Summer Rewind: What Did You Learn About Food Growing Up?

As I’m now on holiday for two weeks, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a few posts you might have missed the first time. The aim of this one from July 2018 is to help you uncover any beliefs about food from childhood that may be having a negative impact on your eating today – a crucial step in the process to heal your relationship with food.

Happy August, everyone. Stay safe.

With very best wishes

Julie

***

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 had been there 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.

You may have experienced something similar.

I’m not suggesting experiences like these necessarily lead to developing eating issues later in life, but I do believe unexamined messages 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 you have to “clear your plate” is particularly prevalent amongst people whose eating is emotion-driven.

It’s entirely understandable this message was 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 every morsel of food should still be considered precious and we must take substantial measures to reduce the obscene amount of food wasted each year.  However, if you want to resolve your overeating issues, it doesn’t help to override your body’s signal 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 “Good Stuff”

Sometimes there can be an absence of the “good 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 anything in short supply can be imbued with a sense of power and mystery and, therefore, be given a greater value. 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’s 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 commonly experience feelings of guilt and shame – challenging emotions which can lead you to eat in secret.

Too Much of the “Good Stuff”

On the other side of the coin, sometimes there was an overabundance of the “good 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 showed her love for you by baking you pies and cakes and cookies. As a result, you can believe that if you refuse food you’re somehow 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 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.

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 a normal 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.

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

Make Your Own Rules

As a child you had to follow the rules, but as an adult you get to make your own – yay! Writing a list of your unhelpful 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 prefer to 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 someone?”

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 😊

35 thoughts on “Summer Rewind: What Did You Learn About Food Growing Up?

  1. I had forgotten about school dinner ladies, I had the same problem with hot fruit deserts which I still hate to this day. My mum had to write a letter to tell them not to force me, I still can’t heat hot fruit! I also very rarely finish a plateful of food which used to drive my mother in law insane. 😏 My mother always gave us something sweet if we were upset usually chocolate or biscuits. I’ve also noticed that when I sit down to watch a TV programme I enjoy I want to mindlessly eat at the same time. I long to be able to eat a bit of everything without over indulging then gaining weight.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The difficulty with being given chocolate or sweets when we’re upset as children means we can end up equating these foods with comfort and a way of calming ourselves down, which we then perpetuate as adults. You’re definitely not alone with wanting to eat mindlessly while watching TV – the two often go hand in hand. If I’m going to eat something while watching TV, I usually put it in a small bowl or on a plate, rather than just opening a packet. It just helps me to be mindful, so I can enjoy both without overeating. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Elaine – I’m sure they’ll resonate with many people.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, I needed to (re)read this. I’ve been starting to try and deal with the cleared plate issue recently – not just my own, I’ve been eating my daughter’s leftovers too! Think I need to print this post out and put it somewhere I can read it over and over.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You make a good point – it’s often not just our own plates we feel we have to clear, but sometimes other people’s as well. I’m so pleased this post is useful to you, Lisa, many thanks for your comment.

      Like

  3. I can imagine this turns a lot of childhood learned behaviours on its head! It’s nice to read it’s okay to leave food if you have eaten enough. Sometimes we all need that reminder to help us leave guilt behind when it’s our preference to eat less.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I always think it’s best to let our bodies tell us if we’re eating enough or too much – they’re always the best judge, rather than some handed-down, unhelpful beliefs. So often, though, we don’t stop to explore our beliefs around food – we just do what we’ve always done. Many thanks for your comment, it’s good to hear from you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think somewhere along the way I learned that snacking can help with anxiety or unhappiness. I’ve gotten past that, mostly, but still use foods I like as rewards, which I think I always will. I just try to keep the rewarding under control!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that if food habitually becomes compensation for not meeting our true needs then it becomes a problem and causes distress. However, I think even people without eating issues will sometimes use food as a reward – I know I look forward to eating a good meal or something delicious. It’s doing what we do with awareness that’s important, I think. So lovely to hear from you, Becky. I hope you’re doing well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All is well here, I mean, considering…! We’re all just waiting to see how the adapted return to school goes in a few weeks. Having time off with no plans is lovely!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I grew up on meat and potatoes. Not much variety. My mom convinced us apple sauce and pears were a desert😀. When McDonalds came to town we’d only go twice a year. A whole different world back then. Now a days my daughter is helping me broaden my tastes and eat healthier. I have finally figured out like you that when full to stop and not clear my plate. Great post, Julie.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Dwight, and thanks for sharing your experiences. I think it can be really empowering to realise you don’t have to clear your plate. I still remember the first time I left food – I couldn’t believe it! Many thanks for your comment, hope you’re doing well.

      Like

  6. Such a well-written and relatable post! I never thought of myself as having eating issues before it. I’m a foodie who grew up getting whatever sweets and treats I wanted and also was told to clean my plate. Now I do have weight loss issues. I might take your advice and make that list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michelle, I think some of the messages we receive when we’re children can be conflicting and confusing so it’s worth reflecting on them and working out what feels right for us as adults. That way, we can move towards an autonomous and peaceful relationship with food, where we’re eating in a way that’s authentic for us as individuals. Nothing wrong with being a foodie – I am too! Food should be such a wonderful pleasure in life. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it’s really good to hear your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

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