The Clean Plate Club

At a National Women’s Studies Association meeting, a woman told the following story. When she was a teenager, her mother, a Holocaust survivor, constantly pressured her to eat more and put on weight. Why? Because “in the camps,” her mother explained, “those people who had a few extra pounds could survive a few extra days.”

My mother was not a Holocaust survivor, but her “stuff” around food was intense. The fact that my sister and I had enormous appetites and ate everything put before us was a source of great pride to her. When my own boys ate less, or didn’t like vegetables, she worried that they were “poor eaters.”

Wasting food was the only thing close to “sin” in my childhood family. Not one item of food, not a single pea, was ever tossed. I do not exaggerate. If anything was left over from a meal (which was rarely), or from some one’s plate (which was almost never), it would go into my father’s lunch bag the next day. He was also a “good eater.” He didn’t complain if my mother packed him a string bean sandwich along with a jar of pickle juice (literally) to quench his thirst.

My sister Susan and I were proud members of “The Clean Plate Club,” and we were told to consider “the starving children” if we so much as hesitated over a last bite of mashed potatoes. Imagine my shock when a friend reported that in her Protestant family, she had to leave something on her plate after each meal for “Mr. Manners,” to demonstrate restraint and lack of gluttony. “My mother would die,” I told her.

My biggest challenge with food now is to stop eating when I’m no longer hungry, I reflexively finish everything on my plate— and on everyone else’s plate—at home and in restaurants. Jane Hirschmann started me thinking about the fact that this behavior doesn’t really help starving children and certainly doesn’t help me. But throwing out food from a plate (as opposed to letting it rot in the refrigerator, which it does regularly behind my back) still feels sinful.

I have not passed this legacy to my children. My sons, Matt and Ben, have never heard of “The Clean Plate Club” (or “Mr. Manners,” for that matter). But for me, even at 50, it’s hard to let my membership lapse.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is a senior staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, Topeka, Kansas,and the author, most recently, of The Dance of Deception: Pretending and Truth-Telling in Women’s Lives