Before I started pushing candy, I spent a lot of years working in the field of nutrition and fitness. Most of my clients were moms who were trying to lose the 15-30 pounds they gained from having kids. A common topic among these women was emotional eating. Many, if not all of them felt like if they could control their emotions, and thus the food they put in their mouths, they would be able to reach their fitness goals.
This issue with emotional eating isn’t specific to postpartum women. Every adult person I have ever met deals with emotional eating. Moms trying to lose weight is just the demographic I had the pleasure of working with.
What I have slowly come to realize over the years is that eating for emotional reasons is nothing to be ashamed of. It is unavoidable. It is essentially human. And also, pretty great. I would go so far as to say that eating for emotional reasons should be embraced.
Eating emotionally is ingrained in us. From the second we are born, we are trained to eat for emotional reasons. The first thing new parents do with crying babies is put something in their mouth. Little humans learn from the beginning of their existence that eating makes them feel better. Are you sad? Here is food. Are you stressed? Eat something. Are you vaguely unhappy and you don’t know why? Have some sweet, fatty, delicious milk. Babies experience this several times a day, every day, for months to years. And they (we) carry this over to other emotions. If eating when I am upset makes me happy, what does eating when I am excited do? Enter birthday parties, celebrations for promotions, baby showers, championship games. Want to catch up with an old friend? No better way than to share a meal together. Food enhances every occasion. Food is emotional. Innately. I say embrace it.
Rachel has been a pretty easy teenager. She was an exceptionally easy baby. But the times between were rough. For years, she regularly had what I like to call her “Incredible Hulk” moments. When she was angry, she was destructive. She would throw things, push her siblings around, scream obscenities. Once she got started, there was nothing to do but wait for the storm to pass. One day when she was about 10, she was on the verge of one of these hulk moments when I had a stroke of genius. An inspiration. Or maybe a lucky moment. I decided what Rachel needed was some emotional healing in the form of food. I made her sit at the kitchen counter while I made her the most buttery, cheesy, grilled turkey and cheese sandwich I could muster up. I set it in front of her and said “eat it”. She did. I asked her if it was good. She nodded. That was it. Nothing else was discussed. We just sat silently while she ate. The crisis was averted.
She is nearly an adult now. These days she very rarely turns green. She has a job. She drives her own car. She is incredibly independent. She knows where I keep the bread, the cheese, the turkey. But she still regularly asks me to make her grilled turkey and cheese sandwiches (because they taste better when I do it). Usually she asks apologetically, and almost alway at inconvenient times. When I am in bed. When I am reading. After I have already made dinner and finished the dishes. But she asks for the turkey sandwich when she needs it. Emotionally. Sometimes I act like it’s a big deal, but I always do it. I understand that the turkey sandwiches are like a salve for her. They are healing. It brings her right back to that kitchen counter of her youth. I get that. That’s what food does.
Years ago, I was working at our family business with my sister Merry. I was complaining about not having a lunch. So she gave me her leftovers. Stew made by her husband, with venison he had personally hunted. It is still one of my favorite meals of all time. I cringe a little when I say it, but I could actually taste the love he put into the meal. At that time in my life I needed a bit of love. And that meal healed me to some degree. I have no idea what the calorie content of that stew was,.
When my kids were young, I was pretty experimental with meals. It wasn’t always successful. I remember one specific meal where I had simmered turkey bones all day. I made a delicious soup with the broth. I added bacon, turkey, broccoli. I served it with grated cheese. Upon learning what we were eating, each child had their own terrible reaction. Carson said “you cook gross food.” Emmy said “I am allergic to soup”. Lilly was out because she didn’t want to eat anything with meat. Rachel threw herself on the floor and had a full on 2-year-old fit (she was 9).
Around that same time, we took our kids on a 7-day road trip to Arizona and Las Vegas. They got to eat all the hamburgers and pizza a kid could possibly want. Around day five, Rachel told me she just wanted to go home and have me cook her dinner. Emotionally, the pizza and burgers were not cutting it. She just wanted the turkey soup. The meal prepared with love.
At my house, we eat dinner together. At the dinner table. Every night. No phones, no TV, no distractions. I facilitate this meal time even when I am bone tired. Even when work has taken every bit of my will and my energy. Not every kid is there every time. But whoever is home has to join in. A couple times a week I make a homemade meal. Sometimes it’s cheese quesadillas. Often it’s frozen pizza. Sometimes the conversation amongst us is great. Sometimes the kids argue and insult each other. But we do it. Every night. This is not a brag. It isn’t something I have put a lot of though into. It is how I was raised. A meal is something to be shared. It is an opportunity to talk about our day, to connect. To “break bread” together. It’s… emotional. And emotionally important. We don’t talk about calories. We don’t talk about body weight. We just enjoy our meal together. Food has power.
Back in the day, when I had the time and energy, when I was not responsible for all of the household things, more than one neighbor or friend would sit at my kitchen counter and tell me about their sorrows, their complaints, their issues. I would offer little in the way of advice. But I would cook for them. With the intention of healing. With food instead of words. These are some of my favorite memories.
Sharing the joy of food with my kids is a burden I take on alone. Nobody cooks for me. I don’t get to sit at anyone’s kitchen counter and share my grievances. Sharing the joy of food with my kids is up to me. I am not complaining. It’s just a fact. I want my kids to feel that in every quesedilla I serve. Food is love. Food is joy.