My husband and I are admittedly fairly strict about our children’s intake of sweets. Adults offer candy, lollipops, cookies, cupcakes, etc, at least once a week and at least every other day if we are in San Francisco with our youngest son in the hospital. I politely say, “No, thank you” when asked or jump in and interrupt when well-meaning strangers offer without asking me. Internally, I yell, “You can’t just offer kids candy without asking their parents! What if they were diabetic?” From some adults, I get a look like, “That’s too bad” or “Are you sure?” and sometimes, “Come on…” Occasionally I’m forced to decline twice with that last one.

Comfort Food

It is not the food itself that heals.

What they do not understand is that this happens frequently, particularly because for two years we have been a family in crisis. We are back and forth from the hospital two hours away, staying in a home that is not our own, surrounded by volunteers who genuinely feel for us. They want to indulge my children because they want to give some gift to them. They see that to allow the children this pleasure will be to give them a moment’s happiness when times are dark.

I myself have ended a long day with ice cream and chocolate, or one or two martinis, in the name of the right to indulge. It is meant as a comfort. But it is a solitary way of finding relief. It is not the food itself that heals.

Undressing Food

Traditions surrounding food are beautiful, but they work better when there is a framework in place.

This brings us to the problem. In America, we generally have a disordered relationship with food. It is everywhere. Traditions surrounding food are beautiful, but they work better when there is a framework in place. Such a framework exists with the afternoon tea with cakes in England, or coffee with sweets in Chile, to keep you going for the long evening ahead. The sweet is confined to a particular time and place, palate, and portion.

Not so in America. Generally, there is no teatime. Children may have snack time but ubiquitous birthday parties and pantries stashed with the goods make it difficult for parents and children alike not to indulge at random points throughout the day.

C.S. Lewis, when writing on a disordered relationship to sex and the body in Mere Christianity, uses the following absurd example to make a point:

“You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”

I cannot say altogether that we are not in this place with the magazine spreads, Pinterest and Instagram shots of our dinner before consumption. It is art, in its own way, but it does not help improve our eating habits to think about food like this in the off-hours.

Toward a Healthy Relationship With Food

A well-ordered relationship with food will make for better weight and greater happiness.

In my attempt to raise healthy kids, in our house, our goal is to establish a better relationship with food. As Catholics, there is an abundance of feast days, along with a Sunday sweet to celebrate the Resurrection and good Mass behavior. We provide a treat on these occasions and something bigger on Easter or Christmas. Indeed those are the days when my little ones can have at it in their stockings or Easter baskets.

My kids’ world is shaped by what we tell them is normal. It is normal to have a treat on special days and normal not to have a treat on other days. Fruit is sweet and can be had every day. Too much chocolate will hurt your stomach. Too much of anything will hurt your stomach. I try to create a spectrum that puts candy on the very end, not unreachable, but truly special. I grew up in a house where every night we ate large bowls of ice cream after dinner. My practices are directly influenced by a reaction to how I was raised.

That is all we can do really. Take from how we were raised and try to improve on it. I, myself, am trying to learn to re-establish this healthy relationship with food. It is easier to do it to my children because their habits are not yet established. That establishment will be based on the structure I give them. For myself, I can sneak it when they’re in bed. That became the problem.

Food is good, and deliciously so. A well-ordered relationship with food will make for better weight and greater happiness. It is not the food that comforts us (though it has an influence, studies show). It is the company in which we eat it. It is the ritual that connects us to something greater than ourselves. So I am trying, one day a time, confused looks or not.