“Clean Your Plate!”

My son ate all but one pizza roll, and I was looking at it, wondering how in the world he did that. You see, I could NEVER. I can’t because there’s too many brainwashed messages about “cleaning my plate”. I could never leave ONE piece of food no matter how full I was. Even if I was on the verge of sickness.

The idea of cleaning my plate has been drilled into me all my life. It was the mantra at daycare lunchtime (“Make a happy plate!”), the absolute rule at dinnertime at home, and the idea that I push on myself even now, in my 40s because I can’t bare to waste a bite. It’s mentally painful. I can’t describe why except that it’s ingrained in my psyche.

There’s a memory that stands out about this, above all others. When I was a kid, I asked for a second helping of something. I guess I was really enjoying it. My dad knew that he gave me too much. And he told me to eat it all. He was cruel like this. Well, I took a few bites and realized I was full. He insisted that I eat it anyway. It became a whole ordeal. Me sitting at the table, crying. Him, yelling about me asking for more when I shouldn’t have and insisting that I would not leave the table until I finished every bite. My mom, begging him to let it go.

He left the table and began his nightly routine, leaving me sitting there to think about what I had done as I gorged myself, and my mom stayed and cleaned the kitchen. I tried my hardest to eat the huge pile remaining on my plate, but my little body just could not hold it. And I was little, despite the fact that I was an overweight child who was probably already eating more than other kids my age. Maybe that’s why my dad pulled this stunt. I always felt it was a way to punish me for being what he considered a glutton. Maybe he was just in a mood and wanted to be an ass. Either way, it has stayed with me my whole life.

Finally, he got in the shower, and my mom quickly took my plate of unfinished food and scraped it into the garbage. She threw some other things on top of it and told me not to say a word. She dismissed me, and I went to my room to play. A little while later, my dad called me into the kitchen, and I went in there. My mom was visibly upset, and I immediately felt the tension. He had found the food hidden in the can! Obviously, he didn’t trust that I ate it all because he already knew it couldn’t be done! Imagine someone knowing that a child couldn’t possibly eat that much and then forcing them to anyway. Think back to that Matilda scene with the chocolate cake. That scene was always so hard for me to watch, because I personally identified with it.

That night didn’t go well for me, or for my mom. One of the many things from our past life that we tucked away and never discuss. Until recently. One day, my son wanted to get up and play while we were having dinner. He had barely eaten at all and I knew he would be hungry later, so I told him that he had to take two bites and then he could leave the table. My mom said that I sounded like my dad. This, of course, infuriated me and I retorted that this was a completely different situation and that he hadn’t eaten anything, so he couldn’t possibly be full. Asking a child to take two small bites of food is a far cry from forcing a child to eat a large pile of food when they’ve previously eaten one plate full. I find my mom often trying to overcompensate for the abuse she suffered, usually to an irrational extent like this, but that’s another discussion for another time.

This brings me back to that empty plate with just one pizza roll. Maybe it’s the emotional trauma that gets me, maybe it’s the daily harping by the daycare workers. Maybe it’s because I’m a fat girl who likes to eat. Maybe it’s all of these things combined with the poverty that I endure. But I know this: That one little bite of food gnaws at me and mocks me, as I ponder eating it, even though I don’t particularly like pizza rolls, especially cold ones. I just don’t like to see the waste. I always tell my kids not to waste food and get quite upset when they do. However, I never tell them to clean their plates! I say “don’t take more than you can eat, and if you do, wrap it up and save it for lunch tomorrow.” To me, this is a good compromise. And I don’t always make them save it, but if it’s a whole plate, I usually strongly suggest it. We can’t afford to waste food, and they know that.

I throw the plate and the pizza roll away. A few minutes later, my son realizes this, and he complains, even after he was asked if he wanted it. He says to me, “I might have wanted that for later.” I reply to him, “If you want more later, you can heat up fresh ones. It’s okay to throw away one pizza roll.” As I say this to him, I am also saying it to myself, knowing I have accomplished something big by sharing this very small sentiment.