Food is a hot-button issue in our house.
My children are picky eaters. My daughter refuses to eat any fruits or vegetables (aside from lettuce drenched in Cesar dressing and an occasional avocado). My son isn't nearly as picky but he can become picky if the conditions are presented (i.e., if I give in to his demands and start catering to his whims).
Add to this my own, personal, food issues, and the level of food anxiety in our home reaches new heights. I've been diagnosed with IBS, which is like being diagnosed with having fairy wings nobody can see but keep lifting you magically up off the ground and taking you places you didn't intend to go.
Actually, fairy wings would be kind of badass. IBS is not so badass. IBS means constant diets, food restrictions, medication, non-medication, acupuncture, etc. The list goes on.
To say I have anxiety related to food is an understatement, which ironically probably just makes the whole thing worse.
My husband is the only person in the home who isn't riddled with food anxiety. He'll eat anything without onions (not even a fleck), and he steers clear of peas. Otherwise, he's good to go.
So, we're just a ball of food issues and non-issues and borderline issues.
The Current Situation - AKA - The Meltdown
All of this ballooned up recently during dinner. I spent a significant amount of time shopping for and preparing a lovely meal of Italian-style meatloaf, pasta, asparagus and wine.
An hour before dinner, I had to take the kids' snacks away, lest they not be hungry for their dinner. This was met with some dramatic sighs, an eye roll and declarations about fairness. Whatever. I powered through.
Dinner was served at 6:30, accompanied by the late night jazz station on Spotify.
Neither child ate more than three bites. Period. At all.
The meatloaf was different. The pasta had tiny, tiny, tiny flecks of parsley.
Um....we don't eat parsley.
Two hours, forty dollars and a table full of dirty dishes later, I was at my wit's end. Add to this my own stomach pains and I was borderline psychotic. My husband ate everyone's food in an effort to assuage the situation, clearing plates like a bulldozer, watching me out of the corner of his eye for possible signs of a breakdown.
In bed that night, propped up with pillows and waiting for my antacids to kick in, I thought about what's going on in our home.
There's just a lot of anxiety. It's not even food. Food is the symptom, much like my stomach pains are a symptom, but food is not the issue. Control, anxiety and poor habits are the issues, and they're always the issues, no matter if we're talking IBS or picky-eater-syndrome or please do not bring another bag of Wavy Lays into the house, I beg you, syndrome.
I've been down this road and through these valleys enough times to know how to start making it better. It requires some thought, a bit of planning and dedication, but it's possible to lower the level of anxiety around food and actually be able to enjoy it again....individually and as a family....without spending a fortune, consulting specialists or becoming a short-order cook.
What Not To Do When Eating Becomes the Enemy
1. Don't Make It Personal
It's incredibly easy to think my kids aren't eating because they're being difficult or trying to annoy me or don't appreciate me. This is not the case. Honestly, I don't think kids are ever plotting against us; I think they just sometimes have opposing goals. They're behavior, while certainly linked to my own behavior, isn't about me. When I take it personally, I get emotional. When I get emotional, I'm unable to rationally deal with the behavior, which means I start making all sorts of declarations and long-term, impossible-to-follow rules. Shockingly, nobody actually believes me when I do this, and it undermines my authority and credibility. When I see my kids' behavior as separate from me (even if it's rude and disrespectful), I am able to deal with it rationally.
I also do this with myself. I sometimes take it personally that other people can eat what they want and never feel stomach pain, never lie down on a bathroom floor or wake up in the middle of the night in agony. You know what...it's not personal. They aren't better than I am or healthier or unhealthier. When I get into the game of compare/contrast, I lose sight of my ability to deal with my issue. We all deal with something. This is my thing. I don't know what your thing is, but wasting my mental energy on making it a personal affront doesn't make it better.
2. Don't Go Deeper Down the Rabbit's Hole
There's a temptation to start preparing multiple meals for kids who refuse to eat. There is a lot of anxiety when our kids don't eat. Will they complain of hunger later? Will they get enough nutrients to actually sleep? Am I setting them up for an eating disorder later in life? Will CPS be called when my daughter announces I didn't feed her breakfast, omitting the part about refusing to eat what was offered?
I start making separate meals. I begin shopping strategically for preferred foods at multiple grocery stores. I start allowing a ten-year-old to order filet mignon so we can all have some peace and quiet.
