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  • Writer's pictureCarly Onopa

Graduate from the Clean Plate Club

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Growing up I would often hear at the dinner table “you better finish your plate because there are starving kids in (insert third world country here).” The expectation being that my plate better be clean by the time I’m finished. Maybe growing up you heard similar statements.

“Finish your plate and then you can have a cookie”

“Aunt Sally made this just for you. You’ll make her feel bad if you don’t have a piece”

“You’re wasting (insert food name) that your Dad spent all night preparing”

Maybe it wasn’t comments that were made at your table, but rather food situations that you were in. Maybe you grew up in a large family and you felt the need to eat quickly or else you may not have enough. Maybe you were (or are) food insecure and are unsure when your next meal is coming. These are some ways that a person is inducted into the Clean Plate Club.

While our society often puts a lot of pressure on caregivers when it comes to food and I believe that most caregivers do their best with what they have, “clean plate” messaging has an impact on a person’s relationship with food.

What are the impacts of clean plate messaging?

It is important to know that finishing your plate is not a bad thing. In fact, it is quite normal for intuitive eaters to plate their food to their hunger and finish their plate. What we are talking about is finishing a plate no matter how much is served.

The impacts of clean plate messaging are that it disconnects a person from their body’s internal cues and creates a reliance on external sources to tell a person when they are finished. As years of relating to food in this manner go by, this can become an automatic habit or feel like a value.

How can I graduate from the Clean Plate Club to the Intuitive Eating Club?

It’s important to remember that Intuitive Eating has 10 Principles and will not be accomplished over night.

However, there are steps that we can take to improve our relationship with food and learn our body’s cues.

Start by identify the reason for finishing your plate – is it an automatic habit or a value? If you sit down to a meal and the next thing you know you look down and your plate is clean, you are likely finishing your plate as an automatic habit. If you sit down to a meal and leaving even a bite of food on your plate makes you feel guilty (whether about waste or about finances), finishing your plate is more of a value.

If it’s an automatic habit, work on being present at a meal. Before starting your meal, put away all distractions and create a positive eating environment. Label your level of hunger prior to starting a meal and any negative thoughts that may impact your ability to enjoy your meal. Then practice a grounding skill by engaging your 5 senses. Then try eating your meal with your non-dominant hand. All of these strategies help increase our awareness and can help us make a conscious decision to stop eating when we have reached comfortable fullness.

If it’s more a value, identify what is the value that feels violated when you don’t eat your entire plate. If you are unsure what value is being challenged by not finishing your plate, try leaving one or two bites at the end of a meal and sitting with whatever emotions arise. Once you identify what value is feeling violated, we can also find other ways to live out that value that doesn’t detract from your relationship with food.For instance, if as a person I value spending money in a frugal way, I may think “I have to get the best bang for my buck and eat everything.” A way for this person to live out their value of frugal spending is to consider eating to their fullness and taking home any leftovers after they have reached comfortable fullness and repurposing later in the week.

Listen to your body’s fullness cues and make a conscious decision to stop eating. When we have reached a satisfying fullness level, try making a conscious decision to stop and enjoy the content feeling after a meal. This will help on your journey to intuitive eating.

A special note for those healing from disordered eating or eating disorders.

While it may feel counter intuitive, it is important to know that it is not uncommon to start with 100% completion at meals. This helps to re-regulate a person’s hunger and fullness cues and to challenge any disordered thoughts around the frequency, amount, and types of food a person needs to eat.

Intuitive Eating work is best started when eating disorder/disordered eating behaviors have ceased and when hunger cue identification is present. Once a person can identify how hungry they are and what they are hungry for a person can start to progress to more attuned eating.


Clean plate messaging impacts a person’s ability to listen to their own body’s cues to tell them when they are full. Exploring clean plate messaging is a part of relearning fullness cues and working towards intuitive eating.

If you’re finding you need more help in navigating your progression towards Intuitive Eating, please contact me for individual nutrition counseling.


Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works

Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food

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