Like many people my age, especially those with parents who grew up in post-war Europe, I was raised to feel that it is a sin—albeit a minor one—to leave food on my plate. I didn’t serve myself, but was expected to finish what I was given. I don’t remember many battles on this front, though my decision to rule certain foods categorically off-limits—beets, anything sweet in a savory dish—may, in hindsight, have been a way to forestall their appearing on my plate at all. My parents provided us with food that was generally healthy and usually home-cooked; they had reasonable rules about dessert and moderation. The rule that all food must be consumed was the most stringent one at our family table. Leftovers were frowned upon; my mother abhors them, and in the decades since I left home that preference has only become more pronounced. I’m (coincidentally?) the opposite: I love having leftovers to feed my perpetually hungry family during off-hours between meals, or to serve when I’m not home to cook. Sure, sometimes I throw away spoiled food, and I’ve been known to forbid anyone besides me to open the freezer, it’s so hazardously packed. But leftovers are the rule rather than the exception in my home.
This imperative to eat everything on my plate—and, ideally, to leave a food-free table—only affects my adult life during the weeks I spend with my parents at their summer home. Between my family, my sister’s growing family, guests and other relatives, we often have a large number of people at table. They’re also folks with whose appetites I’m not as familiar, so it’s challenging to gauge the precise amount of food that will meet my mother’s requirements: enough to feed everyone well (and satisfy her expansive Mediterranean side) but to leave no pesky leftovers (her frugal British side). Furthermore, we’re such a polite family that no one wants to be the one to take the last of something. Have you heard of “FHB”? It’s an acronym familiar to all Brits who grew up with or within memory of World War II rationing. It means “Family Hold Back.” Needless to say, these conflicting drives result in a similar end to each meal: someone (my mother) passing around the serving dishes, plaintively asking everyone to finish them. “Please, someone has to eat it!” is her refrain, especially on the evenings when I’ve cooked, as my own pet peeve that we might leave the table hungry leads to greater quantities of food than she’d ever prepare (even besides the meal when I mistakenly boiled a kilo of spaghetti for five people).
No one but me seems much to mind this scenario, which repeats itself at each meal. My mother gets testy when I suggest, “Why can’t we leave it? Perhaps everyone is full?” as she believes everyone is secretly hiding their deep hunger for that last morsel—and sometimes she’s right, which doesn’t help my case. I plead for greater appetite transparency: why can’t everyone just admit they’d like it? It would make things so much easier. To no avail. Occasionally I get so annoyed that I eat something I absolutely don’t want, overruling my full stomach, just to Make. It .Stop.
In searching for the root of my particular sensitivity to this edict—and it has grown stronger with the arrival of my own children, also now unwilling participants in this scene—I strike upon a deep, dark childhood trauma. Although it’s not a phrase one sees much any more, especially in the US, there’s a type of prix fixe menu that still has the power to make me shudder: Table d’Hôte. I spied it on the menu of a fancy hotel where we were dining, when I was about ten. Impressed equally by the long list of delicious-sounding dishes and by the French poshness of the term, I put up a heated argument that this was what I wanted to order. My parents put up a good fight, but they were no match for me, and I prevailed…with one condition: if I ordered it, I had to eat it. All of it. And that was the last time I’ve ever even been tempted to order such a grotesque thing as the horrid “Table d’Hôte.” I’m still not sure what distinguishes it from other prix fixe menus other than its overdose of courses (perhaps meant to represent the ideal host’s generosity?), but our car trip home is not a scene I care to revisit. I have to give my parents full credit for this tactic, which worked to a fault, and stands out in my memory not only as a testament to my gluttony but also as one of the rare times I had to acknowledge my parents might actually, sometimes, be right.
It’s not surprising, then, between this traumatic history and our present dinnertime confusion, that the recent New York Times article “Saying Good Riddance to the Clean-Plate Club” caught my eye. The author cites studies showing that connecting eating to external cues—cleaning your plate; a caregiver’s well-meaning admonitions to “finish your vegetables”; even, I’d argue, “eating healthy”—is not correlated to the healthiest behaviors. It’s the internal cues of fullness and satiety that we need to listen to and encourage. Without the threat of famine or deprivation, it doesn’t make sense to insist a child (or adult) eat every last morsel set before them. This insistence also exacerbates the tendency for meals to become power struggles between parent and child. My grandmother used to tell us a horrifying tale from her childhood in the early 1920s, when a bowl of soup she and one of her sisters particularly hated was placed before them for five straight meals--breakfast, lunch, dinner, and round again--while the rest of her family went about their normal lives. I think she was trying to impress upon us the futility of resistance to parental rules. But there was a definite wistfulness in her recollection, and an envy of her younger sister, who eventually dashed outside with it and flung it away, while she, the dutiful elder sister, finally choked it down.
I still, despite all this, find it immensely difficult to leave food on my plate: I’m too conscious of how much waste there is in the world, not to mention of how many are still genuinely deprived. But isn’t it crazy to turn our own good fortune into a club with which to bludgeon ourselves? Whether or not you finish your meal really won’t make a difference to the mythical starving child in Africa. If anything, it confirms that inappropriately large portions are our birthright and perpetuates one of the causes of obesity. Certainly, in an ideal world, no one would ever help herself to more food than she could eat. The amazing Ellyn Satter, who’s as sensible on the subject of feeding children as anyone I’ve read, suggests serving all meals family-style for this exact reason, letting each family member take only so much as he or she wants, but I’ve never found this to work particularly well, at least not with younger children. And frankly, even adults frequently misjudge what they’re capable of eating at any given meal.
So what’s the solution? It seems so simple: allow children to stop eating when they’re full. Show them how by stopping eating when you are. Learn to pay more attention to your body’s signals and teach them to do the same. Yet the reality we live is not nearly so clear-cut. We’re bombarded with hunger-inducing ads and images all day long; our culture generally favors a few regular meals at regular times, rather than many small meals to fulfill hunger when it arises; we are sorely tempted to overrule our bodies’ satiety signals when particularly tempting treats appear; and excessive thinness is worshipped as the highest virtue. Not to mention that allowing children to serve themselves would simply be a greater abdication of control than many parents could bear, including me, in part because children aren’t always the best judges of what they ought to eat. Intuitive eating is all well and good, but when your intuition tells you to eat an ice-cream sundae instead of a meal, some intervention is necessary.
Ultimately, we have no choice but to continue to struggle through and negotiate all these challenges, but it certainly helps to aim always for what is, truly, a simple goal: to teach our children and ourselves to eat the best amount for our own individual metabolisms. And taking the request to eat it all off the plate, so to speak, seems like a pretty reasonable place to start. Doesn’t it, Mommy?
What I cooked this week: