What Did You Learn About Food Growing Up?

Lunchtime had ended at my primary school. I sat alone in the dining hall, apart from two teachers who stood over me.  They stared resolutely at me, while I stared forlornly at a plate of cold cottage pie. Everyone else had gone out to play and I could hear the familiar noises of the playground in the distance.

I was told I couldn’t leave until I’d finished my lunch.

At 10 years old, I truly loathed cottage pie. It was My Completely and Utterly Absolutely Worst Food in the World Ever, apart from my Mum’s curried egg (sorry, Mum).

It felt like I’d been there for an eternity. The (usually kind) teachers watched as, simultaneously crying and gagging, I attempted to force down another mouthful. Eventually I was allowed to leave but only because they realised I was actually going to be sick.

I’m sure many of you have experienced something similar.

It doesn’t serve you to override the signal from your body that you’ve had enough in favour of “clearing your plate”.

Although I’m not suggesting that experiences such as these lead to developing eating disorders later in life, I do believe that unexamined messages you receive about food when you’re young can definitely impact your eating behaviour in the present.

“Clear Your Plate” and Other Dictates

“You can’t get down until you’ve cleared your plate”.
“No pudding until you’ve finished your main course”.
“Go on, have another helping, you’re a growing boy”.
“No seconds for you – girls need to watch their figures”.
“Finish your food, there are people starving in other parts of the world”.

Do any of these strike a chord with you?

The belief that you have to “clear your plate” is particularly prevalent amongst people whose eating is emotion-driven.

It’s entirely understandable that this message has been passed down from wartime generations who experienced scarcity and rationing, a time when every morsel of food was a precious commodity – so much so that in 1940 the British government passed legislation to make wasting food a crime punishable with a prison sentence.

I firmly believe that every morsel of food should still be considered precious and we must take substantial measures to reduce the obscene amount of food that is wasted each year. However, if you want to resolve your overeating issues, it doesn’t serve you to override the signal from your body that you’ve had enough in favour of “clearing your plate”.

So what else did you learn about food in childhood that might be influencing how you eat today?

Not Enough of the “Fun Stuff”

You can come to believe there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to eat and that you should always be striving to eat the “right way”.

Sometimes there can be an absence of the “fun stuff” when you’re growing up. Cake, biscuits, chocolate, crisps etc can be very scarce, maybe because you had family members who were “permanently on a diet” as my clients often put it, or because your parents were very health-conscious and trying to do the right thing.

The problem here is that anything in short supply can be imbued with a sense of power and mystery and, therefore, be given a greater value by kids.  Children can come to view so-called “treat” foods as higher in currency than other “healthy” foods that were plentiful.

Consequently, when you clap eyes on cake or chocolate today, there can be an impulsive part of you that immediately squawks “Ooh! Nommy noms!” and before you know it you’re going to town on a Victoria sponge or a family size box of Quality Street.

You can also come to believe there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to eat and that you should always be striving to eat the “right way”. If you detour from this you experience feelings of guilt and shame – challenging emotions which can lead you to eat in secret.

Too Much of the “Fun Stuff”

On the other side of the coin, sometimes there was an overabundance of the “fun stuff” when you were growing up and the whole family regularly overindulged. Maybe there was no limit placed on these sorts of food and there’s a part of you that resents any attempt to do so now. This part feels entitled to food – its motto is “I want whatever I want whenever I want it”, regardless of what your body may be trying to tell you.

Maybe you loved going to visit Grandma when you were little and she loved you – the way she showed that love was to bake you pies and cakes and cookies. As a result, you can believe that if you refuse food you’re rejecting love.

Perhaps your childhood neighbours the McWhatsersons were mortally offended if you didn’t eat your own body weight in burgers and sausages whenever you went for a barbeque. They made such a fuss that you now believe it’s impolite to turn down seconds (…and thirds and fourths).

Maybe your family were pleased or your peers were impressed by how much you could eat. Perhaps being known for “eating big” was your “thing” and became a part of your identity and you’re not sure who’ll you’ll be without it.

Unconscious emotional drivers, such as the need to belong or the desire to be special, can have a considerable influence on your compulsion to overeat.

The Mixed Message Minefield

Children can often receive very mixed messages about food. It’s not unusual for food to be given as a reward for doing well or taken away as a punishment, sometimes in the same day.

Notice if you’re eating out of impulsiveness, entitlement, obedience, politeness or any other reason other than hunger.

The most difficult mixed message I’ve encountered in my work is when there was no limit on food, or you were encouraged to eat a lot, but when you began to put on weight you were taken to a slimming club or weight loss clinic, maybe as young as 14, 12 or even 8.

These experiences are shaming and confusing and interfere with you having an autonomous relationship with food. As an adult you can find yourself permanently stuck in a dieting/bingeing cycle as you endlessly re-enact the feast or famine you experienced as a child.

Make Your Own Rules

So how do you undo the messages you learned when you were younger that may be having a negative impact on your eating today?

As a child you had to follow the rules, but as an adult you get to make your own. Writing a list of your current beliefs and then counteracting them with a new belief is a really a good idea. For example, if your old belief was “I have to eat everything on my plate”, your new belief could be “I stop eating when I’m satisfied”.

It’s also helpful to acknowledge the parts of you that have a reaction to food and work with yourself. Attempt to stay present and notice if you’re eating out of impulsiveness, entitlement, obedience, politeness or any other reason other than hunger.

Try to have a conversation with yourself: “how much of this do I actually feel like eating?”; “do I really want this or is it just an impulse reaction?”; “am I only having seconds because I’m worried about offending others?”

Above all, please try to stop clearing your plate if you’ve had enough. If you’re eating beyond the point of fullness you’re still wasting food. The only difference is that instead of putting it in a rubbish bin, you’re putting it in your body.

And your body’s not a rubbish bin.

Respect your hunger, trust your preferences and listen to your body.

And that includes not having to eat cottage pie if you don’t want to.

©️ Julie de Rohan 2018.


Click here for more ideas about making peace with food.

39 thoughts on “What Did You Learn About Food Growing Up?

  1. Hi Julie, thanks for a really great post. So much of it resonated with me. I’ve struggled with a lot of these eating myths over the course of my life. Cleaning the plate was a big one and I felt for you with the cottage pie story! To a certain generation, wasting food was unthinkable but unfortunately only seemed to lead to ignoring valid signals of fullness from the body. Thanks for a great post, Lxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Lorraine. You’ve really got me thinking – I’ve noticed you’ve said “clean your plate” but in the post I’ve said “clear your plate”. I wonder if both are used or if “clean your plate” is more accurate?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. How funny, Julie! I’m sure both are accurate and mean the same thing. I didn’t notice until you pointed it out. The difference may be down to my upbringing in Ireland. But it seems we were still taught the same thing!! Lxxx

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes we’re not aware of why we relate to food in the way we do. This post is an attempt to help people explore their relationship with food and to offer some understanding so I’m really glad you found it thought-provoking! Many thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked just about any food, so never had to be coerced to eat any food. I remember my parents bragging to their friends that I was a ‘good eater’ and wasn’t picky. This may be why I learned to overeat, to make them happy and live up to my reputation! Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    ps. I would say ‘Clean’ plate being from US. I didn’t even notice you said clear! But…what is a box Quality Street?

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    1. That’s so interesting that your parents were proud of you for being a “good eater”, as you say that gives you a reputation to live up to. Many thanks for adding to the clear your plate/clean your plate debate – I’m beginning to wonder if “clean your plate” is more common. Your ps. made me laugh – Quality Street are boxes of assorted, wrapped chocolates produced by Nestle which I thought would make them international but clearly not! I wonder what the equivalent would be in the U.S.? Thank you so much for your comment, Merri.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Such an important topic! I’ve always told my kids “Listen to your body.” If they feel full, not hungry, I’m not going to force them to eat. They need to develop the confidence in listening to their body cues, I’m just here to give them guidance in food choices.

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    1. That’s so great to hear, I don’t think we can give our kids any better advice than “listen to your body”. You’re absolutely right that we need to help them develop trust in their appetites, their instincts and their bodies. Sadly, many people don’t have that experience growing up. I love that you say you’re “just here to give them guidance in food choices”, beautifully put. Thank you so much for your comment – lovely to hear your thoughts.

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  4. An interesting post indeed. When younger my Mother especially who grew up in foster homes was very focused on food being eaten by her kids and most of those ‘statements’ you included were things l heard over the years.

    The main one was ‘eat your vegetables before your meat or there will no dessert for you!’.

    To this day l struggle to eat both meat and vegetables together, and so eat all my vegetables first and foremost and then savour the meat till last.

    Although l mostly only eat fish these days and occasionally chicken, but still it’s always vegetables first whicever the main component of the dish.

    Someone l once knew grew up in a household where there were six children and food was very scarce and because she always had to fight for her food, she has developed an eating disorder – now in her early 70’s, she despite not being hungry will at times always ensures she eats at specific times, just so she can sate that desire to not be hungry.

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    1. Hi Rory, that’s so interesting to hear that you still eat your vegetables first before your meat or fish because of what you learnt as a child. I can understand that the woman you used to know had to stave off the feeling of hunger because of childhood experiences – I think that being hungry as a child must be so frightening that people avoid any reminder of it as an adult, I certainly have clients with similar experiences. Many thanks for your comment, Rory, great to hear your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pleasure Julie 🙂

        I think for me it was a fear factor, if l didn’t eat my vegetables l would either be strictly and sternly disciplined by my Father or be sent to bed with nothing by my Mother. I learned fast to basically eat what was in front of me.

