The Clean Plate Club


December 7, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Image: Flickr member The Two Dimension Collection licensed for use under Creative Commons. Via The Kitchn

Image: Flickr member The Two Dimension Collection licensed for use under Creative Commons. Via The Kitchn

I am sitting on a red plastic chair at the gray laminate table in our kitchen.

My parents bracket the table like parentheses: my brother sits to my right, being a pest. Across from me, where my mother can reach her, my sister sits in her high chair, humming as she eats. Mmm…mmm…mmm….

On the table in front of me is Mt. Everest on a plate: a heap of cold mashed potatoes.

My chicken leg is a greasy bone. The canned peaches are gone. I have even eaten all of the green beans in cream of mushroom soup, though I have tucked the mushroom bits beneath Mt. Everest. Now they sit there, those potatoes…white, lumpy, cold.

And I must eat them because they are there.

I don’t like mashed potatoes.

“Everyone likes mashed potatoes,”says my father. “What’s not to like? They don’t even taste like anything! They’re just something to put butter and salt on.”

But they do taste like something. They taste like kindergarten paste.

“Scott’s eaten his,” says my mother. “He’s in the Clean Plate Club. He likes mashed potatoes.”

Scott’s eaten his. He’s in the Clean Plate Club. He likes mashed potatoes.

“What was that? No sass, now.”

A Little Older Here - But As Close As I Could Get

A Little Older Here – But As Close As I Could Get

My sister Stacey has eaten about half of hers, and is wearing the rest.

Baby fuzz sticks up like patches of crabgrass on her head where her fists have left potato deposits. My mother sighs, pulls Stacey up from the high chair, and sits her on the edge of the kitchen sink. She starts The Wipe Down.

When I clean my plate, I can leave the table. Those are the rules.

My father is an elementary school principal, and principals like rules. They do not care whether you like rules. Or whether you like mashed potatoes.

Which I don’t.

When Stacey is finally clean, my mom takes her into the living room where my dad and brother are watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

From the open kitchen door I can see the cheetah chasing down a young antelope. I know the pounce is coming, but I still jump.

My mother closes the door.

“You can watch TV when you’re done,” she says.“The Flintstones are on in ten minutes.”

The Flintstones are my favorite show. My mom knows this.

I take a bite of that mountain of kindergarten paste. My throat refuses to open, and I gag, loudly. I hear my mother heading for the door. “Sit down, Dorisanne,” my father says. “She’s fine.”

I could die in here, I really could.

The Flintstones are a Modern Stone Age Family.

They have pterodactyls that play records and a warthog garbage disposal. They have a dinosaur for a pet. We don’t even have a dog to feed my potatoes to.  Or a garbage disposal.


Courtesy Photobucket

I stand on my chair, leaning over the sink so I can see the drain where my mother rinsed the mashed potatoes out of my sister’s hair. There’s no clog.

No clog.

Here is my ticket to the Clean Plate Club.

I must move quickly like the cheetah, silently tipping the plate over the sink, waving it back and forth. The mashed potato mountain defies gravity. I have to part it from the plate with my fingers. I turn the water on, and Mt. Everest – and the mushroom bits – melt away.

I don’t like mashed potatoes.

I push open the kitchen door. “Clean plate!”

My mother raises one eyebrow, but says nothing.

“Did you finish all your mashed potatoes?” asks my father.

George Washington Told His Father the Truth - Shouldn't You?

George Washington Told His Father the Truth – Or Did He?

“They’re gone,” I say. I hold up the plate. I was an early Jesuit.

“Did you eat all your potatoes, Paula?”

Eventually, those potatoes are going to leave the sink trap. Where are they going to they end up? In the bathtub?   In the toilet? Can they do that?

“Tell the truth, now.”

My voice sounds small and far away.

“I don’t like mashed potatoes.”

It is the truth. But it does not set me free.

the truth of suess

Teach A Child To Trust Herself Today


A longer version of this story was published in 2008 on my first blog, Ordinary Time  Which do you like better? And how do you feel about the Clean Plate Club?

35 thoughts on “The Clean Plate Club

  1. burke59 says:

    OMG brought back so many memories…liver and rutabagas were my mashed potatoes. There was no reasoning with that clean plate club logic. And the guilt–all those starving children around the world! I still cringe, to this day, when I have to throw out something that’s gone bad. Love the line about your early Jesuit skills. Cheers, Paula


    • Thanks, Anne! Apparently the Clean Plate Club started with the First World War, as a way of encouraging kids to not waste food. It came back again with the Second. Thanks for sharing! twice!


    • jaklumen says:

      I am cool with liver. And I love rutabagas (mashed, even!) But I have detested raw celery consistently ever since I was a baby.

      My wife and I do not believe in the Clean Plate Club, although I sadly am terribly influenced by it. I lived many summers with my maternal grandparents, and as my grandfather served in the Pacific conflict of WWII, I do not doubt they were both shaped by both the Great Depression, and wartime rationing.


  2. jan says:

    Hahaha! Hysterical! I refused to eat fish, asparagus and stewed tomatoes! I ended up spending long hours at the table or being sent to my room for making my siblings giggle during the sacred dinner hour. By the way, washing mashed potatoes down the sink is an excellent way to plug up the drain! Not recommended!


