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A plate with food left on it, formed into a face

This is going to start out sounding super common-sensical but will leap to a characteristically preposterous-sounding conclusion that I, characteristically, actually believe. Not as preposterous-sounding as, say, beeminding bites, but still.

The obvious part is that if you have food left on your plate but are full, it’s more wasteful (waistful, har har) to put it in your face than to put it in the trash. Eating food your body doesn’t need helps no one, least of all you.

It feels more wasteful to throw it away, because, well, we were raised that way. And maybe also because of cognitive dissonance. The real wastefulness was serving yourself too much food in the first place and by cleaning your plate you don’t have to admit that you did that.

So here’s the crazy part: Let’s teach our kids to always throw food away! Like pretend we’re in a culture where it’s rude to completely clean your plate. (How is it ever rude to clean your plate? When it sends the message that your host didn’t serve you enough. The internet tells me that’s how it is in China.)

Imagine you were raised with the habit of always leaving some food uneaten. How would you decide how much to leave? Probably by listening to your dang stomach.

The key is to break the habit of shoveling food off your plate on autopilot. Adopting a policy of always leaving some there would achieve that. Because stopping at any point before the plate is clean requires paying attention. And for weight loss, paying attention is half the battle. Or some generous portion of the battle anyway.

But Think Of The Children!

Here’s a possibly pedantic point for a first-world audience, and maybe the thing that makes this whole post genuinely stupid for any other audience. If food were precious enough then it would in fact make sense to overeat rather than throw food away. Because overeating right now means you can go longer without eating later. So it’s not quite true that the food is fully wasted by stuffing it into you. But in that kind of scarcity scenario you presumably actually want to gain weight and then for you this whole post is obviously backwards. Just eat as much as you can!

And wait, you say, aren’t kids trying to gain weight? Kind of! Mostly this doesn’t matter for kids when they’re kids. It’s when they grow up that the Dirty Plate Club habit may help them. Assuming they’re growing up in, say, America. I personally kind of wish I hadn’t been raised to have a strong compulsion to clean my plate.

I realize an exhortation to throw food away may sound pretty offensive to those outside the first world. But it can’t be more offensive than witnessing America’s obesity epidemic. Just like my original point about waistfulness, seeing Americans squander resources by overeating, and what that does to us, can only be a bigger slap in the face. (Also, not cleaning your plate hopefully means saving the leftovers, not literally chucking them.)

In theory you can achieve the same effect more efficiently by serving yourself slightly less than you feel like eating. (Actually, go ahead and do that too!) But that’s hard to predict and doesn’t break the habit of eating on autopilot when you happen to have too much food in front of you.

Wouldn’t You Just…

“That would be a premeditated sin, which you’re far less susceptible to succumbing to than the sin of inattentiveness”

I know what you’re thinking (because multiple people who read drafts of this had the same immediate reaction). You’re worried you’d totally thwart this system by loading your plate extra full so you’d have plenty to throw out. I don’t think you would do that! That would be a premeditated sin, which you’re far less susceptible to succumbing to than the sin of inattentiveness. The latter happens without you even thinking about it.

Overloading your plate is what I call a loophole you can drive an ice cream truck through. Namely, yes, it’s a way you could utterly defeat the point of the system, but you won’t do that because you want the system to work. The original example of such a loophole was from the first incarnation of the Beeminder commitment contract, back when we thought we needed an elaborate, literal commitment contract. We suggested that, to avoid fuzziness around the definition of “going to the gym”, you could simply beemind touching the door of your gym’s building. If you were legitimately injured or something and shouldn’t exercise, the loophole would be there for the taking. But otherwise you’d never be so lazy that you’d actually get yourself all the way to the door of the gym and then not go in. Maybe some people would be that lazy, but that’s the point: You know yourself at least to some extent. Would you overload your plate so you could join the Dirty Plate Club while still stuffing yourself?


I’ve been trying this system for a few days and here’s what I’ve settled on so far: No changes in how much I serve myself, and the amount I leave (which, predictably, it’s taking plenty of effort to remember to leave anything at all) is a truly token amount, less than a full bite size. I may have rendered the whole idea toothless that way but I’m hopeful that the added awareness alone will have value. Or at least when I eventually find myself not actually liking what someone slaved over a hot stove to make for me, I’ll have perfect plausible deniability for not finishing it.

But in all seriousness, I think I’ve convinced myself that as stupid as “throw more food away” sounds, this is actually a good idea. So at your next meal, think of the poor sedentary children in America and let some perfectly good food go to waste. Join the Dirty Plate Club!