5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Make Your Kid Join the Clean Plate Club

It's the club that parents have been pushing for generations, but kids—and adults—are better off without it. Here's how to break the clean plate habit and why it's time to do it.

Small girl refusing to eat vegetable saladShutterstock / Africa Studio
Shutterstock / Africa Studio

I grew up with it, and you probably did, too—a parent persuading you to polish off your dinner to gain membership in the clean plate club. Though well-intentioned, and often an attempt to ensure picky eaters are getting nourishment, a parent’s push for kids to gobble up every morsel on their plates can actually cause more harm than good. Here’s why.

1. Kids Won’t Learn to Stop Eating When They Feel Full

Instead, when the clean plate club is in session, kids learn to stop eating when all the food is gone, which often leads to overeating. To help everyone in the family regulate their eating, keep the TV off during mealtimes to avoid absentminded munching. Parents can also encourage kids to listen to their tummy and pay attention to whether or not they feel full.

2. Cleaning the Plate Is a Hard Habit to Ditch

If you grew up eating everything on your plate, chances are you’ll continue doing it right into adulthood. It’s easier said than done, but if you eat more slowly, you’ll feel full more quickly.

3. It Can Lead to Weight Gain

Eating more than your body needs, or eating more calories than your body burns, causes weight gain and a bevy of other health problems. This is especially true as portion sizes become larger and we still feel compelled to eat everything we’re given.

4. Children Need to Feel Some Control over the Food They’re Eating

When kids are told what, when and how to eat, they don’t feel they have any control over their meals. This can make them retaliate and create dinnertime battles as they fight for a say over some aspect of the experience. Children who are allowed to control some elements of their meals usually end up being better eaters.

5. Kids Typically Don’t Finish All the Food on Their Plate

According to a study at Cornell University, the average child eats 60 percent of the food on their plate, probably because of skepticism over its taste. On the other hand, 92 percent of adults eat all the food they serve themselves. In other words, whatever we put on our plates typically ends up in our stomachs, even if we’re not hungry.

Helpful Hints to Ending a Clean Plate Mentality

  • If you’re concerned about wasting food, save or repurpose the leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. (Psst: You can make this big-batch pulled pork five ways!)

  • Don’t toss your kids’ unfinished dinner. If they ask for a snack moments after leaving the table, place their dinner plate right back in front of them, suggesting they take a few more bites of whatever they want to help fill up.

  • Help create dinnertime success by making sure there’s at least one food on the menu your child will enjoy eating.

  • For children who routinely don’t finish their food, start serving them a bit less, perhaps on a smaller plate so it still looks full.

  • When dishing up food, encourage everyone to start with a modest amount and return for seconds if they still feel hungry.

  • Every parent wants to make sure their kids are eating right and getting the nutrients their growing bodies need. These kid-approved recipes will make it easy.

Turns out the clean plate club was a real thing, started post-Word War II, to prevent food scarcity and encourage Americans not to put more food on their plates than they could eat. With today’s generous portions, the clean plate club’s original goal has been lost, and it’s causing the opposite effect—people eating more than they should.

How ’bout starting a new club—the stop eating when full club? I’ll be the first to sign up!

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