French toast and thoughts on a clean plate

That’s cinnamon-orange brioche French toast with mixed berry compote at Cafe Selmarie on Lincoln Avenue.  I ate it for breakfast with a cup of coffee, and it was good.

Leaving food on my plate, especially in a restaurant that serves $8 French Toast, is a fairly new phenomenon.

I was taught to clean my plate because wasting food is a sin.  Throwing away perfectly good food meant wasting money and wasting resources.  Somewhere in the world there was a starving child who would be grateful for those fish sticks slowly growing cold next to a pile of perfectly cubic frozen corn, peas, carrots, and lima beans, and if I didn’t finish them it would be like I traveled back in time and slapped Jesus in the face while he hung there on the cross atoning for the sins of spoiled little girls like me.

I don’t think it’s wrong to say that “food is precious,” and to teach children to be respectful and conscious of hunger in the world, but I don’t think the clean plate directive was helpful to me in developing healthy eating habits.  My Yia Yia functioned as my day care when I was small, and she lived to cook and to see people eat.  If she put something on my plate and I ate it all, it was a signal that I really liked it and that it should be immediately replaced with more, and so I developed an appetite for more, because more meant that everyone was happy, so I’d clean two or three plates instead of one even if at the end I felt sick. I had a bottomless appetite for attention, love, approval, and scrambled eggs with feta, because I have a boundless appetite for any good or enjoyable thing:  I don’t watch a TV show, I rent or borrow the entire season and watch it over a day or two.  I don’t make a short film or two and see how I like it, I apply to a graduate film program.  I don’t try to start cooking and eating a bit healthier, I start a food blog and photograph everything I eat.  I was raised Catholic, and if I had taken to religion the way I take to other things, I would be a nun right now, the kind with a shaved head who wears a habit.  This fall I want to start volunteering with kids and art in some way, but I’m a little afraid that if I do I will open a school for wayward boys like Jo in Little Women.

I go to eleven.

Anyway, using a clean plate as a measure of what I should eat meant that my ideas about portion size were dictated by what was on the plate, not by what I wanted or felt.  And while my parents led by example and doled out food in sensible portions, once we cleaned our plates, and maybe had seconds, there was always pressure on someone to finish off that one spoonful of something left in the pan.  “Come on, we’re not going to freeze that, might as well finish it off.”   So, as a family, we didn’t have to just clean the plate, we had to clean all the pots and pans, too.

As a child and teenager there was soccer, skiing, track, cross country, dancing in show choir, biking around my rural town, and wicked games of floor hockey in PE class to burn everything off.  Also, I waited tables all through high school and during the summers in college, so my job involved constant motion.  So the clean plate habit, and the “that was good, can I have more?” habit, and the “might as well finish it off – who saves 1/3 cup of macaroni & cheese for later?” habit  didn’t really catch up with me until college and especially my early 20s, where all that moving around was replaced with 12 hours/day in a desk chair and no more structured social fun exercise  built into the day and lots and lots of restaurant food, with huge portions designed to give people their “money’s worth” and there I was with no internal fullness meter.

I’m getting better at not cleaning the plate.  The more I practice intuitive eating the easier it gets to feel the “Hey, you’re full!” signal from my body.  Or, maybe I do clean the plate, but I’ve gotten better at eyeballing how much food is likely to make me feel full.  Sometimes there is a weird little internal conversation that goes on.

Mouth: We’ve been chewing this bite for a while.

Hand: And we’re kind of pushing stuff around with the fork, did you notice that?

Lizard Brain: CLEAN PLATE!

Stomach: Urp, I think we’re good here.


Brain: Huh, I think I’m full.  Why am I still eating?


Mouth: Swallow or don’t swallow. What’s it gonna be?

Brain: You don’t have to clean your plate.  That was good, but you can just be done with it.


Stomach: All good.  I repeat, we are sounding the all clear.

Brain: Hear that guys?  One more bite if you think we’ll all enjoy that, and then we’re done.

The other day when I was pulling together links I came across a comment that stopped me in my tracks with its simplicity and truth:

“I too have a neurosis about “not wasting food,” I have a hard time getting it through my calcified skull that food wasted inside the body is no different materially from food wasted outside of it.” -@Meowser in Devouring the World.

Food wasted inside the body is no different materially from food wasted outside of it.   Excess food does not have to be dutifully packed into the doggie bag, the tupperware, or my face.  When I give myself permission to eat what I want and as much as I want without guilt, I also give myself permission to stop before the plate is clean without guilt, and without 1/2 a piece of French toast growing blue fuzz and the ability to do the Sunday crossword in the back of my fridge.


5 responses to “French toast and thoughts on a clean plate

  1. Love this post….I have to share your blog w/ a few other friends I think would enjoy it.

    As for that French Toast, I think you took me to that restaurant a number of years back when I was visiting Chicago (maybe with my friend Karen?). Anyway, that French Toast looks very familiar and very, very good.

    I love the connection that food wasted inside the body is no better than food wasted outside the body.

    Keep on going to 11!

    xoxo, EM

  2. Wow, thank you, I too struggle with portion control, it’s nice to read that others have that inner monologue and guilt.

    I try to remind myself that ‘I do not want to be a filter’. If I eat it… will my body use it or store it. The same goes for the kinds of food I eat, does my body need it or will it hurt me.

    Nice post. 🙂

    • Thank you! I’ll be looking at your site for vegan recipes. I’m not a vegan, but I really love many vegetable & grain dishes.

  3. Pingback: Cooking Day… « The Auspicious Squirrel

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