Childhood Struggles Over Food Can Have a Lifelong Impact

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Parents and kids traditionally tussle over clothes, hairstyles and curfews. But it's the food struggles fought at the family dinner table that can sometimes linger decades into adulthood.

"My mother and I battled my entire childhood," writes Laura Locklin, a Lean Plate Club member in New Jersey, whose food fights began at breakfast over soggy Wheaties and wheat germ and lasted until dinner over lamb. "She won because she was the boss."

For Emily M. DeSantis, the battle lines were drawn over meatloaf and stuffed green peppers. "My mom would not let me leave the table until I had tried a bit of whatever gross thing she was making," DeSantis noted in a recent e-mail. "So I fell asleep at bedtime in my chair more than a few times."

As an adult, DeSantis tries to even the score: When she dines out with her mother, she chooses a sushi restaurant. "My mother despises it and I love it," DeSantis notes. "I feel I deserve revenge for all that meatloaf."

Epic tales of food struggles between parents who want their kids to eat healthfully and children who want to exert their independence are familiar to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, who studies adolescent eating at the University of Minnesota. "I hear many, many stories like these," she says.

There's little research on how the tug-of-war over food in childhood shapes adult eating behavior. The few studies that have been done point to "no residual impact at all," notes John M. de Castro, a psychologist at Sam Houston State University in Texas who studies twins separated at birth. "The contribution that the family makes appears to be in the genes that are passed down and the current environment. Those are the driving forces in eating habits once people are adults."

Even so, the memories of being ordered to eat oatmeal for breakfast, threatened about finishing your green beans or pestered to clean your plate before leaving the table can be long-lasting.

"This is not so much about adolescent rebellion over food," notes Neumark-Sztainer, "as about having any kind of behavior forced on you."

When parents establish rigid rules -- closing the kitchen at a certain hour, for example -- they risk turning their kids into artful sneaks. "Kids are going to be hungry after 6 p.m.," Neumark-Sztainer says. "What happens then is that they're sneaking and hiding food and feeling shame. It's all these feelings that get associated with eating."

Just ask Kate Ellis, whose parents kept few treats in the house, set specific times for snacks and imposed limits on how much could be eaten. "When we would go to another person's house, we'd gorge if we could," Ellis says in an e-mail. "As I got older, my sister and I would sneak food when my parents would go out. Oh, the joy of sneaking slices of American cheese or a handful of cereal."

How did this affect Ellis? "In college, I gained 30 pounds," she writes. "I ate and ate and ate until I was about to burst. When I left school, it took a year or so for me to realize what had happened and I slowly whittled down about 25 pounds or so over three years." Nor is it only parents who engage in a food power struggle with kids, as a Lean Plate Club member recently noted in another e-mail.

"When I was in grade school on a daily basis, I was the last pupil permitted to leave the lunchroom table because I wouldn't drink my milk," says Kim Neal of Alexandria. "The longer I sat, the warmer the milk got, so as if cold milk wasn't nasty enough to me, now I was forced to drink warm milk. I would sit there and eventually sip and sip and sip and when I took the last sip I would bring it all back up. How stupid this daily ritual was! . . . My mother would do the same thing to me at home, but with peas. And guess what? To this day, I hate milk and peas."

But Neal says the experience taught her a valuable lesson. "I never, ever forced my children to eat or drink something they did not like, no matter how good I thought it was for them," she writes.

Taking that approach to eating is a tactic that research suggests can be best for kids and more effective for parents trying to be sure their offspring cover the nutritional bases. Studies show that one of the strongest predictors of getting kids to eat healthful foods, such as fruit and vegetables, is simply having those foods readily available at home.

It also seems that the fewer rules about eating, the better. "It's good to have meals at certain times, but people need to have freedom of choice in what they eat," says Neumark-Sztainer.It's that kind of laid-back attitude that some Lean Plate Club members say still gives them an eating edge as adults.

"When I was little, we always had candy in the house that I was allowed to eat freely, whenever I wanted without permission," says Colleen D. Teixeira. "As a result, having candy was never a very big deal. Even now in my 20s, candy is not something I seek out or eat very often even when it is in front of me."

As an adult, Sara Pipher, 29, a Lean Plate Club member in Lincoln, Neb., fully appreciates the emphasis that her parents placed on eating a variety of healthful, great-tasting foods. They never forced her or her brother to eat anything, but offered them everything. As a result, Pipher says, "I was eating sukiyaki, bulgogi, pickled daikon and enchiladas with cilantro practically before I could walk. To this day, I will try any food once."

One of her best food memories is simply sharing an apple every night after dinner with her father -- a ritual that he learned from his father. "He would take a paring knife and we'd eat apple slices while we talked about our day," she says. "It's such a little thing, but he made fruit my dessert." While it's a little ritual, "it's one that I plan to continue with my kids." ยท

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