Moms and food go together. We imagine moms making chocolate-chip cookies for an after-school snack. The stereotype of the Jewish or Italian mother, encouraging even their grown children to eat more, holds true for mothers of many different ethnicities. Cooking food is how they show their love for you; eating more of what they cook is proof that you love them. In some families, dads and food go together, too. Food is not just about calories and fuel for our bodies. Many complex messages go into the bowl along with the soup.
We have a particularly full-figured cat. He was large when we adopted him from the shelter and, despite all my efforts, he is still 20 pounds of food-fixated feline. Sometimes, when he is staring hopefully at me, sitting attentively by his bowl, I sing him a song: “Love is better than food/Love is better than food/Love is better than/Love is better than/Love is better than food.” But for him, and for many people, food is love.
I have watched people making my children food: special treats, family recipes, or something they are positive my children will not only like, but love. When my children do not like this food that was specially prepared for them, the cooks take it personally. They are disappointed, but it is more than that—they feel rejected because their offering has been rejected. Even if the person rejecting the food is 3 years old. Even if the person rejecting the food does so politely.
Food is personal. It is entangled with our culture, our childhoods and our memories, happy and sad. In a world that can feel big and scary, food can be a comfort. We eat foods in the hope of preventing terrible diseases, and we avoid foods because we believe they will cause us harm. For some people, food is the focus of their fanaticism.
Food is also social: It brings people together and is shared at celebrations and holidays of all types. For people who live with serious allergies or celiac disease, living a safe and healthy life among others can be challenging and even dangerous.
No matter our relationship with food, our children are born with their own particular set of taste buds, metabolism, sensitivities and tolerances. They have their own preferences, which will expand as our children explore the world and try new things. We can try to make our children eat according to our schedule and expectations, our own preferences and sensitivities. We can try to brainwash our children so that they believe exactly the same things we do about food and nutrition and health. We can try to control and manipulate our children’s relationship with food.
On the other hand, we can accept our children for who they are. We can respect that they are different people than we are, and that what, how and when they eat may be drastically different. We can aim to be a family of connected individuals in regard to food, as well. We can also remember that our children are going to be in the world, playing at friends’ houses, going to school, visiting relatives, and shopping in stores, and they are going to be exposed to a wide variety of foods, as well as a lot of different ideas about diet and nutrition. They are going to have the opportunity to make choices about food, even if we never give them choices at home.
When we focus on our relationship with our children, instead of on their relationship with food—when we explore life, and food, alongside them as partners— we are available as a resource and a support system. When we have a relationship built on trust and connection, our children know that they can come to us and discuss their thoughts and ideas without being judged, criticized or shamed. When we can let go of our expectations, our children are free to express what foods they like or dislike without fear of disappointing us or being forced to eat something.
As parents who love our children, we want them to be healthy, and we often jump right from that thought to food. We are deeply invested in what they eat, how much they eat, and when they eat. Perhaps we are missing out on the importance of why they eat.
Why do your kids eat what they eat? Why do they eat as much as they do, or when they do it? Do your kids eat because they’re hungry? Do they eat foods they enjoy? Do they eat as much or as little as feels right to them?
Or do your kids eat because you have told them it’s time to eat? Do they eat foods because you told them that they have to, and clean their plates because they know they have to eat it all? Do your kids eat to please you?
When we focus on our relationship with our children, instead of on their relationship with food, we can share the joy and pleasure that food brings to our lives. We can share our relationship with food with our children, and they can share their relationship with food with us, exchanging ideas and experiences. Together we can learn and grow as a family with healthy relationships with food and with each other.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #46.
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