Thanksgiving is coming and you know what else is coming? A lot of food, a lot of leftovers and this nagging feeling to stay in the “clean plate club” because that is how you were raised. 

So you’re thinking ahead (go, you!):

“whatever I do, I need to portion out my meals, plan and portion my snacks and then I can stay in control. This time I am not overeating.” 

The problem is that you can’t ever seem to *not* clear your plate. No matter what you promise yourself. Ugh! What gives?

If you’re wondering how you break this dang cycle that seems to date back to your grandmother’s kitchen and let go of the guilt over starving children somewhere else in the world that would be grateful for the casserole on your plate – this post is for you. 

An overhead shot of a woman slicing a piece of pumpkin pie on a wooden table

what is the clean plate club?

Have you heard of the clean plate club? It is the notion that leaving any food on your plate, even a little scrap, is wasteful. Many of us, myself included, grew up in a household where the expectation was that if there was food on your plate, it was your job, nay your duty, to finish. My Nonna would raise the bar. Not only were we to clean our plates, she’d celebrate the grandchild who ate up all her pasta the fastest. 

Fullness cues be damned. 

Interestingly, in US culture, the clean plate club came from an even more authoritative source than your grandmother. It dates back to a presidential campaign in 1917 by president Woodrow Wilson in an effort to ration the limited food supplies following WWI. It was a person’s civic duty to clear their plate, and was taught to children with the following pledge: 

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.” (1)

By following these recommendations during a time that food was scarce, children performed their civic duty, ate every bite offered, and therefore, “cleaned their plate.”

One important thing to remember is that it isn’t actually a “bad” thing to finish what is on your plate. What can be problematic is if cleaning your plate regularly brings youg WAY past comfortable fullness, or, you find yourself cleaning your plate just because you feel like you’re supposed to – whether or not you even enjoy it! 

a woman with black painted nails placing a fresh raspberry on top of a mini cheesecake

On your journey with Intuitive Eating, you may have heard more information about all of the foods that you’re allowed to eat (read: all of ‘em). But part of the journey is about honoring your body as you eat the foods you want, and this includes listening to your fullness. 

If you’re new to Intuitive Eating: welcome! This post is for you: What is intuitive eating?

Day in and day out, the amount and types of food you need to nourish your body and spirit is going to vary. Everything from your activity level, previous meals and snacks, your age, hormone cycles (my cravings and appetite do a 180 during that time of the month…how about you?) and even your mood and how much you slept will impact what you need.

The purpose of this article is to empower you to be in charge of your own plate, rather than feeling like the clean plate club – or any other rule about how much you should eat – is running the show.

help: I can’t seem to stop eating

We are most comfortable and confident with skills and habits that we have practiced. And if you grew up in a clean plate club house, you’ve practiced cleaning your plate for years and years and meals and meals and meals. 

So while it would be nice if establishing new habits were as simple as telling yourself to stop doing this, the reality is that this takes practice. This is 100% normal and nothing to feel ashamed about. 

And even if you didn’t grow up in a “clean plate club” house there are many reasons that a person can struggle with stopping when full. A lot of my clients eat past their fullness cues; it is really common. We’re just not all that sensitive to fullness cues compared to say, hunger cues. Short of getting sick to our stomachs, fullness won’t kill us in the short term. 

Hunger on the other hand? Our bodies are built to let us know LOUDLY when we need food, and they are a little less loud in telling us when we’ve had enough! That is why I work with my clients on this in my group program (more on the program in a bit – keep reading!). 

three tips to exit the clean plate club, for good.

Many of my clients feel frustrated when they don’t feel like they’re in control of how much they’re eating. And when they clean their plate and feel physically uncomfortable they feel morally defeated. The idea they’ve messed up tends to send them into “eff it mode” and continue the spiral: overeating and promising the next day will be different. 

Difficulty listening to fullness – for whatever reason – leads to more dieting restrictions without ever addressing the reason they ate like that in the first place!

It is exhausting and defeating.  

If you are walking away from meals feeling distressed by the feeling of fullness – mentally or physically – remember that cleaning your plate is not the problem in and of itself!  The diet cycle, and the mindset behind it, is the problem that feels so exhausting to you.  

Since the rule of always cleaning your plate is not realistic or necessary beyond the era of Woodrow Wilson and your grandmother’s kitchen, I say – let go of it! This way you can actually learn to listen and respond to your body.

