Why eating everything on your plate won’t help solve our food wastage problem (or save a starving child in Africa)

I believe there are two kinds of people when it comes to eating at the dinner table.

Lick your plate clean

Image Credit: hans peter meyer

1. Those who literally lick their plates clean

2. Those who can’t even seem to fit that last miniscule pea into their belly, otherwise risking self-implosion (But then comes out the tray of chocolate brownies. (Oh well, if I must)

Can you imagine these two sharing a meal at the dinner table? I’d be the one eyeballing that last pea on my companion’s plate! le sigh.


For a majority of us, we grew up being ordered to eat everything on our plate, brussel sprouts and all, or we’d risk being looked down upon  unfavourably by the dessert gods. This mentality, whilst full of good intentions I’m sure ma & pa, is not necessarily doing anyone any good. That’s right, it’s not reducing our food wastage or helping to promote a healthy relationship with food. In fact, it may have quite the reverse effect.

Studies have shown that children forced to eat everything in front of them actually lost the ability to know when to stop eating and those denied certain foods were likely to compensate by eating unhealthy foods elsewhere.

800px-Kansas_City-Style_Barbecue_(cropped)Couple this with our increasing portion sizes and what kinds of food actually make up the average family’s dinner plate these days (frozen fish fingers and french fries anyone?), and you are setting your children up for a future of disordered eating. By encouraging children to ‘rely on environmental indicators, like how much food is on their plates or the time of day, they’ll lose the ability to rely on internal cues to know whether they’re hungry or full.’


The underpinning psychological effects this may have on us as we grow older is just one more reason why we struggle as a society to battle the bulge. Years of dampening our natural hunger signals have left our bodies in a state of disarray. There’s no doubt this has led some adults down a path of overzealous eating to the extent they when seated in front of a plate of food, they can’t help but feel compelled to lick their plate clean… and then some more!

It’s almost become a social norm, a sign of discipline and ‘good’ parenting, to enforce this rule of, eat everything on your plate, to our children. You can hardly blame parents though, as this was simply part of something they were taught by their parents and something their parents taught to them.

 'Food_is_a_Weapon_-_Don't_Waste_it'_-_NARA_-_513830Stepping back a generation or two, however, in the age of the Great Depression and World War II, cleaning your plate meant something entirely different. Food shortage was a real and vivid threat and this pressure was echoed throughout every corner of society. Compare this to the world we live in today. Whilst this threat is still imminent and a stark reality for many, for a vast majority of us, it remains a distant concern because right now, we have plenty and we do not suffer the dire consequences of starvation. In fact, we are part of generation that has never and will probably never experience such a harsh reality if you are part of the privileged. It seems silly to me how I’m often preoccupied by thoughts of what to have for dinner when I know I’m going home to fridge full of delicious fresh food. So what am I getting at here? Why am I even bothering to share this with you?

Because it’s obvious that what we are doing is unsustainable and not healthy for us as individuals and as a society. Here are some stats if you are not convinced.

So you see, there’s a far bigger piece of the pie to chew off if we are to reduce our food wastage than simply cleaning our plates.


Simply viewing the solution as being a matter of eating what’s on our plates rather than seeing it being scraped into the garbage is not an accurate reflection of the real challenges we face in our current state as citizens of the Western World. If we consider the amount of food we have the freedom to waste each year, it’s clear that a lack of food is not the problem either. Sorry mother, but eating that last carrot on my plate will not save a starving child in Africa. Lucky for her (and for me), I love my carrots! Whilst we most certainly may lack nutritional food in our diets if you look at the standard American/Australia/British (insert nation of choice) diet, eating all the food on such a dieter’s plate in fact, would only exacerbate the obesity epidemic and would be moving us further away from addressing the root of the problem.

Our problem is our attitude towards food.

To fix this problem, we must therefore, fix our attitudes.

Consider this.

grow your own food

Image credit: Tim Sackton

Imagine if you had to grow every tomato, harvest every apple and fetch every egg for the food you eat on your plate today. For every single meal, every single day, every single week, month and year. You get the point. This might even be a reality for some of you!

Now consider if we were each responsible for manufacturing our own twinkie bars, crisps, and chocolate bars? These foods would quickly lose their appeal for most of us I’m sure. They involve rather resource intensive operations after all. The investment of one’s time and energy would simply not be worth it for most people. So they are more than happy to pay someone else to do this for them. Alas, our food systems were created to service this demand and to make this process more efficient. Just like most things though, man dipped his green thumb into the bucket of black paint and set about industrialising the food system, seeking greater efficiencies for greater margins and profits.


Now consider this.

Most of us don’t have the skills or time to learn how to service our cars. So we outsource this work to someone who can do this work for us in a far more efficient manner than we could ever dream of and we are more than happy to pay for their services to do so. So why are we so stingy with our dollar when it comes to paying for quality food produced in a sustainable manner? After all, this is the very energy that we are using to fuel our bodies; to fuel our lives so we can go forth and do other things as productive members of society. From this perspective, the precious energy and resources that go into creating these intricate and sustainable food systems are worth their weight in gold!


But we don’t view it this way. When that same precious value is not placed on items in society where they should be placed, we are in essence, losing touch with our own personal values in life.  It’s far too easy these days to view food as another mere consumable product. Sure, we consume food after all, don’t we? Eat what you want, throw out the rest. When we don’t have personal vested interests tied to our food production, it’s easy to pass the accountability card to someone else. We are the shoppers. Our job is to shop, buy and consume, no? Something about that though just doesn’t seem right. Such an attitude has landed us where we are now, where the average Australian household throws out 20% of the food they buy!


We need to understand as individuals and as a society that we are all accountable to the sustainability of our food system. After all, even if you are just a consumer, that’s where demand comes from. Producers will respond accordingly if there is enough demand for a product, or less demand for a product. Food and water are the most precious resources on our planet and we often exert the least amount of energy tending to our personal needs for high quality standards and securing a safe future for our access to these things. Naturally, your shopping behaviour will drive your eating habits so it’s time to ensure these two align in your life.


Reducing our food waste should be priority. As individuals we need to take back some of this responsibility. Whilst most of us aren’t in control of our food production system, you can take back ownership by supporting farmers who do promote a sustainable food system or by growing what you can and rethinking what and how you consume. This will naturally result in a reduction of wastage. Don’t laugh. That is just how these things work!

For some more ideas on what you can do to reduce your food wastage and to save money, read on in Part 2: How to reduce your food wastage without starving yourself.


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Posted on by Emily Uebergang Posted in Health & Beauty

About Emily Uebergang

Urban hippie by day, wandering gypsy by night. Emily is all about sustainable living and writes like she's out to try and save the world or something. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Google+

3 Responses to Why eating everything on your plate won’t help solve our food wastage problem (or save a starving child in Africa)

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