Readers, do not go down this road! There is not enough filet mignon in the world to rectify what's wrong here, because (again) it's not really about food.
This is also true of my own diet. With so many differing opinions regarding digestive issues, it's easy to allow one's diet to start closing in. No carbs. No saturated fat. No nightshades. No sugar. No dairy. No gluten. No corn. No eggs. On and on it goes. The deeper one goes into this hole, the further one falls. There is no bottom....only deeper and deeper into the abyss.
3. Do Not Give Up
I've given up many times. I've thrown in the towel and prepared separate meals or purchased dodgy food or gone through a drive-thru, all in attempts to simply feed my kids without the exhausting battle that ensues when I serve (for example) Italian-style meatloaf.
I listen to the experts who claim kids know what's best for their bodies, who claim kids need to graze all day, who claim we should never address food openly because we'll be setting our kids up for eating disorders later.
So, I give up. I let them eat whatever crap and junk they want because I'm tired, don't know what to do and lack confidence in where to go next.
I give up on myself, too, for all of the same reasons.
Having done all of this in the past (giving up, digging deeper and making it personal), I can tell you emphatically: none of that works, which begs the question: what does work?
What To Do When Eating Becomes the Enemy
Seriously. I know this sounds fruity and zen-like (which actually isn't fruity at all), but take a breath. Step back, away from the table or the lunch box. Go into the restaurant bathroom, if you must, and collect yourself. Take three to five deep, full breaths. When we're anxious and upset, we often start chest-breathing, which is shallow and causes us to hyperventilate.
When I feel this happening, I take a breath. I sit calmly (alone if I can) and take long, deep breaths. As my body calms down, so does my brain. When my brain calms down, I can think clearly, make a reasonable plan and simply get through a moment. The more we practice deep, mindful breathing, the easier it becomes and the less we have to think about doing it. This works wonders when I'm dealing with my own anxiety or anxiety related to parenting, work, social situations, etc. Often times, the simplest strategies are truly the best.
2. Look Beyond the Food
Like I said before, food is the symptom. When my kids refuse to eat dinner, it's usually because they aren't hungry. I know this. I saw them eating bags of popcorn an hour prior. So, it's not really about the meatloaf or pasta; it's about the fact that my kids (like most American kids) have been taught to graze all day. The allure of tiny flecks of parsley is so much less when one is full-up on popcorn and knows that her mother will allow her to come back into the kitchen an hour after dinner is over, her big blue eyes watery, and beg for a handful of Wheat Thins.
Food is also just one part of my stomach issues. Stress, exercise, sleep, hormones and other lifestyle factors play a huge role in how I feel, so focusing on food is limiting the scope I have to improve the situation. Focusing on food limits me, narrows my vision and makes it impossible to see the wider picture.
And that's what's necessary to improve any circumstance in our lives: perspective...which is seen only through a wider lens.
3. Make a LOVE List
I've been dealing with food issues most of my adult life, whether it's my own or those included in family life. This isn't my first rodeo. I have a little repertoire of tricks I know work when the going gets tough, and in these hard moments, it's time to get that list out and revisit what I know works.
To this end, I make a LOVE list: a list of all of the healthy foods my family loves. Instead of focusing on what we don't like, won't eat or shy away from, I make lists of the meals we love and the foods that truly nourish us. Roasted chicken with pan gravy, potatoes and green beans. Boom. Every single one of us loves that. Pan-fried hamburgers with a dijon mustard sauce and a side-salad. Homemade bread, cheese and fruit.
I make a list of habits I know will make me feel better: Barre 3 workouts, warm tea, not over-eating, less sugar.
I make a list of habits I know will help my kids eat better: no snacking, offering fruits between meals (they never gorge on those), less sugar, more physical exercise.
There is something soothing and empowering about LOVE lists, about figuring out what we know and what works, rather than focusing on what is going wrong, what is frustrating, and what is driving us to the edge.
In the end, food isn't the enemy. I think, actually, there isn't an enemy at all. We live in a culture that thrives on being busy, hustling, giving in to immediate gratification and pursuing perfection. If there is an enemy, perhaps that's it: thinking there is ever a perfect meal, a perfectly behaved child, or a perfect diet.
I hope these tips help if you're ever faced with food and struggle.
I hope everyone is sipping warm tea or digesting a lovely breakfast or not thinking one whit about food at all on this February morning.