And just to reiterate: we aren’t robots. There will be meals that you do clean your plate – maybe for meals on end – and that is perfectly fine. My goal is that you feel in charge, comfortable and happy in your choices around food. The following three tips help you to feel in command and no longer a member of the mandatory clean plate club. 

Here is how to step off of the spiral: 

Tune into your surroundings

Are you using any tools to guide how much you “should” be eating, rather than learning to listen to your own body cues? Outside monitors can interfere with your building trust with your own hunger cues. 

Examples of outside monitors of intake include using a specific portion control plate or container, using an app to track calories or portions or points or saying that you shouldn’t be hungry because you ate an hour ago? These food rules do not allow for you to tune into your own fluctuating needs, and often invite shame and guilt to the table. Who wants to share space with them?

Many clients tell me if they’re only hungry for X calories, but their tracker says they’re allowed “x” more – they actually eat them because they are owed! 

Instead of using these trackers and tools – consider what kind of surroundings really help you connect with your body instead. My clients explore techniques like using table settings, eating in calm environments, and, putting their phones aside during meals.

P.S. if Noom has been one of your dieting tools, check out this blog post: is Noom a scam? Noom isn’t the key to a successful relationship with food.

check in with yourself

Before you eat and as you’re eating, check in with your body cues: notice how you feel.

Do you feel hungry? Are you starting to notice fullness? Are you feeling anything unpleasant?

How about your emotions? What is bubbling up within you as you eat? Is it your Nonna saying “mangia! mangia! (eat! eat!)” — or is that just me?

Ask yourself if you are eating in response to any of these feelings you notice or if you’re eating in response to something else – like the size of the plate, or, your memory of portions you “should” eat.

What information have you collected from your check-ins? This is just data, neither good nor bad, just information. As you begin to slow down and take notice of your eating habits and how you feel as you move through meals, you’ll learn to tune in without so much effort. But as a new habit, it takes a little bit of practice. 

Do you remember learning to drive, when the car felt as big as a boat and you accidentally almost flung your mother through the windshield by stomping on the brakes? Learning to tune into your own eating is just like that: we feel a bit more clumsy with new skills and this is 100% normal. 

With practice, you’ll reach comfort and confidence.

A beautiful gold and white place setting on a Thanksgiving table cloth

remember your own full permission to eat

And that brings us to our third and final tip for leaving the clean plate club: remembering that you always have permission to eat. Even sweets. 

Remind yourself that you are allowed to put food in front of yourself anytime you want. And having this full permission to eat reduces what is called “the forbidden fruit phenomenon” where you eat foods during the brief time that they are legal, as though they’re about to go out of style. 

For many of my clients, sweets and desserts are “forbidden” and so, many of my clients don’t feel in control of their eating around sweets. That’s why I have a blog post all about how to enjoy sweets without losing control

In addition, based on past conversations with clients, I can predict that you may be thinking about special foods like your very favorite Thanksgiving side dish (I like to dig for the pool of butter melting within the mashed potatoes, for me) or special holiday dessert (Nonna always brings Ricotta pie, and it is my favorite. 

What if I truly can’t get them anytime I want? 

I will ask you to consider these two questions: 

  1. Is it true? 

There is no (real) rule that says mashed potatoes are ONLY for holidays. And if you identify one of diet culture’s made up rules, feel free to kick that rule out of your house. 

  1. If it is actually true, how can you make the experience special?

If it is true – let’s say it’s Aunt Millie’s cookies she only makes once per year,  consider: how can you make the experience of eating them special? Can you take some home to continue the experience a bit longer? 

How can you really savor it so you aren’t feeling sick, which is certainly not satisfying? Hint: guilt doesn’t feel satisfying. Let it go! Remember to enjoy these special treats with full permission to enjoy each and every bite. 

And that’s it! Three tips to exit the clean plate club so that you have full permission to eat – and stop eating – in harmony with your own hunger. 

If you share a household or meals with a current member of the clean plate club, you may want to bookmark our post about communicating with your spouse as your relationship with food and eating evolves: how to communicate better with your spouse about Intuitive Eating.

key takeaways: leaving the clean plate club

And that’s a wrap! Leaving the clean plate club means that as an intuitive eater, you have full permission to eat the amount of food that serves your body and spirit the best, no matter the amount of food that you started with on your plate. 

If you feel like something…something that you just can’t put your finger on….is holding you back from using the skills in this post and becoming an Intuitive Eater, take my quiz and find out what. The answer may surprise you!

And in the meantime – happy eating!