When we were young, our parents often lectured us about cleaning our plates because they said there were children in China who didn’t have enough to eat. I suppose my mother and father could identify with them because they grew up during the Great Depression and knew what it was like to go to bed hungry.
So why should we, in our suburban self-satisfaction, waste so much?
Up and down our street and every street, the rallying cry of parents was “clean your plate.” When you didn’t clean your plate, punishments were exacted without the benefit of due process because as kids we weren’t protected under the Constitution.
You couldn’t leave the table unless you cleaned your plate, and very often I’d be sitting there, looking forlorn as I moved pieces of liver and broccoli around with my fork, long after my mother, father, sisters and the dog were gone. The dog knew enough not to hang around waiting for scraps because by that time they were pretty disgusting. She had bigger fish to fry.
In a last desperate attempt at freedom, I’d chew the pieces of liver, pretend to swallow but secretly stuff them in my napkin, hoping no one noticed. They usually didn’t and life went on as usual until the next showdown over brussels sprouts or spinach. Why couldn’t we just have a meal of Lays Potato Chips, Good Humor ice cream and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts?
All that drama at the dinner table had a lasting effect on me. Now, I eat everything on my plate, even food I don’t particularly care for like lamb, creamed corn, beets and sea bass. I don’t eat them because they’re good for me, but because it was drilled into me that cleaning your plate was the patriotic thing to do, even before Donald Trump.
At an Italian restaurant where the veal parmigiana is nowhere near my mother’s standards, I’ll clean my plate. I wish I ingrained that practice in my kids, who have no qualms about wasting food. I think they got it from their mother, who is notorious for picking through salad, looking for wilted pieces of lettuce. (America’s aversion to less-than-perfect produce, such as bruised apples and bananas, is a major cause of waste.)
The younger generation doesn’t understand the precept of Founding Father Ben Franklin, who said, “Waste not, want not.” He was a pretty hefty guy who obviously enjoyed a good meal or three.
Two of my daughters never finish their drinks and constantly leave half-consumed cups of coffee, bottles of water and glasses of wine around the house.
Plus, they’re obsessed with expiration dates, another cause of waste in America. With my wife leading the charge, they’ll conduct pantry raids and toss out everything from ramen noodles and cashews to soup and canned vegetables, even before the “sell by” or “best if used by” date.
A week ago, we all went to dinner and it turned into a troubling evening for me. One daughter ate approximately three gnocchi before proclaiming, “They’re too doughy. I can’t finish them.”
“They’re doughy,” I said, “because they’re made of dough.”
Another daughter claimed her penne was undercooked and nibbled around the edges of her plate. My wife ate half of her roasted chicken and took the rest home. She put it in the refrigerator, where it stayed for days until I noticed it was growing another leg and decided to toss it before it broke free and took us hostage. My son-in-law didn’t like his veal and fed it to my grandson. The only clean plate was mine.
Furthermore, they all complained about their meals, violating a fundamental principle: When the old man is picking up the tab, keep your mouth shut, pretend you’ve having a good time and clean your plate.
The veal, the gnocchi, the penne and the chicken are emblematic of a bigger national problem. We’re wasteful. In fact, we waste millions of tons of food even before it reaches our plate. From 30% to 40% of our food supply goes uneaten, and almost half of all produce is thrown out — 60 million tons worth an estimated $160 billion. Discarded food takes up 20% of our landfills. We need to change. Maybe then fewer people will go to bed hungry.
My new motto is “Make America great — clean your plate.”