In a recent post, I casually dropped a reference to the classic childhood memory of being told to clean your plate because children are starving in _____ (fill in with the typical, not-always-accurate-but-usually-far-away, place.) By the way, do parents still say this these days?
I realized after reading the comments in that post that I didn't fully express my thoughts about this tactic to get kids to eat their dinner. Like most of the commenters, I'm not in favor of it, and have had to work at undoing the habit of cleaning my plate in my own life. The Clean Plate Club teaches us three things, usually using three not-always-so-skillful emotions: the first is guilt for not finishing everything on our plates, the second is some kind of fear around lack of food and the third is pity (and some more of that guilt) for someone less fortunate than ourselves.
Encouraging eating via guilt is a setup for all sorts of problems, including overeating. Cleaning our plate becomes deeply habitual and teaches us to override the signals our body is sending us that we're full. We finish eating when the plate is empty and not when we're satisfied, eventually causing us to lose the sense of what being satisfied means.
Instead of guilt and fear, I like to encourage appreciation and gratitude. We can encourage children (and ourselves) to notice, appreciate and enjoy what is right there in front of us. Ask children questions about what they are tasting, engage them in stories about their food, teach them where it comes from.
And there's also appreciation and gratitude for being fed, for having access to safe and reliable food sources. Often this can be covered in the ritual of a mealtime prayer or blessing, but it can also come up in casual discussion. The most important thing is to introduce children to a sense of gratitude, and to not take food for granted.
The blessing/curse of privilege is a tricky road to traverse, so teaching children how to be compassionate and to consider others is a critical life lesson. Something more meaningful, like helping out at a soup kitchen or raising money for hunger relief, will go a lot further than becoming a member of The Clean Plate Club.
So in the end, I continue to think its very important not to waste food and that this a fine thing to teach children. But not by licking our bowls clean at every meal (although that can be a really fun thing to do, especially if they contain chocolate ice cream.)
(Image: Dana Velden)