The Clean Plate Club: Why Your Family Shouldn't Join
by Kelly Burgess
While the clean plate club used to be the norm, experts today agree an empty plate is no longer the healthiest option for children.
When my husband was a child, he and his sisters had to sit at the table until they finished their dinner – even if it meant they sat there until bedtime. Today, even my mother-in-law acknowledges that her rule was more cruel than caring and wonders if it contributed to the eating disorders her daughters later developed.
While it may have been cruel, it wasn't particularly unusual back in those days. Julie Matthews, a San Francisco-based certified nutrition consultant and founder of Healthful Living, says the experiences of our elders during the two world wars and the Great Depression ingrained the idea of the "Clean Plate Club" into the American consciousness. The problem is that even with our current obesity epidemic and new knowledge about how eating patterns are set, some parents still force their kids to join this club.
Starting the Food Wars
Matthews offers some insight into the "Clean Plate Club" with a bit of food history. In August of 1917, Congress passed the Food and Fuel Control Act. Its purpose was to help America avoid food shortages during the war and to curtail importation of food as much as possible. President Woodrow Wilson made Herbert Hoover the head of the U.S. Food Administration, which was charged with implementing the act.
Hoover took a number of measures to regulate all aspects of the food supply in America, but he also relied heavily on the American sense of volunteerism and patriotism. The idea was to conserve food by eating less, self-rationing scarce foods such as flour and sugar and by focusing on eating what you took, so it didn't go to waste. School children signed pledges that said: "At table I'll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate. And I'll not eat between meals, but for supper time I'll wait."
Although the Food Administration was terminated after WWI, the idea of a clean plate as virtuous persisted. Then came the Depression and World War II, so food rationing and shortages remained a national issue.
The Land of Plenty
Needless to say, not too many Americans need to worry any longer about where their next meal is coming from. We now live in a time when we're literally surrounded by more food than we know how to deal with.
"One poll showed that 69 percent of Americans will still clean their plate regardless of how much is on it," says Matthews. "So, what was originally introduced as an incentive for Americans to conserve food and eat less has become an unhealthy habit. To top it off, when you eat whether you're hungry or not the body learns to shut off that hunger message and it becomes very easy to overeat."
This is particularly damaging with children who are still shaping their food habits and preferences. "Trying to force your kids to eat anything, whether it's healthy or not, sets up a situation where they don't trust their caregiver," says Matthews. "Food is supposed to be a nurturing experience beginning when our mothers breastfeed us. When she suddenly stops caring about what your body wants and tells you she's going to force you to eat this whether you like it or not, it creates an unhealthy relationship with food. It also leads to battles that really don't need to be fought."
Michelle Hoffman, of Gibsonia, Penn., has what seems like a very straightforward food rule: If her kids put it on their plate, they have to try it. Her goal is two-fold. She wants to teach her children to not waste food while encouraging them to at least take one bite of something if they show an interest in it.
My rule is this: If my kids don't like what I've fixed, they're free to make themselves a sandwich (that was my mom's rule too).
Ellyn Satter doesn't like either of those rules at all. The first, she says, actually discourages children from trying new foods. The second she thinks keeps kids from building a comfort level with unfamiliar foods.
Satter should know, as she's probably the leading expert in America on feeding children and families. In addition to directing the Ellyn Satter Institute, she's written several books on the subject of healthful eating habits for children and families. "The idea of making food rules is the belief that children will not try new foods unless you force them to, but that's not correct," says Satter. "Children want to learn to eat new foods just as they want to learn other things, like tying their shoes. They fight back if adults get pushy and try to force them."
According to Satter, it can take up to 20 exposures to a new food before a child learns to like it. In one study she cites, two groups of preschoolers were exposed to an unfamiliar fruit. One group was told that they would get a reward for sampling the fruit. With the second group, the food was merely placed in their vicinity without anyone drawing attention to it. In a follow-up session, the second group was more likely to eat the fruit when they were exposed to it again.
"Children will always do more and dare more if they feel they have an out, and food is no exception," says Satter.
Food and Fun
Satter recommends family-style meals where everyone is free to take what they want. In cases where the parent fixes a plate for the child, she says the parent should assure the child that they don't have to eat anything they don't want and can have more of something if they'd like.
Matthews agrees. More importantly, Matthews says we need to change our focus on food to make it fun, rather than a chore. "Cook a variety of nutritious foods, let kids eat what they want to eat and try to make it a fun process so it's a bonding experience," says Matthews. "When I was young I ate sardines and crackers with my father and grandfather. For me it was a treat and an adventure. I can't imagine any other reason a kid would eat sardines! If we can just keep meals in perspective, our kids will grow up with a healthy relationship to all foods."