My Irish clean plates neurosis

A dirty plate after a meal Image copyright Thinkstock

His mother's insistence that no food went to waste has stayed with Colm O'Regan all his life. The ritual of dinnertime shaming will inevitably be repeated when he has his own children, he writes.

Even now it stays with me, the compulsion to leave a clean plate.

If my wife and I are eating out, I'll finish my course, of course. Unless, there's something drastically wrong. Not being a glutton, my wife will occasionally push her plate over for me to finish and I'll try to accommodate because I don't want our household to be causing a scandal in the restaurant.

But if I can't finish her meal as well, I'll push her plate back to her side just so the waiting staff know I was able to finish mine, thank you very much, and it was Miss Finicky opposite who let the side down.

In a restaurant where no-one knows me, where we are paying for the food, I am concerned they will think it a flaw in my character if I can't finish my grub. Maybe because I committed the worst sin of all - I spoiled my appetite.

Spoiling your appetite is as human a fall from grace as the first eating of the apple. (Although ironically if Eve had spoiled her appetite with something else perhaps she wouldn't have been so easily tempted. You should never go shopping on an empty stomach.)

Like a lot of Irish people writing about their lives, I blame my mother for this neurosis. Well "blame" is a strong word, and actually so is "my". I blame everyone's mother.

Image copyright Colm O'Regan
Image caption The author, as a boy, was expected to play outside, even when he only had cows for company

Because, as children, many of us were warned to clean our plates. There were two reasons, both driven by guilt - guilt being shown by scientists to be effective in 80% of child-rearing situations.

The first reason was for the millions less fortunate.

"Eat up every bit of that now. If you were out in the Third World, you'd be glad of it."

Years of missionary appeals, Lenten sacrifice and Bob Geldof appearances meant Irish children had a very strong sense of The Third World so it was a resonant guilt-trip to use.

It wasn't always "The Third World". Specific countries were mentioned depending on their prominence in the news at the time. There should be some sort of economic index which measures countries' progress depending on frequency of mentions in the invocations of Irish mothers. In the 1950s and 60s even China was on the Clean Plate index. The Chinese must be delighted to have passed that particular development milestone.

I'm not sure if this was specific to Ireland (being a small country, we think everything is specific to us) but with a famine just a few generations before, the cultural gratitude for any food at all on the table seemed to be a strong force.

Image copyright Tbc

Find out more

  • Colm O'Regan recalls a childhood of being made to finish his dinner on the Food Chain on the BBC World Service
  • The programme will be broadcast at 07:30 GMT on 15 August - afterwards you can listen on iPlayer or get the Food Chain podcast

The second reason for plate cleaning was, "After all the trouble I went to to make it."

So even if you didn't care about the Third World you cared about your mother and eating to please her. We all like to please and if you can please someone by finishing what was on the plate, then all the better. In fact I even impressed outside the family. Apparently when I was four I told the doctor two things. I got a new vest and ate five potatoes for dinner.

For years this parental order "to get the calories in while they were there" was balanced out by the rate at which calories were being burned. Without wishing to paint the past or the childhoods of 30-somethings as being some sort of Famous Five idyll where we all pulled on tattered jumpers and shorts and went exploring an apparently empty island, we were definitely sent out to play.

Calories were burned off doing all the things that scare the proverbial out of parents now - climbing, jumping, exploring, doing things that were not covered by insurance, with no supervision or trained "mentors" or "facilitators".

This isn't because we were in some sort of Elysian park, frolicking around. It's because there were fewer sedentary alternatives. You couldsit inside staring at a screen but it would be pointless. The cartoons wouldn't be on for a few hours yet.

At the same time, treats were relatively more expensive.

For example the price of a bottle of cola now is not too much more than it was 20 years ago. Juvenile earnings, meanwhile, have since gone through the roof and as a result the country seems to have a lot of children who look like Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Since circles have a habit of turning 360 degrees, I've no doubt that I'll be little different with my future children. I'll probably have an emotional need for my child to clean his or her plate. And I'll use guilt where necessary.

But to avoid accidentally inflicting childhood obesity, I'm definitely getting smaller plates.


Colm O'Regan recalls a childhood of being made to finish his dinner on the Food Chain on the BBC World Service. The programme will be broadcast at 07:30 GMT - afterwards you can listen on iPlayer or get the Food Chain podcast.

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