This is Why Your Kids Need You to Bring Joy Back to Eating

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“When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers” - Ellyn Satter


A lovely client of mine shared* about how she loved donuts as a kid. Not just any donuts - donuts with thick pink glaze, topped with an array of colorful sprinkles. It was a cherished tradition: every Saturday morning, she would walk with her dad to the local bakery to pick out her freshly baked pink donut with sprinkles. She savored the warm, gooey, goodness almost as much as the time she had with her father.

Years later, she was robbed of that simple pleasure when she started dieting. Eating became dictated by rules of “good” versus “bad” food. Donuts were demonized and quickly crossed off the list because, well - there was too much sugar, too much fat, and processed foods just didn’t make the cut anymore.

But it didn’t stop at donuts. Life became watered-down to food rules, and that’s when she remembers feeling like eating wasn’t enjoyable anymore. Now it was filled with chaos, guilt, and shame - things she didn’t remember feeling as a kid when eating pastimes were built around memories. With kids of her own now, she wanted to reclaim that joy she felt as a kid. She wanted to share memories around food with her family that weren’t overridden by unnecessary guilt and fear.

Mama, can you relate to this?

Have you too lost the joy that should come with eating?

How can food become something so feared, taking up way more of our precious mental space than it deserves, stealing away what should be rightfully ours? When this is allowed to persist in our lifetimes, what kind of messages does this send to our kids, to future generations to come?

Remembering What It Means to Enjoy Food

When we push through the clouded view of what food has become, many of us can remember times in our lives when food felt simple, easy. Something to look forward to rather than something that felt confusing or chaotic.

When I ask my clients to think back to their favorite memories around food, these are some of the things I hear:

  • Eating watermelon and popsicles on a hot summer day.

  • A comforting bowl of soup when it was stormy outside.

  • Christmas cookies for Santa and hot cocoa by the fire.

  • Popcorn with movies and ice cream sundaes around the campfire.

These are the simple pleasures in life.

We all start out this way - with a simple understanding of what food is and how it is meant to be enjoyed.

Eating has always meant to be enjoyed, to be pleasurable and satisfying. Somewhere along the way, the simple joys were lost.

Diet Culture and Food Rules Destroy Food Enjoyment

Our bodies were never meant to be governed by food rules or dictated by diet culture. So how can we expect to thrive under such conditions? It’s easy to dismiss these things, thinking that you’re somehow an exception to the rule. Other people may be allowed to enjoy what they eat - but for you, food may feel like the enemy, like something that should be controlled in order to be healthy.

Because yes, food is meant to be nourishment. But in the process of trying to be “healthy”, we lose focus on the other part of the equation.

Food is also meant to be pleasurable. To taste good. To appeal to our senses. To bring us together with our favorite pastimes and those we love.

In the tsunami of food rules and our dieting culture, we have been submerged with the lie that food needs to be rigid, controlled, and complicated in order to be healthy. Food has been watered down to something that is scrutinized, calculated, counted, and controlled, and in the process, the joy is lost.

Instead of asking ourselves: “What foods do we enjoy?”, we bow down to an objectified set of food rules, to which we have become slaves. In this bondage are we bringing up our children, the future generations.

But not anymore, mama - it’s time to write a different story.

You can reclaim your ability to enjoy food again, and with it, break yourself free from punishing and unnecessary food rules that are keeping you from living in joy. There is too much at risk for ourselves and those we are mothering.

How Food Rigidity Hurts Children

The opposite of food enjoyment is food rigidity, and this can create a recipe for disaster in our lives and for those we love. Not only does this take away the pleasurable aspect of eating, but it robs our children from experiencing enjoyment of food.

Have you ever thought how your attitude toward food might influence how your child feels about eating? If your child is growing up in an environment where food feels chaotic and stressful, or sees you struggling to know what to eat, what messages might this send them? Children who are chronically exposed to food rigidity in their environment may be more likely to experience:

  • Poor body image

  • Increased risk of dieting

  • Feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment when eating

  • Increased risk of eating disorder behaviors

  • Obsessiveness with food

In order to help our children have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, we must start with ourselves. Learning to enjoy food again is not just a luxury but a necessity for building a foundation for wellness that is all-encompassing.

What Does it Mean to Enjoy Food Again?

When you’re used to things outside of you dictating your food choices, like a diet, or if you’ve forgotten what it means to eat for joy, where do you begin?

For starters, throw out the diet and the rulebooks that tell you what you should or should not eat. Get rid of that nagging backseat driver; it’s time to take the steering wheel again, mama. It’s time to rediscover what foods you truly love, like, or would rather not eat. It’s time to choose foods that feel good in YOUR BODY, that bring a smile to your face, that help you feel satisfied and content. It’s time to kick the guilt to the curb and make room for joy, again.

