Like a lot of adult women in the United States, I've had issues with food for as long as I can remember. I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t feel weird about food. I was a picky kid, so I was constantly at war with my parents to be allowed to eat nothing but cheese and pure sugar. The tension made each and every meal stressful. On top of that, I was small for my age, so my parents were constantly concerned about whether I was eating enough. By the time I was 5 years old, I felt like eating was this high-pressure activity that I wished I didn’t have to deal with. Why couldn’t I just photosynthesize?
Nowadays, my relationship with food is complicated: at times it seems fine, and other times it’s like walking through a minefield. But to be honest, I never spent much time thinking about it until I became a mom. With a child to feed, however, everything became totally different. I wanted my kid to have a happy and healthy relationship with the food that he eats, to eat when he’s hungry and stop when he’s full, and to eat a wide variety of foods to get a wide variety of nutrients. Most importantly, I wanted him to fully enjoy his food.
It’s a beautiful goal, but now that I spend so much time thinking about my son's relationship with food, my own food issues have been brought into sharp relief. Now, one of my primary objectives in feeding my child is not to pass my own weird food hangups onto him, and it isn’t exactly easy.
Part of the reason why I have so many food hangups is because there was always junk food in my house. My mom hated to shop for groceries, but when she did force herself to go to the store, she always came home with a pile of snack crackers, candies, chips, and individually packaged cakes. These foods were always more exciting than anything else in the house, so they were gobbled up within a day or two. When I describe my childhood issues with food to others, I often joke that I grew up in a “competitive eating household” (which is a term sometimes used to describe animal eating patterns), because there really was the sense that if you wanted, say, Oreos, you’d better eat as many as you could as fast as you could.
Then I hit puberty, and I felt the sudden pressure to stay as small as possible. Whereas before, I had been chided for not eating enough, in middle school half of my friends were already on diets and questioned why I ate at all. Over time, all these factors — from childhood shame for being “picky," to moralizing about whether or it was “bad” to eat the foods I really enjoyed — compounded to make me the person I am today. I’m a 31-year-old woman who eats mostly healthy food, but feels the obsessive need to consume every bite of ice cream as quickly as it comes into the house.
I’ve worked hard to give my kid a better shot at a healthy relationship with food. I offer him a wide variety of meals and snacks, including tons of veggies and fruits, and yes, sometimes cookies. We sit down for family meals together, and we never, ever shame him over what he likes or does not like. We don't use food as a reward, and we try not to make a big deal out of things like sugary foods, so they won't feel "forbidden" and therefore more tempting.
Here’s the thing: I make a big show of sitting down at family dinner and doing everything right, but in reality it’s a lot more complicated than that.
My son is nearly 2 years old. So far, it seems like we have a kid who loves food. He’s especially fond of avocado sushi, tofu, mashed potatoes, and blueberries. But he’ll also eat ketchup by the forkful and he’s a pretty big fan of chocolate in all forms. Basically, he’s just a kid eating food, which is exactly what he should be.
On the surface, my plan to keep my food issues to myself is working. But I can't help but wonder if maybe it isn't. Because here’s the thing: I make a big show of sitting down at family dinner and doing everything right, but in reality it’s a lot more complicated than that. I hide my favorite foods from him, and sneakily eat them after he’s in bed. I’ve even been known to snack on cookies while preparing him a well-balanced lunch. And while that might not seem like the biggest deal ever, I think it’s illustrative of something. When I started feeding my kid solids, I immediately realized how messed up my own relationship with food was. I figured this would be a “fake it till you make it” situation for me, but it’s been a year and a half now, and honestly, I’m still faking it.
I still use food in place of comfort when I’m stressed, and I still avoid eating when I’m really, really down. I still binge on sweets one week and then eat no sweets the next week. I still find that it’s a lot easier to eat if I have something to distract me from the act of eating. As much as I love the fact that my kid loves sitting down for family dinner, the whole thing still stresses me out.
I worry that my son will normalize all the same crap that I normalized as a kid.
If it were just me, I probably wouldn’t stress about my eating habits. Hey, we can’t all be perfect pinnacles of wellness on every single level. So I have issues about food? So what! But someday soon, my kid is going to find me hiding in the pantry eating Oreos. He’s going to catch on to the fact that I don’t eat all that much at dinner, preferring to snack at my laptop after he’s asleep. He’s going to realize that all the healthy eating habits I’ve been trying to model for him are, well, to some extent, a lie.And then what happens?
I worry that my son normalize all the same crap that I normalized as a kid. I worry that he, too, will have a weird scarcity mentality about food, and that will drive him to eat more than he wants or needs to. I worry that maybe not even his assigned gender can protect him from all of the weird and complicated food issues that I could so easily pass down to him. This stuff gets passed down from generation to generation. I grew up hearing about how food was evil, but also the most amazing thing in the universe, but also you know, evil. I’ve watched how that affects people, and how it affects me.
I want better for my child.
The only conclusion I can draw from all of this, is that it’s time to stop faking it. That means diving in and actually addressing my own weird issues around food and eating, rather than just pretending it’s fine all the time. I’m a busy working mom, and I’d honestly much rather not deal with it. I’d rather continue to try to hide my hangups, as I have enough crap to deal with already. But if I’m really serious about wanting this to stop with me, if I don’t want all the work I’ve already done to be for nothing, I have to try something else. Because what I’m doing right now just isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t working.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my kid just finally went to sleep, and I’m suddenly starving.