I remember when my first child was very young, I would often find myself getting frustrated when I was planning dinners or shopping at the grocery store. I would sometimes freeze up and not know what to plan or buy. After feeling this frustration time and time again, I realized that I was paralyzed by several food rules – guidelines that were important to me and/or my husband, but I somehow was taking them to an extreme.
The rules, all in my head, looked something like this:
- Particular produce needs to be organic
- Buy organic dairy
- Buy produce when it’s in season
- Buy local produce
- Eat less meat
- Eat more fish, but not certain fish that is either high is PCB’s or mercury or is not sustainable
- Buy local meat from the farmers market
- Serve plenty of fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks
- Serve a variety of fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks
- Offer the baby a variety of foods so she learns to eat different foods
- I could go on and on and on…
Yikes. This list makes me anxious just thinking about it. Sure, all of these are somewhat reasonable ideas individually for someone who has the means and ability to make food choices like this. However, as a whole, some of them are contradictory and when used as rules rather than guidelines they can become impossible to follow. Most of the local produce in North Carolina 10 years ago was not organic. In the winter, of course, there is very little produce that is either local to North Carolina or in season. Thus, it makes the rule of serving a variety of fruits and vegetables and exposing the baby to new foods quite a difficult task for several months of the year. I didn’t have the time each week to go to different stores, nor did I want to. I would find myself not knowing what to buy. I was juggling being a new mom, working, and trying to get reasonable food on the table. For some reason, I had fallen into a trap of trying to do this food thing “right.” I realized one day that I was attempting to hold all of these rules at once and would become anxious, frozen and frustrated. Perfectionism had once again snuck in, when I didn’t know it. Yes, I was well into my career as a dietitian at this time and I cognitively knew that these could be helpful guidelines, but anything rigid wouldn’t be helpful. However, the way may brain works, I was clearly having trouble with them being guidelines, and not rules. I had a window into how many of my clients feel.
Disordered Eating and Food Rules
When I work with clients with disordered eating, we often talk about food rules, usually in a negative way. In eating disorders, these rules may be there as a disguise and may appear to exist because the person wants to be “healthy.” However, often it can be a piece of the eating disorder seeking order or control. For many, food rules have the function of decreasing anxiety and feeling safe, but in the long run can lead to anxiety, inadequate nutrition, and over-focus on food.
Diets – A Collection of Food Rules
I also find that individuals who have been on many diets in their lives collect food rules. Each diet a person experiences has it’s particular set of food rules — avoid fat, avoid carbohydrates, fruit is “good,” fruit is “bad,” don’t eat after 8:00 pm, eat small frequent meals, eat more produce, eat less produce… After years of diets, individuals can carry with them so many rules, collected from each diet, that they are left not knowing what or how to eat. Food rules can interfere with us getting enough and being at peace with food. Often my clients are frozen in the grocery store, as I was. For many, food rules, while they may sound “healthy,” may be quite unhealthy, physically and emotionally.
Household Food Rules
In addition to individual food rules, many people have household food rules, rules around how food is handled in the home. When I meet with families about childhood feeding concerns I always ask, “What are some food rules you have in your house?” Common rules that come up are, “You need to try everything on your plate.” “No food upstairs.” “You need to eat your vegetables before dessert.” “No food in front of the TV.” Household food rules may exist for a variety of reasons including keeping the house clean, teaching manners, or assisting the children in eating a certain amount or kind of food. Of course, parents have rules for many household activities — bedtime, cleaning up, getting homework accomplished, and watching TV. Food rules are an extension of the house rules we need to have a somewhat pleasant place to live and to assist children in growing in their own food and eating skills. However, household food rules can also interfere with a child becoming a competent eater. When I do trainings for educators, I’ll often ask the group, “What were the rules around food that you grew up with?” It never fails that someone will say, “You have to eat all of your green beans (or other vegetable) to eat your dessert.” I’ll always ask the next question. “Do you eat green beans now?” And so far, the answer has always been, “No.”
When are food rules helpful?
When do food rules interfere with a child’s ability to listen to their body or learn to like new foods? Can an individual’s food rules be a helpful part of having a healthy relationship with food or eating in a way that is nourishing to one’s mind and body? I don’t have a black and white answer to these questions and would never tell anyone what food rules are okay and which ones are not. I think it’s important to acknowledge that families operate differently and children have different needs. Each person and family need to decide for themselves what helps them as individuals and as a family unit. However, I think these are important questions to think through for yourself or your family as you think about your own food rules.
Some Things to Consider When Thinking About Food Rules:
- What is the purpose of the rule? I think this is probably the most important question to really think about. Is the rule in place to create a certain food environment in your home? Does the rule exist to restrict intake or to follow external guidelines of how much to eat? I think sometimes we can get caught up in having rules, which can be calming to us and it’s important to step back and think about why the rule exists and is the rule successful at accomplishing that goal. For example, the rule may be that everyone has to stay at the table for 30 minutes with the goal of having a pleasant family dinner. After 10 min, a 3 year old may get quite antsy and the next 20 minutes is spent trying to keep the 3 year old at the table. It may make more sense, to accomplish the goal of having a pleasant family dinner, to allow the 3 year old to leave the table after about 10-15 minutes, which is age appropriate, so that the rest of the meal can be (somewhat) pleasant.
- Is the rule creating pressure or providing structure? We know that pressure backfires in feeding, whether feeding ourselves or others. Sensitive children can sniff out pressure even when it is not overt. Structure may look like setting times of meals and snacks and offering a variety of foods. Pressure may be a rule that makes or coerces a child or yourself to eat certain foods regardless of hunger, fullness and current preference.
- Is it realistic and can you be flexible about it? This reminds me of my food shopping rules. The word “rule” in and of itself can feel like pressure. It implies things must be a certain way. I prefer the word “guideline” although this nuance may be lost on children. We have a rule in my house that we don’t eat in front of the TV. However, about once a month we may have a movie night and typically this involves ordering pizza. On that night, we’ll eat our dinner in front of the TV, watching the movie. The kids love this night, because all 5 of us watch the movie together. If I was too rigid about the “no food in front of the TV rule,” I think we’d all miss out on some good memories.
- Does the rule support you in listening to your body’s natural ability or does it interfere with listening? Our environment can make it hard to tune in and certain food rules can help set up a structure to support honoring natural body cues. These may be rules such as: Do not eat in front of the TV. We eat meals at the table. The children decide how much they eat of what is offered.
- Does the rule create a situation of deprivation? I think this is an important one to consider for yourself or your family. We know that deprivation, either physical or psychological can lead to actually wanting that item more. This has been proven time and time again, whether it is with food or any item that is “off limits.” However, with food it can become more complicated, because it is one of our 5 basic needs. If we don’t get enough of any of our 5 basic needs, we will typically overcompensate once the item is available. With food deprivation, the effect is compounded because there are emotional and physical components at play. Rules that create a situation of deprivation may actually create a cycle of under- and overconsumption with food. The overconsumption may reinforce the idea that the rule is needed. However, it’s possible the rule is creating the cycle.
Asking these questions may help you think critically about your rules and assess if they are helping or harming. What new food rules may be helpful for yourself or your household? It’s important to consider that it may not be necessarily for all household food rules to be proclaimed or taught to the children in the house. If I asked my children what our food rules are, I think they would have no idea. They may be able to come up with the fact they need to eat at the table and can’t run around while eating. My oldest, who is 11, may say, “My mommy says there are no bad foods.” However, in general, I don’t think they would know all of the rules that are happening behind the scenes. Which probably highlights the biggest rule we have: When it comes to food and nutrition information, talk less, model more.