Here are some practical tips for bringing joy back to eating, for YOU and your kiddos:

  • Eat things you want and crave until you are satisfied

  • Allow yourself to celebrate moments with food without feeling like you have to compensate afterward

  • Give yourself permission to have dessert or order something other than a salad

  • Eat when you’re hungry and not forcing yourself to wait

  • Not punishing yourself for eating the “wrong” foods (because PSA: there are no wrong foods)

  • Not allowing fear of weight gain to keep you from eating foods you love

  • Not over-exercising to earn your food

  • Saying yes to family and friends

  • Taking part in food memories with your kids, even if those foods are off your list

  • Letting go of the food list

  • Celebrating your body as something that deserves to be nourished and cared for with food you enjoy

  • Eating the same foods your family eats

Will I Only Eat Unhealthy Food if I let Myself Enjoy Food?

Many mamas that I work with often ask: “Will I only eat unhealthy foods if I give myself permission to eat what I want?” This is a valid concern for someone who has frequently dieted, struggled with disordered eating or an eating disorder.

The truth is that health is so much more than just the food we eat. If you’re so rigid about your food choices and worried about everything you eat or don’t eat, you’re likely living under incredible amounts of anxiety as you try to manage all of this.

When you are preoccupied with food and your body and food chatter takes up a majority of your mental space, it’s important to recognize that THIS is unhealthy. The undue stress in your life caused by rigid food rules is MORE unhealthy for your body and mind than any food you could possibly eat. Plain and simple: Diet culture is the enemy, not food.

Once you understand this and give yourself permission to enjoy food again, you can better understand what foods truly feel best for your body and honor it accordingly. As you let go of the food rules and learn to trust your body, you will gain confidence in yourself once again.

The Pendulum Effect With Eating

If you’ve restricted yourself from eating foods you used to enjoy, this may create what I refer to as the “Pendulum Effect”. Like a pendulum that swings side to side, so our food behaviors act accordingly with extreme eating choices.

For example, many women who chronically diet or who follow rigid food rules are forcing themselves to eat under extreme conditions. This would be like pulling a pendulum to one far side. Finally allowing permission to eat and enjoy food once again is effectively like letting the pendulum go. When you’ve been holding a pendulum to one far side, it will have to swing to the other side before it can stabilize in the middle again.

So in essence, when you make the decision to say YES to enjoying food again, you might be creating a pendulum swing. You might need to let yourself eat those foods that have been on your “bad list” for sometime in order to normalize your eating habits. This can be hard and is often an obstacle for many mamas.

But look at it like this: The obstacle is not in your way. The obstacle IS your way.

You won’t always want the foods you have been afraid of eating. Nor will you continue to feel fear about eating certain foods. In fact, by allowing yourself to eat the things you have been craving, you will diminish things like:

  • Preoccupation with food

  • Obsessiveness with food and/or eating

  • Hangriness or irritability around food

  • Feeling unsatisfied after eating

  • Fear about what food might be doing to your body

The pendulum will eventually stabilize in the middle and stop swinging from left to right if you let go and allow it to do so. Extreme food behaviors can end with you, right here, right now, and with that, less stress and more joy with eating and life.

Bring Joy Back to Eating For You and Your Kids

Does this mean that every eating experience should be magical and cosmic? Or that the process of undoing years of dieting and food rules will be easy? Not by any means, mama - that is just not realistic. But it is totally possible and doable, one step at a time. Start by taking an honest look at what your eating experiences are like:

  • Are you able to engage in conversations with the people that you love? Or are you being sidetracked by food rules, calories, and feelings of guilt and shame in your own body?

  • Do you feel guilty or ashamed after eating?

  • Do you eat to a place of satisfaction and contentment or are you constantly thinking about what you’re going to eat next?

  • Do you feel like you have to earn your food or punish yourself for eating?

  • Is all of this distracting you from being present with your kids and in your life?

No matter where you are today, there is hope for change.

When your kids see you eating with enjoyment and keeping food in it’s rightful place, they will have permission to do the same for themselves. This is how you can cultivate food freedom that allows your family to flourish. You and your kids don’t deserve anything less.

So stay the course, mama, and be prepared to live your best life.

Enjoying food is a basic right of human existence. One that should be savored and appreciated for ourselves and those we love. There’s too much at risk not, too. So go ahead, sink your teeth in the foods you love and live the life you crave. Share the last donut with your kids, build memories around the people and things that bring you joy. You are strong for choosing things that serve you and your family well and for saying goodbye to things that don’t.

You’ve got this, mama.

*Story shared anonymously with permission

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