Clean Your Plate Syndrome

As a child, my grandmother used to tell me that if I finished off every last crumb off my plate, then my future husband’s face would be free of blemishes. Cleaning off my plate meant that I was beautiful, that I was obedient and kind.

I believed her. Every time I wiped clean all the food set out in front of me, I beamed with pride. I didn’t know who my husband was going to be, I didn’t know if he was going to be smart or handsome, but I definitely, definitely knew that he would have the skin of a baby’s bum.

Regardless of how stuffed I felt, then, I would trudge through my food, bite after bite, for the sake of my soul mate.

Mind you, I was eight years old.

Which, of course, made the issue that much more compelling.

Soon enough, this behavior became a habit, and it stuck with me for many years. I never thought once about whether or not the meal still tasted delicious or if I was tired of eating. If there was food on my plate, I made sure to eat it all.

It didn’t occur to me for the longest time that this idea was complete bogus. And it took me even longer to fully understand that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by continuing to eat this way.

If you’re a victim of Clean Your Plate Syndrome, then read on. There are a few things you should know.

There’s plenty of food to go around.

My grandmother grew up in a time when food was hard to come by. That meant that the few times she was able to procure a small handful of rice, she made sure to devour every last grain. Not a single morsel was to go to waste, as calories were precious.

This mentality stuck with her and she eventually passed it on to her children and then her grandchildren. We never questioned her – because after all, she was a full-grown adult, which obviously meant that she had all the right answers to every single matter in the world (right?).

Things are drastically different today. If you’re able to read this right now, chances are pretty good that you’re dealing with the opposite problem: an overabundance of food. Which means that the clean-your-plate mindset doesn’t quite apply anymore – yet here we are, slurping down every last noodle without a second thought.

But really, we have so much food readily available to us. You can heap as much or as little food onto your plate as you’d like, and there will still be enough food for the next meal. And the next. And the one after that.

You are not helping starving children in Africa.

This was the other argument that was presented whenever someone would dare to leave a bite or two left on their plate.

“Think of all the starving children in Africa!” others would cry.

I can kind of see where the logic stems from – but only kind of. I believe the thought process is that we should be grateful to have access to food that the less fortunate would die for, and therefore we shouldn’t let that food go to waste by tossing it out.

Fair enough.

But how about: don’t put so much food on your plate in the first place.

Or: only pile on as much as you’re going to eat.

Not to mention, not finishing your meal actually does nothing – literally nothing – to help those starving children.

A clean plate is not a happy plate.

Who the hell came up with that saying, “A clean plate is a happy plate?”

Since when did plates get feelings?

I say that in half-jest, but in all seriousness, how is listening to your body’s signals not more important?

If you’re taught to clean your plate – regardless of how much food is on there, how it tastes, and how you’re feeling – then you’re not going to be able to recognize when you are truly full and satisfied. Instead, you’re going to override those in favor of external factors: finish your broccoli if you want dessert, eat all your pasta before you watch TV, be a good girl and take that last bite.

Your future spouse’s complexion does not depend on your finishing your plate.

But we already know that.

(Grandma, I still love you.)

The beauty of listening to your body is that you can order a giant breakfast and eat just enough to feel satisfied. Plate: not cleaned.

How did Clean Your Plate syndrome affect me?

For the longest time, I didn't know how to listen to my body. I didn't know when I was full. I didn't treat yummy food any differently from mediocre food - either way, I still ate it all.

I'd go out to a restaurant and eat myself silly. If I ordered a plate of fries, I finished it all off, regardless of how I was feeling.

As funny as this may sound, it actually never occurred to me that I could put down my fork at any point

Rather than mindlessly chomping away at your food, raise your standards.

Eat only food that you love and that tastes delicious. Is the first bite amazing? Then you’re on the right track. As soon as it stops tasting out of this world, that’s your signal that you’re done.

Or if you’re feeling reasonably full (maybe a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10), take a break.

Remember, you always have a choice.