(this post comes with a content warning for mention of physical abuse, as well as disordered eating, eating aversion, internalized fatphobia, sensory difficulties with eating…basically if there’s anything that feels triggery to you about food, there’s a high chance I’ll talk about it in this post. Please skip if you should, or do whatever helps keep you safe. ❤ )
I have had a fraught relationship with food for all of my remembered life.
There’s a story in our family lore about my parents insisting I eat chocolate pudding at a buffet as a very young child, and how I threw it up.
My family often said that I would have lived off of chicken nuggets if I could, but that I often didn’t even want to finish eating a “normal” amount of chicken nuggets—I would have only eaten one or two, if left to my own devices. My family also did not believe in leaving me to my own devices, but rather in plating all of the food I was expected to eat and requiring me to eat all of it.
I understand that this is not an outrageous or extraordinary parenting decision and that it was meant with a spirit of care—to make sure I learned to eat various types of food, to make sure I got the nutrition my body needed, etc. I do understand that, intellectually.
I also remember sitting at the table crying because there was a timer on the microwave by which I must have eaten all the food in front of me or else someone would hit me. I remember that I learned to swallow green beans the way one would swallow pills, in gulps of milk. I remember getting used to swallowing food that I had thrown up into my mouth and how to keep my mouth closed if that happened and how to try not to let it show on my face.
I was a very naturally compliant child. I was not the type of child who would get into a battle of wills over anything at all. I always choked all the food down.
I threw away so much food at school—I cringe to think of how much food I wasted, but it would have never, ever occurred to me to bring it home or for somebody else to eat it (unless I had a friend sitting next to me who wanted it or something). Mercifully, I was allowed to have PB&J at school, which has always been a safe food for me and I was perfectly happy to eat one PB&J every day for approximately thirteen years straight. (I picked the crusts off at school—something else not allowed at home. The texture felt so horribly dry and crumbly compared to the rest of the bread.)
We also had rules about dessert and sweets. Again, these were not outrageous rules and I was not severely restricted in being able to eat sweets—I often had sweet cereal for breakfast and we had some candy or a dessert after a meal quite frequently. Despite this, I felt very obsessive and out-of-control about eating candy and sweets. I’ve written here before about sneaking donuts at church, and I used to hide candy in places in my room and eat it secretly, all of which I felt horribly guilty and ashamed about and tried very hard to force my own self to stop by doubling down on religious guilt.
As a teenager, I was slightly more in charge of what I could eat, especially as I became in charge of cooking dinner for the family everyday at about 15 since I was interested in cooking. (I’m going to write more about that later when I talk about cooking as a specific, separate entity different from eating and feeding). I still was generally expected to eat all my food but I could usually serve food on my own plate and only give myself a tiny amount. I would also hide food in napkins or surreptitiously scrape it off into the trash if I thought I could do so safely.
Still, I don’t know by what metric I was listening to my body about what I needed to eat but I know it was very out of whack by then. I would often throw up randomly after meals and was unsure why I was doing it—now I suspect I was simply eating too much at those meals, or that I was eating while very anxious, something that I now know will make me throw up. It was muddled by the fact that I was vaguely familiar with the concept of eating disorders and I was also struggling greatly with my own self-image. I had a lot of struggles that I now believe to be more related to my gender presentation and identity, but at the time, I internalised my worries as being about weight gain. I skipped meals at random times, and it never occurred to me that I might simply not have been hungry at those times—I wasn’t listening to my body’s hunger cues *at all*—so I assumed that skipping meals occasionally was inherently disordered and needed to be hidden from everyone. I threw up food at seemingly random times. I was unsure whether I had an eating disorder, since the only two I knew about were anorexia and bulimia and I didn’t seem to completely fit into either category but I was certainly deeply unhappy with my body. I was also quite certain I needed to keep all of this to myself.
In college, with a little more independence, I began to recognize some of my body’s personal patterns. That eating first thing in the morning made me feel nauseated and it was okay for me to skip eating right away—I had previously believed that I needed to wake up, eat, then brush my teeth, then go about my day. It was somehow incredibly shocking to me that I could wake up and brush my teeth (because I loathe the feeling of unbrushed teeth when I wake up!) and then go about my life and I could simply eat an hour or two later when my stomach felt settled.
I began to notice the way that I would go on what I now call “food jags”—I don’t think I had a word for it at the time—where a food or meal that had previously been just fine to me would become my favorite food or meal and I would want to eat it constantly for days on end, when the “jag” would suddenly and abruptly end, and I would be somewhere between utterly uninterested to outright nauseated by the thought of eating that food anymore.
Only a few years ago, a ways into adulthood, did I start to feel comfortable with trying new foods—whether the foods felt adventurous, or whether they had simply been foods I hated or was afraid of as a child. Only in this last year have I found any meals whatsoever in which I can eat beans, and tomatoes. (Each one has 1-2 meals where I’m okay with it or even enjoy it.) Still, sometimes I just can’t—for example, I’m capable of making chili and eating it with beans in it, but I prefer it without beans, and if I’m having a stressful day or otherwise feeling overwhelmed at all by anything else, I’ll leave them out. It feels like one more emotional burden that I can’t manage to tolerate when I’m overwhelmed.
I also have quite a few unusual quirks of eating that still persist to this day.
