Practicing Parents

The Clean Plate Club

~ by Bromleigh McCleneghan


We go to my folks for dinner most Sunday nights.  It is our Sabbath ritual. The weather is still nice, so the girls play outside with their cousins, feeding the birds and the fish, racing scooters or remote control cars on the driveway, cuddling with aunts and uncles on the patio furniture as they report on their week at school.  It is just the teensiest bit idyllic.

We eat crackers and cheese and good guacamole while my dad cooks and someone makes the fruit bowl. The kids fill up on cheese before dinner is served. On a recent evening, my older daughter filled her own plate for the meal.  She selected small portions of protein and fruit and sides.  There’s not much on that plate, I commented, but I suppose that’s better than taking too much. Her eyes were, appropriately, smaller than her stomach.

After only a few minutes, though, she brought me her plate from across our picnic set-up.  Can I be done?  At least half her food remained.  Um, no. You’ve hardly eaten anything.

G-mama says there’s no clean plate club at her house.

This is true.  When my parents were growing up, the clean plate club was a regular feature at their tables, leading to alternately sad and comedic stories of forced consumption of cold vegetables and the resurrected hard-boiled egg that refused to keep the secret of having been flushed down the toilet. (Little Lauri (now G-mama) learned the hard way that if you want to avoid eating the latter, secreting it away to the bathroom in your napkin to flush the evidence just won’t work).  Subsequently, both my mother and father rejected that approach when I was growing up, and, indeed, my sisters and I were never made to finish everything set before us.

Experts affirm the validity of this approach.  It is important for children to learn when they are hungry and to sense when they are full. It is important for them not to tie eating to power struggles or guilt and shame over left food; eating is not supposed to be fraught. Food as battle ground, particularly for girls, can lay the foundation of eating disorders of a variety of sorts.

I am grateful for the lessons I learned about food at our family table: that we seek balanced meals, don’t freak out over the necessity of a rare meal of food-in-a-bag on a busy night, and eat when we are hungry. I also, though, remember the feelings of shame I experienced during one of my first communal meals in seminary, when I did not clear my plate, when I left almost a full serving of something I discovered I didn’t like. We are called to be good stewards of our resources, after all, and here I was, taking more than I could eat, wasting food.  The fact that we composted the leftovers was the only thing that partially redeemed my sin.

My shame, though, did not ultimately lead me to institute the clean plate club in my own household; more often we try to encourage the girls to eat what they take, and start with small portions, and give them more when they want it. We only scold them a little when they are wasteful — but we are intentional about pointing out the waste.

That night my daughter cited the rules of my mother’s house, she was actually just trying to game a shortcut to dessert. My mom, whom we call a “grandchild apologist,” was not in on our conversation.  I told Fiona that if she had room for ice cream, she had room to finish her dinner, and she acquiesced pretty quickly. But the moment gave me pause.

I preached a sermon on Joshua recently – the verses you always see on wall hangings in the home décor section of Hobby Lobby: As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. I talked about our struggle to do that; how we are trying, but it is not always easy.  Sometimes we have conflicting hopes for our kids: we want them to be good stewards, but we don’t want them to eat when they’re not hungry. We want them to learn to exercise their own agency – to learn to make good choices – but we also know they would routinely choose ice cream over chicken or broccoli if left to their own devices.

I had to laugh as my daughter, unwittingly or otherwise, pitted my mother and me against each other in the clean plate debate. I was frustrated with her, because I didn’t want to challenge my mom, or disregard the ‘rules’ of her home. But my frustration inspired bemusement with myself as well, for fretting about the long-range outcome of a fairly mundane exchange.  My kid can’t remember that I asked her to put her socks on ten minutes ago; why am I worried she’ll ruminate on my insistence that she eat her dinner?

I can’t imagine that I’ll ever manage to transcend these tensions in any ultimate way; not this side of heaven. But I think it might be enough to present my girls with a number of positive ends and try to model the way to navigate them with integrity. Maybe even more than okay. To know that many people love them and yet have slightly different ways of inhabiting the world  — that there is more than one faithful way to do things – this is surely a good thing. A blessing, even.


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