Finish all your vegetables. You can’t have dessert until you clean your plate. That’s bad for you. You’ve been good, have a treat.
These are some pretty common phrases that we’ve likely heard from our parents and grandparents and maybe even uttered to our own kids. They are usually said in an effort to get children to eat foods that will nourish their growing bodies—or just to eat at all.
But the way we talk about food in our families has a lasting impact, says Christine M. Peat, PhD, an expert in eating disorders at UNC Medical Center.
“Food can be a really powerful way to communicate, and sometimes those messages are positive and other times more hurtful. On the positive side, food might be used as a way to connect to culture or heritage,” Dr. Peat says. “On the negative side, food might be talked about in such a way that there are fears associated with certain types of foods or maybe an overemphasis on calories.”
Whatever the messages, we often end up internalizing them without realizing it, Dr. Peat adds. Taking a mindful look at our family’s beliefs and values about eating can help us achieve a healthier relationship with food.
How Families Communicate About Food
Think back to when you were young. How did your parents or caregivers talk about food? Were there foods that were allowed or forbidden? Were you told to eat more or less?
“When you are little and start to develop a palate and eating habits, those really early messages from your parents are very important,” Dr. Peat says. “Being told to clean your plate versus learning to stop eating when you are full is a good example of how a small instruction to a child can have a lasting impact on how someone consumes food.”
Another lesson that sticks with us is labeling foods as good or bad. Dr. Peat says this system of sorting foods into categories can make us feel unhappy with ourselves if we eat a “bad” food, and that shouldn’t be the case.
“Food has no moral value. An apple didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize and a candy bar didn’t rob a bank,” she says. “We assign moral values to food that really just end up making us feel miserable about food.”
Dr. Peat encourages families to be flexible. Eating salads every day doesn’t make you a good person and eating lots of fast food doesn’t make you a bad person. Understand what combination of foods makes up a healthy diet for you and your family, and base your choices and suggestions from that knowledge. That means you’ll want to serve and eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins to get the most complete nutrition, but a happy family life also makes room for food that simply tastes good.
Food and Family Life
Think about how food plays into the day-to-day routines and experiences of your family. How often do you eat meals together? Do you celebrate or reward each other with food? How often do you cook, and do you ever cook together? All of these questions help you understand the food culture of your family, whether you’re thinking about your childhood or the present day.
Dr. Peat encourages families to identify positive experiences around food, like eating as a family.
“The more family meals you can have together, the better,” Dr. Peat says. “Communal meals have been shown to have a good long-term effect on food relationships.”
It doesn’t matter what meal you have together—breakfast, lunch or dinner will do. Taking the time to connect with each other and your food promotes better interactions all around. In addition, taking the time to prepare a meal together or trying new foods as a family also can create food-positive experiences.
Dr. Peat says eating together also helps establish regular eating patterns for children, which promotes healthy food habits. They should expect to have certain meals throughout the day, with the family meal being a focus.
When it comes to treats or punishments, using food as a tool can be problematic.
“The challenge of using food as a reward is expecting yourself to have to do something to earn your food,” Dr. Peat says. “You don’t have to accomplish anything to eat. You need a caloric intake to live. If you make food items a prize that you aren’t allowed to have unless you do certain things, it just sets you up for wanting it even more, and overindulging when you do have it.”
How to Improve Your Family’s Food Culture
Knowing more about how your family views food can help you decide what role you would like food to play in your household going forward. There are ways to adjust patterns that have already been established, and you can learn more about nutrition and cooking as a family.
A great place to start with your family’s food culture is to think about why you do things certain ways. Is it because that’s how your parents taught you? Is it because you saw it on TV? Is it because someone on Instagram does it? Now is a chance to break from the routine. Learn more about nutrition in order to figure out what’s actually best for you and your loved ones.
“Listen to what your body is telling you,” Dr. Peat says. “Don’t eat based on what some blogger or influencer is telling you. Eat based on what your body is telling you and what we know tends to be balanced and healthy.”
Dr. Peat also points out that “healthy” isn’t a one-size-fits-all term. Use suggestions such as the Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, but understand that they are general recommendations for the entire U.S. population that will work for many people, but not all.
If you’re not having a family meal together, start getting into that routine. While it can be difficult to coordinate schedules, decide which meal of the day works best for your family and make it a priority. Make it a time to put distractions away and focus on food and each other.
Lastly, take a close look at your personal relationship with food. If you don’t think your attitudes or behaviors are serving you, consider working on changing them. This can be done with the help of your doctor, a nutritionist or a mental health professional.
Learn more about the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the UNC School of Medicine.
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