    • I’ll keep that in mind, Jan. BTW, I told this story for many years with the Flintstones having a pelican garbage disposal, which they apparently never did. Though they did have a pelican garbage can at one time, and a pelican grocery cart. Thank God for the Internet; who knows what my memory might make me believe true otherwise…


  3. Natasha says:

    It’s actually considered extremely rude in Pakistan NOT to clean your plate at dinner. And we have a nasty tradition of simply adding food to a guest’s plate if we’re sitting next to them. Over any objections.

    Mashed potatoes aren’t a traditional food here, however. You’d be fairly safe if you ever visited. :)


    • I think you’ll find that tradition in many places, or something like it; it’s about asserting the status, generosity and hospitality of the host more than it is about pay attention to what a guest wants or needs. There are also family situations in which it is inescapable. In this case I think my parents were just trying to do what they thought was right – get me to eat (relatively) nutritious food and nip that Picky Eater Syndrome in the butt. But food and control with parents and children – oy! it’s a minefield, at least here. I’m curious, Natasha – do parents concern themselves with their children’s eating habits there, or is the plate-heaping just a host-guest behavior?


      • Natasha says:

        Plate-heaping is restricted to guests only.

        Pakistan is a poor country, and while we are meat-lovers, only a very small percentage of the population is able to afford more than one dish at any meal. Standard fare is rice or wheat bread with either lentils or a vegetable, so children tend to be open to all kinds of food. It’s probably why the Clean Plate Club is so important here. Waste not, want not.


  4. Norah says:

    Oh dear, Paula. What a clever girl you were to dispose of the mountain in the sink. As a child I too had to clean my plate. I still don’t like to leave anything, though oftentimes I should!


  5. Annecdotist says:

    Totally agree with Norah. It’s a story many of us can identify with, though unfortunately I was never that brave. But I do love mashed potatoes!
    It reminds me of a scene in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections where the parents forget they’ve left the little boy at the table to finish his meal and only discover him at bedtime!


    • I can’t say i was exactly brave. it’s taken me a long, long time to figure out that it is OK to trust myself on what i like or do not like – or even to be sure what that is. I’m sure a fictional psychologist – or a real one – would have a field day with that.


  6. Ariel Bernstein says:

    There is some serious David Sedaris humor in this piece! I love mashed potatoes but you definitely made me question that by writing about it as kindergarten paste! Too funny.


    • And it’s funny because my dad insisted on made from scratch mashed potatoes. There was no way my mother would have had instant on the table. One time i had to bring ten pounds of mashed potatoes to a Thanksgiving dinner. I just can’t figure out why anybody wants them when there’s stuffing.


  7. I am utterly in love with mashed potatoes but this is priceless!


  8. I love mash potatoes, but….Oh my, Iv’e been there, in my case sat in front of once steaming (now cold) lumpy porridge *shudders* o_O and weetabix, bluergh! What cruel heartless person invented that bowl of hell ! – I’m gagging now (40 something years on) just at the thought *more shuddering* !


  9. Greg Mischio says:

    Too bad you grew up when you did. If you were our daughter, my wife would have declared the potatoes just full of carbs, and the dairy of no use. We would probably have made you quinoa, which you would have hated too.


  10. Oh my. I also would pick out every. mushroom. bit. in existence from my food. According to my family, I made quite a scene about them as only I can do in my dramatic way (I was the dramatic one of the family).
    I do love mashed potatoes, however. And here, I’d have to agree with your dad, load ’em up with butter and salt!
    Ah, but poor you. The clean plate was part of our era, I’m guessing because our parents were coming out of The Depression? Do you dislike mashed potatoes to this day?


  11. Charli Mills says:

    Oh, the clean plate club! I was identified as pudgy as a kid and therefore was subject to grapefruit and monitored eating. Didn’t work out so well, but at school I got to participate in the clean tray club like every other kid. Your father would be horrified t know that students found holes where the fold down tables latched when pressed back into their wall frames. Lots of food left in those “traps.” :-) Great storytelling, Paula!


    • Thanks, Charli… it’s funny because at large family gatherings he was always more relaxed about it – probably because of the potlatch mentality. It was important to show you had plenty. I can still remember that when I heard “Don’t eat what you don’t want” I knew he was in a good mood. But in the early parenting phase, I think he was afraid to do that, especially with the first, lest a ‘picky eater’ develop.


  12. I was brought up with the clean plate mantra as well. My wife wasn’t; she seems to be happier and less fussy about food. Truth be told, though, she would eat anything (and I mean anything) and I was a fussy eater. So, perhaps that has something to do with it. As for mashed potatoes, I love them! :)


  13. Janika Banks says:

    I was really glad to see my brother throw up all over the dinner table when my dad forced him to eat peas, stopped the nonsense in its tracks. If anyone brings it up now I point out that my dad didn’t allow celery in the house… lol.


  14. Anita Stout says:

    Oh my gosh! Did we grow up in the same house? My brother came up with a great idea of putting the food back in the bowls they came out of. It was perfect till the little rat got an attack of conscience and confessed. Of course HE didn’t get in trouble. :)


  15. […] each one is a unique and different story. Please visit her blog. One of my favorite posts is “The Clean Plate Club” as it takes me back to my childhood dinner […]


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