Changing A Family’s Chow; And Learning About The Evolution Of My Own Relationship With Food..

11 Feb


The inside of my fridge, freezer and pantry look very different from two years ago. Okay, they are still disorganized and terrifying to the uninitiated as to how I run my kitchen. It’s the foods stuff I’m talking about. Gone are the bags of pasta, regular and whole wheat. No more half eaten boxes of cereal (except the occasional Gorilla Munch). Most notably, gone are the boxes upon boxes of wheat crackers and golden yellow aquatic shaped creatures. Oh I still have snacks. Root veggie chips, like the kind you can find at Trader Joe’s, are my kryptonite for self-control. I am slightly more behaved with things like plantain chips or a bag of mixed nuts.

Coconut oil has replaced canola oil. In the fridge, margarine is no more. In it’s place is grass-fed butter. I can’t believe I went so long without out you, butter.

We had some good times, tofu and I. But with my time as a vegetarian far behind me, my meat drawer is filled with just that, meat. Chicken and seafood as well. What started out as a go at the Paleo diet has settled into the way that I feed my family. Which is not necessarily “paleo”. We consume dairy, cultured yogurt, sour cream, cheese, heavy whipping cream in coffee (Heaven!). Nachos are not an unwelcome guest and taco night usually comes with an option for corn tortillas. Rice is nice, but not every night. So we have it a couple times a week. I keep animal based protein, vegetables, healthy fats (coconut oil, avocados, EVOO), fruits and nuts as the priorities, and slip in rice, some corn and gluten-free treats to keep things exciting.

Our garage fridge used to house cases of soda. Not any more. We drink more water or flavored sparkling water. The lord and lady of the house stick with tequila and red wine, keeping a small arsenal of beer for visiting uncles.

For this big change I had a collection of websites, blogs and books. But the source that guided me the most were memories from my own upbringing.

The parents that bonded over a shared interest in exploring the science and joys of healthy eating and family unity. Yeah…I didn’t know those people.

I was the only child in my household. Cooking wasn’t something my mom was particularly interested in. It wasn’t that she was bad at it. Some of the meals I still pine for are ones she made when I was in early grade school (my parents divorced when I was around ten, which would’ve been in the late 70′s, early 80′s). Shopping and keeping a well stocked kitchen was not a strong suit for her. She later told me, when I was in my teen years, that in a strange way ignoring the state of the household’s larder bonded her with her own mother, who passed away from cancer when my mom was a young woman in college. The combination of being a somewhat high functioning alcoholic and agoraphobe sufferer gave way to such quirks as my grandmother ordering grilled cheese sandwiches from the local drugstore for her 3 children.

My dad, the athlete. A handsome and strapping young man with a powerful upper body, made even more so by his time in the Navy stationed on a refueling ship in the Pacific Ocean during the Vietnam War. Forever fascinated by anything with two wheels, he was either going upwards of a 100 mph on the highways of the California central valley on a motorcycle or he was training on a racing bicycle.

During a very dedicated patch of his love of bicycle racing he discovered the Pritikin Diet. What the diet basically entailed, was minimally-processed or unprocessed foods (not a bad idea), lean meats, vegetables, fruits, legumes (lots and lots of legumes!), starches like potatoes, brown rice and whole wheat. I don’t remember there being much dairy at all. I’m pretty sure low-fat was a big tenet of the diet as well, with dishes like “The One Olive Tamale Pie”. Basically, I remember a lot of meals consisting of bland chicken breast, steamed vegetables and potatoes, or a big pot of cooked beans in desperate need of some salt.

Even though I was young I registered the writing on the wall, “Don’t go against the low-fat, high-fiber grain.” What was most telling about my parents version of marital unity and dietary uniformity was what would happen when my dad would go away for the weekend on long rides or camping adventures with friends. There would immediately be a trip to the grocery store, my mom and I. The cart would brim with T.V. dinners, chips, ingredients to make fudge and the newest cardinal sin unleashed on the west coast; Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

