Finishing all your food to leave a nice clean plate is a normal expectation within most cultures. The threat of ‘no pudding until you finish your dinner’ is a trick that most Western parents use on their children - and it usually works. This idea that finishing all of your food is something to aim for at every meal resonates with most us into adult life and achieving a clean plate eventually becomes a matter of pride.

Empty plate with a fork and leftovers

Clean Plate Culture

The principle of a clean plate has its origins in America, where in 1917 the President created the US Food Administration which aimed to conserve food during World War I and had school children pledging to not leave any food on their plates.

This idea was again brought up in 1947 when the ‘Clean Plate Club’ was created in American schools in response to a scarcity of food after World War II. Recently, a study in ‘Appetite’ found that the majority of parents are still rewarding and praising their children for having a clean plate, so what was once a necessity has now become a habit.

This has also led to the idea that finishing all your food and presenting a clean plate is considered the polite thing to do, whether you’re at home, a restaurant, or a dinner party. You will even find that some restaurants offer rewards such as free desserts for a clean plate. However, recent findings conclude that this attitude to eating could be damaging our health.  

So What’s the Damage?

The problems with striving to always finish what is put in front of you is that it can lead to overeating, and in turn obesity. People will often push through the fullness just to finish what is on their plate.

We’ve all reached for that last roast potato on Christmas day despite being full to bursting, but the result of regularly ignoring your body and eating beyond the point of fullness is that your calorie intake will be too high, and you’ll soon begin to pile on the pounds.

A study in 1999 showed that obese adults had stronger memories of rules from their childhood, such as ‘clean your plate’, than leaner and fitter adults. Furthermore, a study from 2008 showed that children who were told to clean their plate were more likely to ask for larger portions when away from home, giving added weight to the idea that this attitude leads to overeating.

It is believed that this attitude also negatively affects children’s ability to self-regulate food intake, which can be highlighted as another reason for overeating in later life. With all this in mind, hopefully you are starting to believe that abandoning the ‘clean plate club’ may well be just what you need to help burn some of that unwanted fat.  

Time to Change

When the idea was conceived, the availability of food was low and portion sizes were small. But nowadays food scarcity isn’t a problem and portion sizes have greatly increased, so cleaning our plates is far from necessary. It is an attitude of quantity over quality, and it is one that we should change. In her book ‘Must Everyone Clear Their Plates’ Melissa Ann McLain explains that if you can ignore what’s on your plate and stop eating when you are satisfied, then you can increase your awareness of satiety.

This idea of eating according to your body’s internal cues is called intuitive eating, and research is starting to show that it can have real benefits. A study from the University of Minnesota suggested that intuitive eating resulted in a lower BMI and can “promote healthier weight-related outcomes”.

It also found that girls who used intuitive eating were less likely to indulge in binge eating. It is hard to make massive changes immediately; so start slowly. To help ease the transition away from the clean plate club, start putting your food on smaller plates as this will encourage you to eat smaller portions.

Also, try eating healthily five times a day as this will help to keep food cravings at bay.   Hopefully by now you have been convinced to give up your membership of the clean plate club and start listening to your body when it comes to eating. Yes there will be times when you’ll eat past the point of fullness, but the key thing is to stop it becoming the norm. Once you have accomplished that, you’ll have given yourself a great chance to regulate your food intake and lose some of that unwanted weight.