Not a trash can

If you’re like most of us, your mom taught you to “clean up your plate.” She didn’t want you to waste food. She might have added, “After all, there are children in (name a country) who are starving.” The “clean plate” concept was made popular in our country by President Herbert Hoover during a time of food shortage. And later, during World War II and the Great Depression, the idea resurfaced as a patriotic effort to conserve food.

Turns out, your mom was right. No one should waste food. And children in many countries really are hungry. But eating everything on your plate is not necessarily the solution.

Forcing children to finish the food on their plates, essentially trains them to ignore the “I’m full” signals sent by the brain. Instead it teaches them that the end of the meal is when the plate is empty. That works if your plate happened to have the right amount of food on it. But what if your plate had too much food on it? Or worse, what if you’re grazing and there is no plate at all? Will you be “full” at the end of your bag of chips? Or the carton of ice cream? If you were raised to always clean your plate, you may not be tuned in to those “full signals.”  So now as an adult, how do you know how much to eat?


Here’s the first message to tell yourself. If you stuff yourself because you don’t want to waste food, you’ve wasted it anyway. Give yourself permission not to be the trash can.


There are hormones that signal fullness and satiety. Learn to listen. If you have overridden those signals for years, this will take time, but it’s worth your effort.


Start by eating real meals and never taking a bite when it’s not mealtime. Instead, give yourself time to get hungry. You may have to start out guessing just a bit when it comes to the right amount. Go ahead and take a guess. If you’re starving before the next meal, then you didn’t eat quite enough. If you’re not very hungry at the next meal, then you ate a bit too much. Adjust the volume and go from there. Learn what “just right” feels like.


Eating fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains will allow you to be full with the correct volume. If instead, you are choosing calorie-dense foods like high-fat, processed or fast foods, you will get too many calories before you’re full.


Here’s the rule for small children. You decide what they eat. They decide how much to eat. You’re choosing the healthy foods. But they are the only ones who know if they’ve had enough. So let them stop when they’re full.


Still not sure how to get started? A dietitian can help you with some simple meal planning and can help you meet your nutritional goals. Many insurance plans will cover dietitian visits at 100%.

So listen to your body and stop when you’re full. Invest in a few left-over containers and let your refrigerator keep any extra food for you until you’re hungry again. Your body will thank you.

by Dorothea Sarli, MS RDN LDN 
Registered Dietician Nutritionist