Have you ever thought about your family’s unique food culture? Does everyone enjoy eating a variety of foods? Are meals peaceful or a point of contention? Does everyone feel like they are getting enough to eat or is there lots of complaining and even negotiating? Is nutritional food scoffed at or embraced?
I never really thought much about “family food culture” until I spoke with Megrette Fletcher M.Ed., R.D., CDE, registered dietitian, diabetes educator, and mindful eating expert. She is author of Discover Mindful Eating for Kids, blogs at Mindful Eating for Kids and is co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating.
There seem to be many different definitions for mindfulness but I’ve always viewed it as being aware without judgment. “It’s just trying to bring yourself to the present moment with no other goals,” Fletcher says. She uses the example of a child’s eating. When being mindful you don’t care if they eat the broccoli or not, you just want to know their experience of the broccoli. Mindful eating is simply bringing mindfulness to the eating experience.
Mindfulness is especially helpful in solving problems because it helps you see things as they really are, instead of through the distorted lens of good or bad. For example, once you have deemed your child’s not eating broccoli as “bad,” you are more likely to react instead of just accepting it. Fletcher explains that with this type of awareness, people are better equipped to make good choices.
So today, with help from Megrette Fletcher, we are using a simple, 4-step mindful strategy to transform your family’s food culture
1. Discover Your Family’s food Culture: Ask Questions
“Our culture [around food] becomes pretty invisible and normal,” Fletcher says. “If you were sitting down in France for a meal you would think that is normal, but if someone magically appeared in Japan, would that still seem normal?”
In her book, she explains it this way:
This complex relationship between food, eating and nourishment becomes a ‘culture’. As families grow, this culture and common food choices fade away to become a series of invisible habits. Every family and childcare center has a food culture that is unique.
Fletcher says that we become immune to our own culture, even when it’s not benefitting us or even what we want. She encourages parents to take a step back and think: “This child doesn’t know what’s normal, I’m creating it. What is the culture around food I’m creating?”
To discover your family’s food culture, Fletcher recommends start by asking yourself questions about your child’s food attitudes, access to food, environment, and outcomes. What food attitudes are developing? Does your child like coming to the table or does he have to drag himself there? By probing with the right questions, you can determine if your child is developing a positive, curious attitude around food or one surrounded by conflict.
Access to food includes the how, when and where of eating. Is there a meal structure or constant eating? does the child always complain of hunger? Delving into this is especially helpful for uncovering hidden barriers to under or overeating.
Next is the food environment. How are meals served? Is the child grazing when hungry? Eating during TV or at the table? Is there an appreciation for meals? This helps you understand your current environment versus the environment you want.
Last is outcomes. How do outcomes drive your family’s food culture? If a child seems out of control with sweets are they left out of the home, making them more desirable? If a child refuses a food, do you stop serving it? Are these reactions to outcomes creating the food culture you want?
2. Create a Vision for Your Family’s Food Culture
Maybe there are discrepancies between the food culture you desire and the one you currently have in your home. In her book, Fletcher has a list of mindful-eating principles that you can choose from, to help you describe your desired food culture. Consider what jumps out to you and then come up with some of your own:
Freeing yourself. Balance. Choice. Wisdom. Acceptance. Allowing. Aware. Positive and Nurturing Opportunities. Respecting your own Inner Wisdom. Choosing. Satisfying. Nourishing to your Body. Acknowledging Responses to Food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without Judgment. Becoming Aware of Physical Hunger. Decisions to Begin and End Eating. No Right or Wrong Way. Varying Degrees of Awareness Surrounding the Experience of Food. Eating Experiences are Unique. Choice. Attention. Moment-by-moment Basis. Choices that Support Health and Well Being. Interconnection Earth. Living Beings.
Others that come to mind are Food Enjoyment, Flexible Structure, Food Appreciation, Internal Focus, Helping with Meals and Curiosity about Different Foods. Pick a few to really focus on and then tackle them one at a time.
3. Create Gentle Challenges
When we breach the topic of change Fletchers points out that “People don’t know how to change. They don’t understand what a gentle challenge is. It’s not about pain.” In her book, she has four key steps to creating a gentle challenge outlined in the chart below. She shares an example of how she did this with her own family when it comes to “Becoming Aware of Physical Hunger.”
In my home, as soon as my children were old enough (about 3-4 years old) they began to serve themselves. In the 10 years since I started doing this, it has become a ‘house’ rule. Friends, family, and dinner guests are informed that this is how we serve food. There is a pause before service where everyone does a ‘tummy check’ and then chooses an amount of food to meet this hunger level. In the beginning, this step was more formal, by now – it is quick, often invisible when we are not entertaining. However, when there is an audience, a tummy check can become an opportunity for my children to break into a song and dance routine (kids can be creative, fun and crazy, which is why I love them!).
This is what was behind our monthly dining out adventure, as I work to (gently) cultivate a “Curiosity towards Different Foods” within my family.
4. Repeat Your Mantras and Traditions
The key to creating a food culture, Fletcher explains, is to repeat your mantras about food and eating — and corresponding traditions– until they become what she describes as “invisible habits.” Remember to be flexible as kids go through different stages of development. She recommends that you “Keep asking questions instead of telling yourself your kids must eat a specific food or follow a rigid program. Questions open the mind up to new possibilities and promote flexibility and choice.”
Whether you are aware of it or not, a unique food culture in brewing in your home. It makes sense to take the time to decide if it’s really what you want.
So tell me, what is your family’s food culture? Is there anything about it you want to change?
This was one of many interviews I conducted to write: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food.