Often, I’ll get to the very last bite of my food and then my body will immediately go “done, I am completely done, I am unable to eat this last bite. DONE.” I used to make myself eat the last bite (or sometimes it’s 2-3 bites) and that would often result in me throwing up. When I noticed this pattern I began to say to myself, “I hear you. You’re full and satisfied. It’s okay to throw away this last bite” (or give it to my husband or kids, if it’s something they want). I don’t know whether that will ever go away. I don’t know whether it’s truly a hunger/fullness thing or whether it’s my body anxiously insisting that I not force it to eat food it doesn’t want. Either way, I try to be patient with myself about these feelings and hear them and honor them.
I eat my food very fast. I have strong internal feelings about food temperature. If I’m eating hot food, I want it to be pretty much as hot as it could possibly be without burning my mouth. The longer it takes me to eat, the more it cools off, and I don’t want that—I don’t want any temperature variance, I want it exactly as hot as it was. So, I eat very fast.
I have strong feelings about textures in foods. I have an incredible aversion to smooth, gloopy, or slimy foods. Sometimes it can be avoided by adding mix-ins, like for example yogurt with granola mixed into it. But sometimes the mix-ins themselves gross me out, like if the granola became soggy.
An immense amount of my eating is dictated by food jags. I go on food jags both for nutritious, full-meal type food, and also for snack types of food. Right this minute as I type this, I’m in between “lunch jags”…I had been eating shakshuka with sourdough bread every day for about 5 weeks at work, but last week was the last week that I was able to eat that and now I’m burnt out on it for awhile. I am on a “snack jag” of enjoying eating chips, especially Bugles, with a Dr Pepper. When I’m in between lunch/dinner jags it’s very hard for me to figure out what I want to eat and I’m more likely to fall back on very easy things like PB&J or boxed macaroni. Often I know that by the time I’m supposed to make myself a full meal, I might be too hungry to figure it out, so I either have to plan my meals ahead of time or I have to eat a snack or a piece of candy while I evaluate what I’m able to make for myself.
I still cannot eat when I’m anxious or I will throw up. I have many missed first day/last days of new jobs, school, appointments, etc where I thought “oh no, I am sick, I will have to call out sick” because I was up throwing up the night before. Then for awhile I was convinced that I was faking it to have an excuse to get out of things. After awhile I recognised the correlation where I either need to not eat while I’m so anxious or I need to eat only a few very very limited, very very simple things.
Is all of this nature, is all of this nurture, is the split somewhere in the middle? Who can ever know? I think I was born with some sensory aversions and I think it’s most likely that some of my eating behaviors come from my past.
My approach to eating with my children is extremely, extremely relaxed. It’s probably too little structure for some families, which is why I recommended actual “professional” resources in my last post. Everybody gets fed; sometimes we’re sitting down together and sometimes we’re not; there’s a great deal of movement at the dinner table as both of my kids wiggle and bounce around. We often eat outdoors, at a playground, park, or nature reserve, and sometimes in our own backyard. I can manage to put together a “proper meal” only sometimes; much more often, the kids (and sometimes the adults) eat bits and pieces of many things, such as cubes of cheese alongside some fruit, crackers, and a sweet treat, or leftovers from a previous meal alongside some other things that don’t always “go together”.
The kids don’t just dictate exactly what they eat yet and I do often tell them “That’s not what we’re having right now but we can have it tomorrow/later/another day”. However, I do make sure that there’s something they like at every meal and snack. My kids like a lot of things, so that helps make it easier and I do recognize that. One of them pretty much subsisted on various fruits when he was younger. And for awhile, one of them would literally only eat peanut butter sandwiches so we had peanut butter sandwiches alongside almost every meal for awhile, and I mentally reminded myself of the way I go on food jags, so why wouldn’t she?
I do typically put food on my kids’ plates at this age. I have divided plates for them so that the foods don’t touch (something else I’m very personally averse to). I’ll put a very small amount, like one single bean, of something on their plate if I think they’re more likely to not want it. My kids, especially one of them, will often say “Ewww, I don’t like this,” or “This is disgusting” or stuff like that to food on their plate. I have no trouble very calmly saying “That’s fine. You don’t have to eat it.” Sometimes they’ll want to put it off their plate onto mine, or onto a napkin, or into the trash, and that’s fine. I try to make sure that I model eating those things in front of them, although sometimes I just can’t. (The other day, I roasted green beans in a way that I can sometimes tolerate, but I was tapped out from the day and simply couldn’t, and neither kid nor me ate any green beans!)
We relatively frequently watch a show or a movie while we are eating, if we’re eating at home and not in a park/playground/etc — something else that I know is a very contentious choice, but it’s what works in our family. Both of my kids hate feeling “stared at”, so sitting across the table from each other can be hard (or even next to each other), and sometimes at the end of a long day, everybody’s communication skills are really tired out. My kids both communicate with lots of scripts and non-literal language involved in what they say, so it’s easy for them to misunderstand one another and get frustrated if they’re already feeling stressed out. For these and other reasons, it’s sometimes easier and more connected, pleasant time for us to collectively watch a show together and laugh at the funny parts together, than it would have been for us to try to converse.
But we also have great moments of connection around eating—not always traditional, but often around silliness/playing with food. The other day I suddenly started pretending to feed them a carrot like a horse but then yanking it away and they were trying to chomp it before I pulled it back and laughing hysterically and rolling around on the couch. It was so, so, silly and lovely, and not at all a chill “family dinner”!
I know I said it earlier this week, but I really need to re-emphasize how much this is not intended to be prescriptive for what you should do in your family, only reflective on me, my own life, and what I do in mine. If you can take my reflections and take something meaningful from them, that’s wonderful and that’s exactly what I would have hoped. If you don’t find them meaningful or you disagree with something I’ve chosen to do, that’s understandable, I know this is a topic that people vary on a lot. ❤