I don’t recall my parents openly arguing about the occasional partaking of forbidden foods. So how did I know that these foods were on the “do not fly” list? The first night of one of my dad’s weekend trips would forever change my relationship with food. My mom and I had completed our cursory trip to the market. Freshly baked fudge was cooling on the counter, obediently waiting to be cut into generous sized rectangles. A limited time frame demanded large portions. The as of yet most chocolatey of chocolate mass-produced ice creams known to man-kind holed up in the freezer. Two T.V. dinners, their foil coverings vented just right, were ready to be devoured on, what else, T.V. trays in the family room. Then the most dreaded and unexpected sound instantly changed our strangely Rockwell-ian evening. The e-brake on my dad’s ’75 Toyota pick-up. Damn that one component was so loud. I felt rather than saw my mom’s instant anxiety. She quickly gathered up the trays containing our compartmentalized dining experience and shoved them under the trundle bed we used as an additional sofa and occasional guest bed. Then with magnificent speed and precision set about concealing the rest of the debauchery littering the kitchen. The ice cream would need to be deeply hidden in the freezer, with the same cunning needed to hide a favorite cousin accused of a crime you knew he would never commit. I must have hustled to my room, because I don’t recall any big fallout. I never found out how, or if my mom explained away the smell of factory produced deliciousness. Or even the palpable scent of freshly baked fudge. But if I had had any doubts that my mom was not on board with my dad’s view on nutrition for our family, well they got tossed with the Salisbury steak and apple crisp dessert.

Something much worse was taking place with my parents; their relationship with food and their relationship with each other. There was no communication. No one was saying, “I understand your desire to explore a healthy, or even specialized diet. I will try to be supportive, but I need my wishes and desires respected as well”, or ” I understand you don’t want to follow this diet as closely as I do, but maybe we can find a workable common ground.” The topic of nutrition wasn’t one that I remember being discussed in my childhood household. What I did get a sense of was that one didn’t stand up for their feelings or opinions, but rather suppressed their anger and resentments, and that food was a powerful weapon. Those were things that would later fuel an eating disorder in my teen years.

If I felt powerless in the “what’s for dinner” department, I soon found out I wasn’t alone. A couple of houses down from us lived a family of Seventh-day Adventists. For many Seventh-day Adventists, the doctrine of strict vegetarianism is held as an important part of their faith. The 3 children of the family didn’t go to the same public school as I did, but we were free to play together as neighborhood children. The two daughters were a bit older than me and the son was a bit younger. Together, we made a perfect group of nesting doll playmates. I remember them being nothing short of delightful to spend time with. Their cupboards were as liberated from factory produced snacks as mine were. They were definitely more sheltered than I was. I think I almost gave their elderly grandmother a stroke when I tried to pawn myself off as the Avon Lady, having gotten into my mom’s dresses, high heels and entire collection of make-up.

I soon recognized some of the same power struggles with food going on in their home as were going on in my own. Walking home from school one day, as I approached my driveway I was quickly waved over to this neighboring family’s station wagon. Upon my arrival, beckoned by the mom and her two long haired daughters, it was quickly, albeit covertly brought to my attention that in the foot compartment of the backseat  was a decadent store bought cake. The plastic dome of protection upended at its side. No organized slices to determine serving portions. No, this was not a planned celebration. This was a moment, that if not aggressively seized, would be gone forever. We were giddy with the empowerment of eating a forbidden food, but mindful of the ever present dangers of getting caught, in the act of dietary sedition. We shoved handfuls of moist yellow cake and whipped cream frosting decorated with confetti shaped sugar bits into our joyful mouths. Crumbs tumbling shamelessly into the gutter. So great was the danger of  discovery of our weakness in character that the little brother was not invited in on the travesty. Security risk. He was a known squealer, and a loyalist to dad, who everyone knew was the rule maker. Whenever I look back on this memory I regret that my mom was not a part of it. I think she would have somehow benefited  from the knowledge that she wasn’t alone in her marital stuggles.

Neither my parents or the parents of the neighboring family stayed married for long after that time. The hidden T.V. dinners, the refugee cake, those were all symptoms of parents not communicating. Not finding a common ground and showing respect for one another. Of course it’s never just about the food. Even with eating disorders it’s never about the food. Food becomes a mere medium. It’s the inability or lack of desire to communicate about what, as the leaders of a household, you want for your family. Being clear about one’s limits and being respectful of the other’s. But food is what fuels and sustains us, and if it is tainted with spite and resentment…Well, you are what you eat.

