My parents were hard-working people who did an amazing job at providing my siblings and I with real food.
They grew a huge garden, my dad hunted, and my mom made everything from scratch. We didn’t have the money for fancy lunch-box treats and fast food or eating out was a very rare event for us. My mom was ‘weird’ – making homemade yogurt and cooking lentils that nobody liked, and for a while bringing home goat’s milk in big glass jars. She was also the best bun maker ever!
But looking back I also grew up with what I now consider some less healthy messages around food.
I had to sit at the table until I finished my food because “there are starving children in Africa” and because “this is not a restaurant” (all sentiments I have felt and used with my own kiddos, by the way). My mom did an excessive amount of baking over the holidays (as kids we loved sneaking frozen cookies from the deep freeze for months after Christmas). I was forced to eat meat even though meat/dead animals horrified me and I became vegetarian at age 19, a while after leaving home. And in high school, I watched my mom deal with her exhaustion via a daily indulgence of a bottle of coke and a chocolate bar when what she probably needed was a good, long nap.
I adored my mom and could see, even then, that she did not care for herself well or speak up for her own needs. And I followed in her footsteps.
My poor relationship with food and body image started quite young and escalated over the years. The story goes that when I was a toddler my parents would awaken to find me asleep in the cupboard, hand in the cracker box. I stole my big sister’s Halloween candy and desserts from the fridge and still remember the intense shame I felt over my actions. I began binge eating in high school and it worsened over the next many years until I surpassed 200 lbs*; I did not respect myself nor did I know how to deal with my emotions except to numb them away through food, drugs or alcohol.
I developed adult-onset allergies to a variety of fruits, veg and tree nuts but kept eating these foods anyways (until my airway started closing) because, after all, everyone knows they are good for you. Then there was a time, about 14 years ago, that I restricted my eating to the point of my stomach hurting most of the time – but I felt in control of that part of my life and people kept complementing me about my weight loss. I was having panic attacks and felt desperately lost inside but at least I looked good, right?
A central part of my healing journey has been to learn to listen to and respect the messages from my body, my spirit, and my soul. To love myself enough to act on what I hear. To stop numbing and learn to face pain, fear or other strong emotions in my life in healthier ways.
And I want to model this to my children.
We say we want our children to grow up respecting themselves and their bodies, and trusting their intuition (for instance to protect them from abuse or unhealthy relationships), but then we dismiss them when they give us cues or inform us, loud and clear, of their food preferences (general likes and dislikes) and how they feel when they eat certain foods. But we cannot have it both ways.
When they learn to identify and voice their feelings and we consistently shut them down we train them that their opinions or feelings don’t matter. Or that they are wrong and cannot trust themselves to make good decisions. I believe that this is training ground not only for developing a heathy relationship to food but also for bigger issues like a strong self-esteem and healthy sexuality (where they are clear on what they do or don’t want and are confident to voice their feelings on the matter). But lest you feel I am getting carried away here I will bring the conversation back to food.
“Mealtimes should be warm, comfortable, and positive times for families to talk and bond; you should work toward making sure the meal table is not associated with negativity.”
Jennifer Kolari, MSW, RSW
Every adult I know has clear preferences when it comes to food. I was vegetarian 15 years then pescetarian another 9; I expected my family to understand and respect this choice. Should my kids not also benefit from the same right to choose? I eat a varied and nutrient-dense diet but, frankly, I dislike squash and don’t care for my husbands West-African dried fish sauces. Does that make me a picky eater?
I not only have food allergies to work around but I also choose to limit grains, dairy, sugar, and yeast because I recognize that I don’t feel great when eating them. If I have this right, do my kids not also have the right to certain accommodations (ex. one is disgusted by mushy textures like polenta, pudding or oatmeal while another hates foods all mixed together as in soups or casseroles)? Sometimes I want a little treat and will enjoy a piece or two from my good-quality dark chocolate stash. My kids, too, deserve to have a little stash of favorite treats to pull out on occasion.
I absolutely believe that good nutrition is critical for health, energy, and mood-balance. I also believe that food can be soul-nurturing and a fun part of celebration, if not abused.
But it is also one of the most consistent opportunities we have for teaching our children to pay attention to how they feel and empowering them to make good choices for themselves (there are many adults who do not have these skills). I am NOT advocating a processed/ junk food free-for-all any more than I would advocate an anything-goes approach to media. I do, however, believe that it is entirely possible to offer a healthy spectrum of foods, including yummy treats for our kids AND give them room for personal choice and expression.
We do not need to fight over food or become a short-order cook. We can teach our young people kind ways of expressing themselves (not “this …disgusts me”). We ought not shame children or use food as punishment or reward. Just think about this for a moment: if you have a child with anxiety around food or their body, would shaming or punishment bring healing or harm?
We can engage our kids in conversation around how they feel when they eat certain foods and the benefits of certain foods, and model healthy habits (For instance, do we regularly over or under eat? Do we take time to sit down and fuel ourselves well? When we make a mistake do we acknowledge it without shame so that our kids can see that we are all imperfect but learning?)
We can discuss food waste and poverty away from the supper table and invite suggestions from family members on how to take positive action on these issues. We can invite our children to help plan meals or special treats they enjoy and to share in the shopping and food prep. We can compromise sometimes and model flexibility and when our teens have jobs and choose to spend some of their own money on totally crappy food, we can try not to fall apart or nag (ahem!) but do our best to affirm and encourage them in life.
I know that life probably feels far easier when everyone must eat the same thing, no questions asked.
But easier is not always better. And I invite you to consider how respecting your “picky eaters” might actually contribute to raising strong, confident, and healthy individuals.
*weight is relative and is not actually the point of my post – the problem was that I did not love myself nor treat myself with respect. And this can happen at any weight!