Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Healthy Habits

I realize a terrible mistake I’ve somehow managed to make. The other day, in some exchange, my oldest son Chris said “I don’t like healthy food—I only like junk food!”

A little bell went off in my head: I’m doing to my son what my mother did to me (don’t they say we all turn into our mothers sooner or later?) with regards to food.

The thing is, what my son says isn’t even true. Of fruits and vegetables alone he loves apple slices, cucumber, peppers (red, yellow or orange), orange slices, raw green beans (odd, but there you are), baby carrots, and bananas. A limited list in relation to what’s out there, I admit, but when you’re five, that’s pretty good according to pediatricians.

I’ve just started working through this, but somehow my mother through her comments managed to make me think I wasn’t a “good” eater. I convinced myself (or she convinced me to convince myself) that I didn’t like healthy foods. It’s true that I craved a great many typically junky foods as a child, but I wasn’t really encouraged to eat healthy foods in a positive way (in a positive way, that’s key). We seldom had fresh fruits and vegetables in the house. I got canned green beans, canned corn, canned beets, but very little in the way of fresh vegetables (other than lettuce and cherry tomatoes, and I didn’t like cherry tomatoes; nor, for that matter, did I like canned vegetables), and almost never any fresh fruit. It would never have occurred to me then (and it doesn’t always occur to me now) to eat an apple as a snack.

However, Oreos and Chips Ahoy! were around a lot. As were things like Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese, and frozen pizza. The reason fresh fruits and vegetables never made the cut is because those are things people generally like to pick out on their own, and I guess my mother didn’t trust the market that delivered our groceries to pick good ones. My mom worked and didn’t have time for “traditional” grocery shopping. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember that the market she used even had a produce section. If it did, it wasn’t much of one. We went there occasionally on the weekends to pick up one or two things, and I don’t really recall seeing fresh produce.

As a result of all of this, I had (and to some extent still have) a perception of myself as a person who doesn’t like healthy foods, and who doesn’t eat well. It is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is, when I stop to think about it, I really love things that we categorize as “healthy”—butternut squash, as an example, or broccoli, or cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts. I love all those things. And yet, I still can’t get over the image of myself as an “unhealthy” eater. It’s weird, really.

My fear is that my son is headed down the same path. Up to now if he asked for candy, like as not I’d say, “No” and then go on to deride candy as junky and bad for you. I can easily see how a small child, who wants candy, could turn that into “I must be a junky eater, because I want that.” I think that’s what happened to me with my mom.

As a child, my mother loved sweets. She also has a bit of a weight problem, so her mother tried to keep her from eating candy and cookies. My mother admitted that for years her self-worth was tied to her weight. To circumvent my grandmother’s efforts, my mother used to go to a little store where my grandparents had a charge account, and buy whatever she wanted on their tab. I presume that at some point my grandparents figured this out, and nipped that in the bud as well, but I don’t know the full story. What I do know is that my mother’s relationship with food, and her food-related self-image were skewed at best.

As a parent, I know my mother wanted to avoid inflicting those food issues on me, but somehow she didn’t succeed. I think the problem was twofold—first was the subtle message she sent me that candy and cookies were junk and bad. And I drew that common childish conclusion: “If it’s bad and I want it, I must be bad.” Second was her own ping ponging food strategy. One day she was fanatically careful about what she ate, adhering closely to the tenants of whatever diet was currently in vogue. The next day she would say “the hell with it” and eat whatever she wanted, including a bag of sour cream & onion potato chips.

So with my mother’s history, and the subtle reinforcement in my own childhood that I was a less-than-stellar eater, it’s no wonder that’s how I ended up visualizing myself. The reality is that, like my son, I enjoy the occasional crummy hot dog, or bag of M&Ms, or McDonald’s cheeseburger, but lots of times what I want is something that is not only good, but good for me. I think for the last week, my son has scorned whatever protein was offered at dinner, and requested a bowl of apple and cucumber slices. He has then eaten every one of them. Kids have fads in eating, and cravings, just as we do. If we praise them for their “good” choices, and don’t make a federal case out of their requests for candy or other “junk” foods, they’ll come to see themselves as “good” eaters with an occasional craving for something “bad,” instead of the other way around. That’s certainly the strategy I’m going to employ, because I’d like to break this trend in this generation of my family.

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