Ironically, just as my parents were preparing for the next chapter in their relationship, that of a divorced couple sharing the responsibility of parenting a child, I received a letter from my mom while I was away visiting relatives. Apparently sizeable scoops were missing from the ice cream carton that was oh so carefully hidden in the back of the freezer.

My journey into having an unhealthy relationship with food really picked up momentum once I had to navigate two confusing households instead of just one. Feast or famine dictated what we ate at my mom’s. Payday, feast. Day before payday, famine. No plan, no budget, no dietary guidelines. Except if my mom was trying a crash diet (Scarsdale and others). Which she would let me join in. Just for the record, a horrible idea. Crash diets are not meant for tweens. Perhaps not for anyone. I internalized other poor habits. I thought that when one opened a bag of chips you ate the whole bag in that one sitting. Then spend the rest of the day feeling horrible about yourself and start making plans to starve it off to reduce the damage. It wasn’t until I was rooming with other teens at a summer dance intensive camp that it hit me. You can open a bag of snacks, eat just a handful or two, and then fasten it closed, to retain freshness, and reopen to enjoy later. But by that time I was so confused about food and my relationship with it, that it wasn’t till years later I could go through the same save-for-later process. I only ate certain things, never straying. Just like when training tigers, always let them know who is boss. Lest they try to usurp your control of the situation. Can you guess who, or rather what, played the role of the tigers?

By the time I was sixteen I was an expert at finding the calorie and fat content of every food from carrots to foie gras. Carbs just weren’t viewed the same way as they are today. The 80’s were all about low-fat/high carb, leg warmers and thong leotards. I also specialized in the twin arts of lying and denial. To my parents, my dance teachers and myself.

So what changed? How did I go from someone who would damn near have a panic attack at mall food court to a mom who spends everyday attempting to guide her family, a hubby and four offspring, in the ways of balancing healthy eating, while not going overboard into crazy “strict-ville”? How did I make peace with my relationship with food? How did I learn to keep the peace in my own home and marriage?

I had to visit the other side of the coin. The side that has dinner planned for the evening before getting out of bed. The side that will discuss places to eat along the way weeks in advance of a trip. The side that always has stuff on hand, because it stocks up, all the time. The Foodie side. This was where my mother-in-law stepped into my evolving relationship with food.

By no means a health nut, my mother-in-law came knew how to stock a kitchen and plan a menu. Days of menus. She can look at a hunk of meat and see its future unfold. Slow-cook roast first night, sliced for sandwiches the next day, and as its swan song, shredded taco meat for the next dinner. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t her own mother that guided her, but her grandparents that taught her much of what she learned. Her own mother had better things to do than to cook dinner. Like find a new husband or be the handler for which ever one she had at the time. My mother-in-law’s  process of learning about food was also part of her salvation from difficult and frightening times.

When my husband, early on in our marriage, would ask me in the morning what I had planned for dinner later that day, I thought he was just being silly. Who the hell looks that far ahead? I haven’t even finished my coffee, for Christ’s sake! Who cares what’s for dinner. Oh, I’ll make sure it’s something edible, okay.

My husband grew up in a household where you asked what was for dinner with the same level of interest as one would ask what movies were coming to town. Dinner was something to look forward to. A reason to slog through the rest of your miserable day. The sustenance that would wash away the day. It seemed like an impossible task to me. Think about dinner so far in advance? Why would I want to do that? Think about food, all day. Like an obsession? Oh, wait. I’d already been doing that for years. Just because I finally tipped the scales past 100lbs., had started menstruating again, and even birthed a beautiful baby girl, didn’t mean I was out of the woods for having an unhealthy relationship with food. For so long I had been obsessed with denying my obsessive behavior of controlling my relationship with food. Inception obsession, if you will. Well, those well honed thought patterns and behaviors were getting in the way of what I really wanted. A home different from what I grew up in.

I had to learn to see food as a friend not a foe. That one could think about food and still be in control of one’s self. While it took me many years to finally and forever realize that losing 5 lbs. will solve very few, if any problems, I did start to learn to see food in a different way.

I learned to see food as a key piece that makes up the bond that binds my family together. I learned that it is possible to combine healthy guidelines for eating and show my love and appreciation to my family. I have the power to provide health and happiness. I’ve also learned how to be compassionate with myself. If I can’t demonstrate compassion for myself, how can I expect my children to develop a healthy sense of compassion for themselves? How can I provide it for my spouse?

