hungry. That is when you should stop eating!
It isn’t easy, but we’ve got to put an end to the clean-plate club. With these tips, you’ll be well on your way!