        These days truth be known, l love vegetables more than meat or fish and could quite happily drop the white meat from the diet, but l would still hang on to the fish.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Saw this on Rory’s reblog and decided to read to the end. The last part of the list is the one we always heard the most “starving children” in other parts of the world. Always a sad thought, but when we grew up and started asking why eating those horrible peas would help a starving child in Africa my mom couldn’t answer so the peas were replaced by the green beans from our garden. There were 7 of us and not much money, but we raised our own food from the meat to the vegetables and the eggs from our own chickens. I guess I’ve always taken food for granted because I know how to raise my own when I can, and thanks to my mom I also know how to make a good, filling and nourishing meal from whatever I can find in the pantry and fridge. I had three teachers when it came to cooking, my mom and both grandmothers, all good cooks, all country raised and all knowing how to make a silk purse from the proverbial sow’s ear. Doesn’t mean there weren’t any eating disorders though. I went thru several years of anorexia, my sis is overweight, and now I have swallowing problems brought on by the MS, so life is interesting, and I’m not sure where this is going now. Just wanted to share the part about having to finish everything on my plate because children somewhere else were starving! Still wonder at times why stuffing our faces here would put food on their plates when it always seemed more likely that teaching them to fish or raise a garden would be more productive. Sometimes I think too much and have too much time on my hands for my own good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so interested to hear your experiences of food when you were growing up, thank you for sharing them. I’m pleased this post struck a chord with you but I’m sorry to hear that both you are your sister have suffered with eating issues, and that MS is now causing you problems with swallowing. How great that you can make a meal out of anything in the kitchen – that’s such a fantastic skill. Many thanks for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.


  6. Isn’t it funny how we continue to “progress” we no longer know how to cook or prepare meals. We rely so heavily on ready made, fully cooked or canned. We’ve forgotten how to cook and make things enjoyable without loads of oil, cheese, garlic or spice. Our mothers and grandmothers knew how to prepare, we need to listen and watch them more and we might learn a thing or two. When it comes to obesity, perhaps the boys need to spend more time in the fields or building something, between the men working and the women preparing, both seemed to work off the calories and eating what they enjoyed.

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    1. Interesting perspective. While I agree that some people rely heavily on processed food which is sad, I can’t help but notice that there are many people who like preparing and cooking their own meals. A quick search just here on WordPress reveals hundreds of blogs dedicated to creating nutritious and delicious meals – these sites are often alive with engagement as people swap tips and recipes, which I find really heartening. Many thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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  7. I was born with lots of allergies in a time when (at least in my mother’s circle) it wasn’t expected that the baby would be breast-fed. And they probably hadn’t discovered the relationship between breast milk and allergy abatement. As a consequence, every time I was able to eat a new food without breaking out in a horrible rash and eczema, there was a family celebration. As a result, I was never a picky child and there were very few things I didn’t like. I also was a child who was growing quickly and by the age of 7 or 8 began to receive many mixed messages. On one hand it was, “You are so big!” “You are gaining too much weight!” and then “Here, there’s just this little dab of food left, just finish it up so it doesn’t go to waste.” It’s a struggle, and I love the suggestion to tell children to listen to their bodies. It makes so much more sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, I think the best thing we can do for kids is to help them develop trust in their bodies – so they can really attune to signals of hunger and fullness. Mixed messages like the ones you experienced are so confusing for children and, as you say, you can end up in a constant struggle with food. Many thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

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  8. Very interesting article. When it comes to me, I do not have a big problem with food, other than a bit of eating too much of somethings once in a while. When it came to childhood, we had an ordinary life, with almost always home cooked meals, then hardly any fast foods. There were times when some things were too expensive, due to import duties, being a developing country in my birth country Sri Lanka, but there were always local fresh vegetables and fruits so we generally had a healthy diet!
    I also value food, as so much is going waste and so many people not having enough, I never throw or waste any kind of food. Thank you for all the information Julie, and thanks for liking my Blog and my articles. Grateful. Many Blessings from me 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you that it’s important to value food and I’m so impressed that you never waste it. I get a huge amount of satisfaction when I manage to concoct a meal using up the final bits of food – that last carrot in the fridge, those few leftover potatoes etc. – but I can’t claim I never waste food, that is definitely something I’m working towards. Thank you for your comment, Deepa, it’s lovely to hear your thoughts on this subject.


  9. There’s so many minefields as a parent to navigate! I remember being served leftovers from a meal I hadn’t eaten at home as a girl and resenting it. But now I look back on that time as my parents not having a lot of money and not wanting to waste food. Today I still make the most of any leftovers and it kills me to throw out expired food. Excellent conversation you’ve started here, Julie.

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    1. You’re so right that parenting is a minefield! Most of us are just doing our best and trying to be mindful of the messages we give our kids. Like you, I really dislike finding something out of date at the back of the fridge that I have to throw away, I now prefer doing small amounts of food shopping for this very reason. Great to hear from you, Christy, thank you for adding your voice to the conversation.

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  10. This is a really thoughtful post! I must have heard all the statements you highlighted but paid them no heed but now I’m wondering surely they must have influenced me even if I didn’t realise that at the time! I, in turn, probably said the same and didn’t have the rationing rationale to call on – just a subliminal repetition of the same old mantras. Hmm.

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    1. I’m glad to have given you pause for thought! Yes, we often just repeat the same things we learnt until we stop and question. Many thanks for your comment, it’s good to hear your thoughts.

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