Jeff: I was raised in a family who cooked comfort food on a daily basis, and my current culinary repertoire consists of food that tastes good, and the health-consequences be damned. Now that I have kids, I don’t want them to be overweight like I was and have to endure a big person’s daily struggles – I want to instill in them a sense of healthy eating.
My wife and I are expecting our first child this November, and we have had a very similar conversation. I, like many big people, am an emotional eater. I always turned to comfort food when I was younger, and being from Connecticut, my particular comfort food was pizza. Every Friday night we went out for pizza as a family. Monday nights, we had TV dinners because that was the night we had Boy Scouts and Catechism class. Wednesday was all you can eat fried clam strip night at Howard Johnson’s. Every Sunday morning after church I’d have corned beef hash and eggs at Blue Sky diner, unless we were really lucky, and we’d go get sausage egg and cheese mcmuffins at McDonalds. When most people think of an emotional eater, they imagine someone crying while eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the couch. But the truth is, one of the biggest emotions we feel while eating is joy.
Why did we eat like this when we were kids? We didn’t know any better. Our own government didn’t know what was healthy and what wasn’t. When we were children, everything we were taught about nutrition came from something called the Food Pyramid. It ranked types of foods based on group and how much you should eat. The only problem is that it was completely ass backwards. Can you imagine any nutritionist today recommending 6-11 servings of bread a day? Well, that’s what our parents and school cafeterias based our diets on. My school literally served bread sticks for lunch twice a week. They called them “Italian dunkers”.
So how do we make sure your kids and my future kids learn how to eat healthy? We expand our own palettes right along with theirs. We know vegetables may be the most important part of any diet, but we also know kids hate them. My family grew up eating only corn and potatoes as vegetables, because me, my brother, and even my father didn’t like most other veggies. I particularly hated Brussels sprouts, until one day, I had them roasted instead of steamed. Now I love them. If your kid “hates” a vegetable, it usually has something to do with the way they are prepared. You need to learn to experiment, and not just give up on a vegetable after one try. Think about all of the food you hated as a kid, but love now. Variety is the key, and we have so many more options compared to our parents. We have literally millions of recipes at our fingertips with any ingredients we could imagine, thanks to our handy dandy smart phones.
It’s also important to remember that you can be a bigger person and still be healthy, and that going overboard with restrictions or assigning shame to certain kinds of food can make things worse.
I understand the wish to not have your children deal with what you dealt with growing up bigger. Food is a part of growing up. All of those experiences eating with my family are treasured memories I have. When we traveled anywhere, it was about the food. I loved driving hours up and down Cape Cod looking for the very best clam chowder we could find, or posing in front of Cinderella’s castle with our mickey mouse ice cream bars. Whenever we went to a restaurant, no one was allowed to order the same thing as anyone else so we could guarantee everyone got a little taste of something new.
It’s also important to remember that you can be a bigger person and still be healthy, and that going overboard with restrictions or assigning shame to certain kinds of food can make things worse. The important thing is that your kids know you love them no matter what size they are.
Food is an integral part of culture and the human experience. The main reason we call it comfort food is because it reminds us of a time when things were at their best, surrounded by our loved ones. But it’s not all ice cream and chowder. I remember my favorite snack was when my mom would peel a carrot and sprinkle a little salt on it. It’s the feeling of sharing a meal with who you love. I beg you, do not rob your kids of these cherished memories. Create memories around healthy food, but don’t ban unhealthy food forever. Enjoy food, don’t overthink it. They call it a balanced diet for a reason.