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Parents and food anxieties

One of the things that stands out to me when thinking about my childhood is my parent’s attitudes towards my eating habits. You don’t remember the multitude of meals in your life, save for the highly emotional ones. The ones associated with an important life event – an engagement dinner. A particularly good meal – my first experience in a Michelin 3 star restaurant. You also remember the bad ones, a terrible attempt at pizza in some foreign tourist-trap district, the spoiled food, the thing that made you sick. One of the things I recall is anger directed at me because of my eating behaviors.

I grew up in the era when ‘finish everything on your plate’ was dominant (although it seems to be waning now that a third of the country is overweight.) It seems to me that this attitude, that one must eat everything served to them, comes from a variety of sources, but the three most prominent hypotheses in my mind are the following:

  • Scarcity – food scarcity was, and still is, a real problem for many people. In my own family, a depression-era mentality, indeed even a war, food-rationing mentality was passed down. You simply do not waste food in circumstances where you do not know where your next meal is coming from. A feast or famine existence was a fact for some of my predecessors. Of course, translate this to a middle-class, food abundant circumstance, and you have a recipe for overeating.
  • Discipline – the disciplinarian side of child rearing tends to engender this attitude. In this case, it is not the food itself that is at issue, but the child’s obedience to the parent. The child eats what is set forth in front of him to demonstrate obedience. Not eating all the food is a rejection of the parent’s authority.
  • Manners – it is simply impolite not to eat the food you are served. It is an insult to the host. Hence it is important for parents to ensure their children absorb this message and the custom is followed in the home. The children are representatives of the family and their behavior reflects directly on the parents as people and with respect to their abilities as parents.

Of course, all three of the above were at work in my childhood. Food was expensive when I was growing up (before the era of cheap sugar and cheap cooking oil.)  Expensive cuts of meat that I eat regularly as an adult were only seen once month, quarter, or even year in my household. Even something as humble as orange juice (always Frozen Concentrated, never fresh, often watered down below standard) was considered an expensive food item and was doled out in 4 oz portions. Compare that with today where I can get ‘fresh’ OJ at any corner store. Scarcity was a reality and food was not to be wasted. I could not help but to get the general message that food was not to be wasted. But I also got the more subtle messages. That certain foods were special, in a sense, luxuries. Ironically, many of the luxuries of my youth are now commonplace. The circumstances may have changed, but the attitudes have not.

But there was also the discipline (and related manners.) And this is where my parents failed me. They did not fail to create a disciplined, well-mannered child, but they created other counterproductive behaviors in the process of forming that child. I was, in a sense, coerced into eating food that I did not want and may have not even needed. This created an odd anxiety in myself that I only came to recognize much later – that food lying around must be eaten. I am made nervous by leftovers. A half-eaten box of cookies is unfinished business. There is an irresistible impulse to complete.

I wish that my parents had targeted different behaviors for me, or at least changed strategies when I became fat. I wish I had parents that had demonstrated and stated that you eat only as much as you need and no more. I wish they had done a better job communicating that food can be a pleasure, and not a burden, or a task. That there is a polite way to decline what you do not want. And finally, that the attitude about food scarcity, is appropriate when circumstances call for it, but damaging in another. And I wish that I had only learned this lesson on my own sooner.

When my eating habits changed, when I became an adult and ate out more often, it exacerbated my already present problems with overeating. It is no secret that the majority of restaurant portions have increased over the years. Couple the enhanced portions with an attitude that one must eat everything set before them and you have an eating problem that will culminate in overweight or obesity with practical certainty.

I’m not sure that I will ever be completely free of the anxiety that I learned about food. That being said, as a rational, intelligent person, I can learn to deal with the anxiety and subvert it. It has taken years to learn new attitudes about food. The most important tool to me has been to  recognize the anxiety and thoughtlessness that I experience with food. Recognizing an emotion is not as trivial, mindfullness takes great  effort. Much in the way that meditation takes years of practice before it produces the deeper insights; mindfullness of one’s anxieties is a journey.

With these anxious emotion recognized, felt, and understood, I can assume better control of my behavioral response to the emotion. And I have learned to change my typical pattern of response, overeating. My aware self says “you are anxious about the food, why is this?” I slow down and relax. “I’m not even sure myself, but it is making me behave in a way I would like not to.” and can ask “do I really want this food at all?” The answer may be yes, may be no, but now I know where I stand and can try to act according to my wishes.

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