Did you grow up in a household where ‘finish what’s on your plate’ was the dinner time rule? Perhaps it meant that by clearing your plate you got to eat dessert, or it may have meant that you weren’t allowed to leave the table until your plate was clean.

Finish what’s on your plate was a common mantra for many of us growing up, and it is a very common discussion that I have with my clients.

Well-meaning parents use these types of phrases to ensure that their children have had enough to eat and that food is not being wasted. But, what are the consequences of this well intentioned discipline, in an environment where food is plenty?

First, we need to explore why this rule may have come about in many New Zealand homes. A show of good manners may be one reason; for example, it is considered good manners to finish everything on your plate. However, this is not true of all cultures. In China, an empty plate may mean that you are still hungry. In New Zealand we consider it a sign of appreciation that you have liked the food and eaten everything. I believe that ‘finish what’s on your plate’ also became a strong mantra because of food and money shortages linked to the time periods around both World Wars and the Great Depression. It made sense that food should not be wasted during this time.

The rising cost of living can affect the way we think about food, but continuing to eat when full, or when no longer enjoying the food, can also be wasteful.

The phrase ‘finish what’s on your plate’ made sense in times of scarcity, but for most of us we live in a time of plenty. Portion sizes are getting larger, and if there is money, then food is abundant and accessible. 

As adults, who grew up living with the ‘finish what’s on your plate’ mantra, it can be a challenge to change this way of thinking. Even when full, or uncomfortably full, it may feel impossible to stop.

The first step to conquering this is awareness. The second is to understand where this behaviour may have originated from. Becoming aware of why we think in certain ways can help to take away the guilt, to provide an opportunity for us to think about food differently.

Finishing what’s on your plate in itself is not a negative action – most of us do it. It only becomes a problem if it makes you feel uncomfortably full, guilty or annoyed at yourself when you do.

We may have learned this behaviour as a child, but as an adult we can adopt new habits. This could mean, saving the leftovers, or reducing portions. And, if you are hungry, or enjoying the meal then it’s ok to carry on and ‘finish what’s on your plate’.

For more advice around your eating habits, please contact us here to meet with one of our highly qualified dietitians