The table at mealtimes in my household, have at times been like a Heaven On Earth to my troubled past. Memories of my unhappy childhood and troubled teen years seem like a necessary trail of trials to get to the magical place that is my home. A home filled with amazing people I get to claim as my own.

My newest relationship with food has helped me weather bouts of depression, seasonal allergies and the ever shifting sands of time, which in the case of my butt and gravity is definitely at a downward angle. But that’s okay. There is so much more to live for than the size or shape of my derriere. Like trying to convince my daughters that they, at 19 and 16, should get into the regular habit of worshipping their own beautiful bodies. Hail them with gratitude for the achievements they will make; comforting loved ones in need, bringing new life into the world. Whether that new life be an actual person or an idea or creation, or even just smile on someone else’s face and heart.

For about the last two years I have run a gluten-free kitchen. Having noticed such amazing results shortly after removing gluten from my diet (no more constant bloating, gas and intestinal distress, and a disappearance of low grade chronic joint pain) I quickly encouraged the rest of my family to live a “bagel-free life”. Yes, I know there are gluten-free bagels. Hella expensive, so they have become a rare treat.

At first our oldest daughter, Deirdre who at the time was 17, thought we were nuts. Well mainly me, since I was the biggest advocate of making this change. But since no other options were available at meal time, including “brown-bagging” options when packing her lunch for high-school, she inadvertently adopted gluten-free as well. Not too long after, she started noticing some interesting results. She wasn’t falling asleep in the middle of afternoon classes, no belly bloating, and she had way more energy. One afternoon had her practically skipping around the house asking, “Am I supposed to feel this healthy? I mean, is this normal?”. The occasional pizza slice at a friend’s house would have her vomiting throughout the night. Aside from myself, she is the most strict with gluten-free. My husband will have the occasional gluten exposure. At first he will not notice anything, but the next day brings with it a general sense of malaise. My younger daughter and my oldest son fair the best after eating gluten, but everyone knows when the youngest of my brood has ingested the stuff. Cranky doesn’t even begin to describe the aftermath. While I am not militant about their avoidance of gluten products when they are at friend’s houses, birthday parties or what have you, preparations for the fall out are usually in order.

It was a little rough at first making such a dramatic switch as to take the “staff of life” out of my family’s diet. Some days definitely had me wanting to yell, “Okay, screw it! Eat what you want, ya big whiny baby!” That line was usually in my own head, in reference to myself, my emotional parts fighting with my logical Mr. Spock parts. For everyone else I tried to be a little more diplomatic. “Well, there is some strong evidence that the proteins in gluten are like poison to the digestive tract. Our bodies just can’t make the same copasetic agreement with a wheat grain as it can with, say, a blueberry.” Yada yada. But the one thing I wanted to avoid was making food a battleground issue. A weapon to be wielded in future battles, that most likely wouldn’t even be about food. I didn’t want my sons to feel like they were betraying me every time they went to a birthday party or a friend’s house and were offered cake or pizza (I should note here that no one in my family suffers from Celiac disease. There are sensitivities that make a clear path to the nearest bathroom of the upmost importance. But nothing that will land us in the hospital). For my daughters, I really wanted the changes to be about feeling better and having a more positive relationship with food. Having what you put in your body be more about fuel and restoration so that one can be free to enjoy all that life has to offer. Whether those things be planned or unplanned. Even if it’s navigating the joys and or miseries of treats and occasional overindulgences.

I don’t want them to view certain food choices as “bad”. Rather, I want them to take stock of all the possible “good” and “great” choices available to them. They have the power. Okay, I still retain some of the power in that I decide, for the most part, what comes into the house. Mostly. Someday, though, they will have to make these choices for themselves and their families. I want them to feel empowered and educated, but balanced and compassionate as well.

I have a plan!




2 Responses to “Changing A Family’s Chow; And Learning About The Evolution Of My Own Relationship With Food..”

  1. kristixoxo (@iamkristixoxo) February 11, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! xoxo

    • Erin February 13, 2013 at 5:51 am #

      Thank you. Writing about my experiences and how they affect my own turn at the wheel of parenting is rather new to me. Your kind words are greatly appreciated!

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