The Clean Plate Club: Then and Now

Did you know that the idea of cleaning your plate first became popular during World War One? When foods like flour, sugar, and meat were growing scarce, Congress passed the Food and Fuel Act, which allowed the president to change how food was purchased, imported/exported, and distributed. It was coupled with a call to Americans, asking them to make the most of the foods that they did have, cutting back on food waste to ensure that their resources didn’t get squandered.

The request  to clean a plate and consume the foods that were available was presented as an act of patriotism that volunteers would undertake in order to make a difference in the war effort. It had a huge impact on the American public at the time. Schoolchildren even signed the following pledge…

“At table I’ll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate. And I’ll not eat between meals But for supper time I’ll wait” (Source).

Image from

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For many children of the era, adopting the “clean plate” approach to eating became a habit. Although the program ended after World War One, “Clean Plate Clubs” were revived after the Depression and again after World War Two. Both times, the goal was the same — don’t waste food and instead eat everything that is placed in front of you.

Today, the lessons of clean plate clubs are doing more harm than good. Portion sizes have increased dramatically, which makes eating everything on a plate an exercise in excess. Plus, forcing yourself to eat more food in order to “clean the plate” — even when you already feel full — can lead to problems with interpreting fullness cues down the road. And it’s a bad habit. With obesity numbers skyrocketing and its accompanying health issues increasing as well, cleaning your plate is no longer a patriotic act. In fact, it’s advice you should discard.

For More Information:

  1. The National Archives: ” Teaching With Documents: Sow the Seeds of Victory! Posters from the Food Administration During World War I ”
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “‘Clean Your Plate’ Orders from Parents May Backfire on Kids”
  3. Wikipedia: “Clean Plate Club”

Presentation Idea: Size with Your Eyes

Here is an interesting link from Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN, which we’ve turned into a helpful new resource for you!

Size with Your Eyes:

It seems like the portion size explosion may be beginning to change course, at least according to evidence provided by Restaurant Management magazine. In one of its articles, “A Big Year for Small Portions,” the magazine outlines a few ways that various restaurants are reducing portion size and changing the balance of their plates.

Have participants evaluate this information themselves by crafting a colorful display that compares traditional entrees to lighter fare. Look at pictures of two Applebee’s entrees, for example. How is the Cabernet Mushroom Sirloin (from the Weight Watchers section of the menu) different from the Shrimp ‘N Parmesan Sirloin (from the traditional section of the menu)? By providing opportunities to evaluate actual visual representations of the food and its arrangement on the plate, participants will have more tools to effectively weigh their options when looking at restaurant menus.

There are a few different ways to display this information. Most large restaurant chains have photos of menu items on their websites, so a little research and printing could take care of the whole shebang. You could also draw the proportions of each item and arrange pictures that way. Of course, you could go to the restaurants, order the foods, and take pictures of the actual plates, but that seems a bit expensive and labor-intensive.

Once you have the images you have decided to use, it’s time to pick a presentation style. A side-by-side comparison of heavy food alongside a smaller option can really bring the point home, but another display that features one side filled with traditional entrees and another featuring smaller portions could also be effective. Try them and let us know what works for you!

Need more portion control inspiration? Check out the options below…

Portion Control Handout

Portion Control by the Meal PowerPoint

Scale Down Your Portions Poster (English or Spanish)