Parenting Generation Stress: Are you passing down your anxiety around food to your kids?

by Shira Myrow LMFT, Meditation Teacher, Curriculum Director @

How much are our food choices driven by the need to control what we and our families eat as opposed to what is our responsibility to provide?

How much are our food choices driven by the need to control what we and our families eat as opposed to what is our responsibility to provide?

I remember babysitting a very smart 9 year old girl many years ago. She joked with me how her mom was a health nut. The kind of embarrassing mom that brought a box of raisins to birthday parties to substitute for birthday cake. She’d be the only kid who couldn’t eat a slice of birthday cake and the kids teased her mercilessly about it at school. This little girl  went on to have a severe eating disorder in college.  And her mom was completely mystified. She was so careful and so conscious about raising her children on healthy food. Her mother’s commitment to healthy food was about  anxiety, fear and control. She was sure sugar was going to ruin her daughter’s health,  it ended up undermining her psychological well being.  She robbed her daughter of the opportunity to come into a healthy  relationship to food on her own terms. she passed down her anxiety around food to her daughter.

Much of the messaging we get from doctors and experts and less well meaning sources--like advertisers and the media--- is designed to instill fear that we’re harming our children if they eat too much of one type of  nutrient or don’t get enough of another.

And it’s the relentless fear-based messaging that can easily foster a sense of stress and anxiety for us as parents. It’s not difficult to see how the natural desire and good intention to make responsible healthy choices can turn into obsessive hypervigilance not only around our diets but those of our children.

The directive to eat healthy food, which includes making dinners from scratch, is deeply tied our very definition of motherhood. Recent studies have shown that regardless of socioeconomic class, it largely falls on the shoulders of women and single parents, whether they work or not. So much of our self image as nurturers is embedded in our relationship to providing food as parents. Our choices speak volumes about our individual values, our morals and our lifestyle.

Nearly two-thirds of American mothers (64.4 percent) work, which means in most families, either both parents work or the household is headed by a single parent.  Providing reasonably nutritious, good tasting meals begin to feel burdensome and joyless  with the hurried pace of modern life, lack of time and resources, and the constant stress of not always being able to provide our ideal of good food.

If we’re perpetually driven by fear, anxiety and  guilt, we’re also ensuring our kids internalize the unresolved issues we may have with food.  

We also unconsciously pass down our lack of trust with ourselves and our neurotic energy around food to them. How much are our food choices driven by the need to control what we and our families eat as opposed to what is our responsibility to provide?  That’s the ultimate question. As conscious parents, we have to provide responsibly--but also within reason.  And accept the limitation and let go.

Cultivating a mindful eating practice can become your ally.  It can help you slow down, be present with your food and pay more attention to hunger and satiety cues. You can lead by example. Mindful eating is the practice of of becoming fully present with your food.  When you set an intention to pay attention to what you are eating but also check in with your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues, you can learn to naturally self regulate.  Over time this awareness can shift your relationship to food, as you learn to discern whether you are eating out of psychological hunger  (emotional overeating for example) or true physical hunger. This awareness invites you to listen to your body and stop when you notice your body is full. You can easily share this practice with your children.  

You can also learn to modify your expectations: You are always going to be in  some kind of relationship to food, your body,  your health  and to that of your children even after they’re grown. The complexity isn’t going to go away. But modifying your expectations and releasing some measure of control  around your children’s ability to create their own relationship to food can free you from the impulse to over-parent. It’s not an all or nothing proposition.

Whether you make small changes or let go of impossible standards, bringing compassion and mindful awareness to the dinner table can help ease the sense of burden and frustration.  Take the time to acknowledge that your intention is to love, nurture and provide for your children in a culture that doesn’t always support the ideal it espouses.