Monday, June 13, 2011

The Clean Plate Club

Are you a member of the clean plate club? Perhaps even its president?

I belonged to the CPC (Clean Plate Club) for over 50 years, so I consider myself something of an expert on it (and I am, after all, The World’s Greatest Living Expert on Everything). I thought it was a lifetime membership, but my bariatric surgeon rescued me from the CPC Cult – oh, excuse me, Club - and deprogrammed me so that I’m able to function more or less like a normal person now. Here’s my story.

I was inducted to the CPC as a child, when I was too young to realize that the promise of going to heaven if I always cleaned my plate was a bit more complicated than it sounded at the time. All I wanted to do at the time was to please the cult leaders: my mother and my grandmother.

I have reason to believe that my grandmother, whom I called Dranny, was the original founder of the CPC. Orphaned as a small child, she was passed around the family like an unwanted piece of furniture, and she raised her own children during the Great Depression. Through the combination of those circumstances and her own peculiar (and wonderful) character, Dranny was a pack rat. She didn’t live in filth and disorder (just the opposite, actually), but she couldn’t bear to throw anything away, especially not food. If three green peas were leftover from a meal and she hadn’t been able to persuade someone to eat them, she would lovingly place them in a custard cup covered with a shower-cap style cover (this was in the days before Glad Wrap), and store them in the fridge, where they would remain until someone ate them (or my mother threw them out while Dranny was in another room).

I’m a lot like my grandmother in various ways, and also something of a pack rat. So after eating my way through hundreds of childhood meals with Dranny and my mom (who was not a pack rat, but who was offended by the idea of wasting food that she’d worked so hard to procure and prepare), I emerged into adolescence with warring impulses – part of me still wanted to clean my plate, and part of me wanted to starve so that I could lose weight and be as skinny as the British supermodel, Twiggy.

One of my problems with meal planning and storage is that it's hard for me to predict how much food I'll be able to eat at a future meal. Often I don't know that until I've eaten several bites. My basic strategy for dealing with this unpredictability is to keep my plate clean from the very start so that the food I leave behind doesn't overwhelm me or provoke an attack of guilt that could bring down Dranny's wrath upon me.

A simple way to keep your plate clean is to prepare smaller batches of food so you won't be tempted by serving dishes overflowing with food or burdened with an excess of leftovers. I can't speak to recipes for baked goods (not my department), but most other recipes can be easily cut in half, thirds, or even quarters through the use of simple arithmetic.

Sometimes I prepare the whole recipe, subdivide into 2 or 3 batches, serve one batch immediately and freeze the other 2 for future use. When we lived in the northeast, the elderly widow who lived next door was delighted when we shared excess food with her. Sharing food with family, friends, and coworkers can yield multiple benefits. When I'm craving a food or recipe whose leftovers would be a problem for me to store (or resist), I prepare a big batch of it for whatever social event is on the horizon and keep only one or two portions of it at home so that we get to enjoy it without having to worry about to do with all that food. I use cheap, throw-away packaging so that no one can insist that I take my corning ware, Pyrex or Tupperware container of leftovers home with me.

You can also keep your plate clean by using the portioning technique I recommend for bandsters who are still learning their band eating skills, food portion sizes, and stop signals. Here's how it works for me. When planning my day's food (which I commit to my food log and my accountability partner every morning), I might decide that I'll eat 4 ounces (by weight) of chicken thigh and 1/2 cup of barley and veggy salad for dinner. Come dinner time, I grab my small plate (a salad plate) and put half of my planned meal on it: 2 ounces of chicken and ¼ cup of the salad. If I'm able to finish that, great. If I'm still physically hungry when I'm done with it, I go back to the kitchen and dish up the remaining 2 ounces of chicken and ¼ cup of salad. At the end of the meal, I'll probably have only 1 or 2 tablespoons worth of food to save or throw out instead of a plateful of food, therefore much less guilt to deal with.

When I do have a plateful of food leftover, I usually scrape it into a small plastic container that I can quickly grab and stick in my lunch bag when I go to work the next day. Fortunately, we actually like leftovers at our house, and arguments occasionally break out over unauthorized consumption of leftover food ("Who ate the rest of the eggplant Parmesan?!?"). The same approach works with restaurant meals. We're happy to take leftovers home in what used to be called a doggy bag (as if I'd share my Maryland crab cakes with a dog!).

My sister-in-law used to scrape leftover food into a bucket to add to her garden compost pile. I have no idea if that's a good practice. We'd have to have a 40' high electrified fence dug 20' into the ground and topped with razor wire in order to keep dogs, cats, deer, rats, raccoons, and other critters out of that kind of compost pile. I've also known people (including my mother) who fed leftover food to their 4-footed garbage disposals (dogs & cats), another practice that we avoid because why would you want to cultivate a fussy eater? Our pets have survived eating (stolen) candies (complete with foil wrappers), latex paint, and kip tails (fishing flies), and at our house, a fussy eater will end up starving because someone else is always willing to clean your plate for you, sometimes long before you've decided you're finished with it.

But what about the starving children? After over 3 years of banded life, I'm now able to detach myself from my emotional attachment to the food on my plate enough to throw out what's left. If it didn't taste right because my band was in an odd mood, if it caused me symptoms, if it wouldn't reheat or store well, I let it go. I haven't been struck by lightning for doing that, nor has God punished me with plagues, floods, or infestations.

Like many, I was raised to eat every meal while listening to a chorus singing the Children Are Starving in (fill in the blank) hymn. I agree that in world where so many children (and adults, and animals) go hungry, it is just plain wrong for an overfed middle-class person like me to waste or throw out food. But the fact is that me eating more food than my body needs (rather than throwing out) is not the solution to the problem of world hunger. The solution to world hunger, and to diminishing global food resources, is far, far more complicated than that. Working in your community (be it a village, a city, a country, or a planet) to solve that problem is a worthwhile effort, but you taking personal responsibility for causing the death of a starving, unknown child in India or Appalachia because you threw out a chicken wing and 5 green beans last night is a misguided and foolish use of your energy.

And you eating that extra bite of food just because you can't bear the thought of throwing it away is also foolish from a medical standpoint. If that extra bite causes you to PB, get stuck, or over-pack your pouch, it could lead to messy and expensive medical complications like esophageal or pouch dilation and/or band slips, especially if you eat that way on a regular basis.


Steven said...

I have the VSG, but I have a real problem with this. Like you I was programmed as a child ot eat everything on my plate. Sadly, what will happen now is, I portion out my palte, get full, but there is one maybe 2 bites staring back at me. Too little to put back in the fridge, too much to just throw away. So I eat it, then it get's stuck. One day I will learn.

Jean said...

Steven, maybe you could ease into letting go of those 2 last bites on your plate by throwing out one and eating the other?