Many children are taught to clear their plates at each meal. For growing kids who need lots of energy, this usually ensures that they eat enough and a balanced amount of important nutrients – especially when their parents cook delicious, wholesome dishes and serve appropriate portions, as mine did. However, this rule also trains our brains to think that a meal isn’t over until our plate is empty. As we grow older and begin to choose our own meals, I think that following this practice can trick us into mindlessly eating more than we really need.
An important component of intuitive eating is paying attention to how our bodies feel throughout the course of a meal. When we sit down at the table, we should feel physical hunger and be excited to consume the food that awaits us. We should take the time to fully enjoy each bite, and check in with ourselves often so we stop eating when we’re pleasantly full. I’ve realized that a critical part of mastering this process is accepting that it’s ok to leave food on your plate.
I learned this lesson eating at the dining halls in college. There was always an overwhelming number of options – cheese pizza, creamy pastas, an enormous, fresh salad bar, plus a few daily specials. Some foods I considered rich, occasional treats, while many were perfectly healthy. Heading into a meal, I always tried to think about what I was craving and what my body wanted in that moment. Sometimes that was a big bowl of fruit, while other times I craved a simple piece of toast or a protein like chicken or beef. But usually I aimed for a plate that included all of the major food groups – maybe a burrito bowl, veggie-filled sandwich, or substantial salad.
Once I made my choice, I tried to serve myself only the amount that I could eat. But after sitting down with friends at a communal table and digging in, it was easy to quickly eat my entire meal without really paying attention to the food. It wasn’t until I started thinking about intuitive eating that I made the effort to slow down. I tried to acknowledge when a certain dish simply didn’t taste delicious to me. And I tuned in to that occasional feeling that what I was eating wouldn’t leave my body feeling great. In situations like these, I tried to consciously accept that it was ok to stop eating before my plate was clean. At first I felt bad about wasting food, but soon I realized that leaving it on my plate was no more of a waste than eating food that I didn’t truly want or wouldn’t serve my body well. Giving myself the permission to stop eating anytime has allowed me the freedom to really appreciate the foods I do choose to enjoy. And although I’m still working on embracing this mindset, I know that sometimes, not finishing our plates can be an integral part of intuitive eating.