The Surprising Repercussions of the “Clean Plate Club”

The “Clean Plate Club” is well known across the US, used on a daily basis by parents and caregivers alike. However, this previously widely adopted strategy is now being discouraged due to the negative effects seen in adults who were raised with it. In this post, I’ll be talking about what the clean plate is, the potential repercussions, approaches to take instead, and how to rid yourself of the Clean Plate Club mentality as an adult. Let’s dive in!

What is the “Clean Plate Club?”

If you’re not familiar with the concept of the Clean Plate Club, let me explain. The Clean Plate Club is basically a fun term used to encourage kids to finish everything on their plate. The idea is that those who do clean their plates essentially “succeed” and get to join the Clean Plate Club. It can also be used as a bargaining chip. Have you ever heard a parent say, “You can have dessert if you eat the rest of your dinner first.”? This is a way to use dessert as a bargaining chip to get kids to eat their meals.

So why do parents use this in the first place? Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting their child to be well nourished and have a balanced diet. Kids, especially toddlers, can be very picky when it comes to food (which a normal part of this developmental stage and not necessarily something to be concerned about). So to encourage them to eat a variety of foods, including more nutrient-dense foods, parents coerce their children into eating these foods by rewarding them with the Clean Plate Club badge of honor. Other times, often at the same time, parents are trying to prevent food waste, an equally noble intention.

All of this is to say that most parents have the best of intentions when they utilize this strategy. They are not intentionally trying to damage their children’s relationship with food. If you are a parent who has used this strategy, you have nothing to feel guilty about. Parents just want what’s best for their children, and in these circumstances, using the Clean Plate Club can feel like the best option.

Repercussions Later On

At first, it may seem harmless to compel children to finish their food. What’s the problem if it gets them balanced nutrition during these picky stages? Well, let’s talk about it.

When we encourage kids to always clean their plate, we are discouraging them from listening to the natural hunger and fullness cues that we are all born with. They are no longer encouraged to observe how their body is feeling, but to use an external cue to tell them when to stop eating. In turn, moving into adulthood, a person is so used to ignoring their own hunger and fullness cues that they tend to get out of touch with them completely. Similar effects can occur from restrictive dieting, invoking calorie limits, and being too strict with portion sizes. Though these are often in an attempt to reduce the amount of food being consumed (as opposed to the Clean Plate Club which aims to increase intake), they have a similar result – becoming more and more removed from your body’s natural cues. In a similar way to the dieting tactics mentioned above, the Clean Plate Club can poise children to become overeaters into adulthood.

In addition to the repression of hunger and fullness cues, this tactic can also result in an overall poor relationship with food. By requiring kids to clean their plates, it teaches them to view eating, specifically eating nutrient-dense foods, as a chore. Using dessert as a bargaining chip also encourages kids to view dessert and other treats as a “reward.” This creates more of an emotional attachment to certain foods and puts them on a pedestal compared to the foods that were on their dinner plate. As you can imagine, this does not translate well into adulthood. When these children grow up, they are more likely to have issues with emotional eating, binge eating, an out-of-control feeling around food.

What To Do Instead

If you’re a parent, you’re probably thinking, “Great, so I can’t use the Clean Plate Club to encourage my kid to eat… Then what the heck am I supposed to do?” Fortunately, there are several other approaches you can take with your kids that will nurture a healthy relationship with food. Here are the top suggestions straight from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

  • Divide responsibilitiesProvide a variety of tasty and nutritious foods for your children. Leave it up to your kids to determine how much to eat.
  • Plan and prepare meals together. Little kids can bring food from the refrigerator or pantry. Teens can help with slicing vegetables and monitoring food on the stove. Everyone in the family can request favorite vegetables, entrées and sides.
  • Lead by example. If parents and caregivers are good role models for healthy eating, children follow suit.
  • Encourage — don’t force — a taste of everything. Cheer the family on as everyone tries each food and talks about which one they like the most.

As you can see, there are definitely ways to make sure your children are eating well without creating unhealthy habits for them later on. Give these suggestions a try next time you’re tempted to resort to the Clean Plate Club method.

I also want to point out that our relationships with food usually stem from that of our parents. So even if you’re encouraging your children to eat a well balanced diet, if your days are plagued with restrictive dieting, calorie counting, binging, etc, these behaviors will likely rub off on them as well. If you’re a parent and know that your relationship with food could use some work, I recommend following the below suggestions!

How to Rid Yourself of the “Clean Plate Club” Mentality

Maybe you grew up as a proud member of the Clean Plate Club every night, in which case you might be dealing with some of the struggles mentioned above. Now you’re probably thinking, “Wow, so does this mean I’m going to be dealing with these things for the rest of my life? Am I permanently damaged?!” Fortunately, the answer is definitely not! While it can take some work to ditch the Clean Plate Club mentality as an adult, it is 100% doable. Below are some ways in which you can reverse the effects of the Clean Plate Club mentality and reclaim a healthy relationship with food.

  • Stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Instead, try to look at foods in terms of what they can offer your body.
  • Work on turning inward and asking your body when you’re hungry or full, rather than looking towards external cues like calories or arbitrary portion sizes.
  • Learn alternative ways to cope with your emotions that don’t involve food.
  • Get some guidance & support – working with a dietitian who specializes in this area can be extremely helpful in expediting the process. (Apply to work with me here to get the help you need!)

In Closing

Whether you’re a parent trying to improve your child’s relationship with food or an adult trying to work on your own, we can all learn from the Clean Plate Club era. While no parent is to blame for the existence of the Clean Plate Club strategy, hopefully we are able to reflect on what we now know and move forward in a different direction. Let me know if you liked this post, what you learned, and any questions you have in the comments!

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