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When Comfort Food Becomes Uncomfortable 2012-10-26

I remember growing up, we’d go to grandma and grandpa’s and grandma would spend days preparing in advance for our visit. We were served a heaping portion of food which always included the best homemade pies ever. As I got older, I realized the extra food that grandma said she was going to throw away if we didn’t eat it, (the ultimate waste for a depression-era generation), would actually be their food for the next couple days due to their limited budget.  The fact that they shot their whole weekly grocery budget for our two day visit escaped me for many years. But it seemed to the depression-era generation, food equaled an expression of their love, those homemade pies, oh the ultimate comfort food.


Fast forward a generation and you have tv portraying the perfect mother, fresh cookies and milk on the table when her children walked through the door, hovering over everyone at dinner to be sure every need was anticipated and met. Then there was the leftover attitude from the depression-era generation, “Clean your plate,” “waste not, want not,” “there are starving children in Africa…” Now that food was more readily affordable, the combination of showing love through food and the desire to not waste food resulted in cleaning plates that were way out of proportion to our dietary needs. Heaven forbid these children would be slightly hungry and uncomfortable.


Usher in another generation and we have two working parents raised with the “food equals love” mentality. Demands on mom’s time are high and something has to give, bring on a double dose of comfort food to make up for less family time. Now we have a generation of Spaghetti O’s, potato chips and processed/junk food. We eat out frequently because mom or dad is too tired to cook and eat nutritionally deficient fast food calories because we can’t afford to eat at a more nutritious restaurant either financially or time-wise. We are surrounded by comfort foods that we deserve because we had a hard day or our children deserve because they should have everything they want, right?


I grew up in the mid-west where our world revolved around our eating. Family dinners were an important part of each day. Overcooking was expected, it was the ultimate faux pas to not have an abundance of leftovers. But really, how many leftovers are healthy? You might desire to eat it for another meal, or decide to eat it a third, but after that, it tends to sit in the fridge until it resembles a science experiment. Of course, at that point, it becomes ethical to throw it out with an, “Oh, I forgot this was in here!”


For many years when finances were tight, I didn’t want to waste food and found myself eating scraps of food rather than throw them out. This was evidenced by a gradual weight gain. Years later I came to the age of health accountability, “I need to either choose health or choose to ignore health.” This started to sink in on a backpacking trip when I realized how out of shape I was. Blow two was when the doctor said I was in the beginning stages of osteopenia and needed to start exercise if I didn’t want my bones to deteriorate further. Wow, what an eye opener! I chose health.


I found that dessert occasionally, is nice, but a small piece is just as comforting as a big piece. I found that it was more comforting to say, “I’ll take the breakfast special, no hash browns, no bacon and fruit instead of toast.” I found that when everyone at the table had over-ordered and was trying to give away their excess calories and cholesterol, it wasn’t my responsibility to compensate for their waste. In fact, the error belongs on their waist not mine…. In fact, I found that exercise is fun, and far more comforting than gorging myself to painful limits. I have found that everyone at the table looks at the person with the least resistance and heaps their unwanted portions on them. “Ah, the designated garbage disposal!” Not everyone has the ability to say, “no.” Fortunately, we have a very large dog who loves imitating a garbage disposal. I have also learned it’s ok to throw away desserts pressured on us by family members who have not yet learned to cook in smaller quantities. Day two, it’s in the trash. But we really are going to have to have a conversation about quantities, I am neither your garbage disposal nor your trash person, nor your filter of how much to eat/not eat, cook/not cook.


Are family dinners a thing of the past? I hope not! Family dinners are important for two key reasons: family and healthy food. A home-cooked meal so often has so much more nutritive value than processed or fast food. But, there are multiple challenges associated with healthy meal choice. In a family that felt dessert was part of a balanced meal, I now try to make dessert a special occasion and make it in smaller quantities, I don’t need a whole cake for two or three people and the kitchen store has wonderful pans in smaller sizes. I do like leftovers, but in smaller quantities. If I make four pieces of chicken, we each have one today and tomorrow I can make sandwiches. Unless I have a specific purpose for leftovers, I.e. I frequently cook a roast, then freeze half the meat to use later in an enchilada casserole. It makes more sense to cook for one or two meals and put away excess BEFORE the meal goes on the table. There is certainly less temptation to continue eating “because it tastes good.” I don’t count calories so much as I try to make my calories count. Sometimes a piece of cake is worth it. Other times, I know I need something more nutritious or my attitude is going to deteriorate rapidly. In fact, I frequently found a direct correlation between my children’s behaviors and the quality of our meals.


We frequently meet out of town relatives halfway for meals. Nice in theory, but they love buffets. Most of the family goes with the “I need to get my money’s worth attitude” and overindulges in wasted calories rather than wasted money. This line of thinking can go many directions, “I’m sorry you’re hurting, eat some cake and you’ll feel better…” “Help, I’ve fallen, and they won’t quit stuffing food in my face…”


This comfort food theme came full circle when I found myself recuperating from a surgery. After two days of jello, popsicles and sugary food, I couldn’t stand the thought of anything sweet. That cheesecake I bought to comfort me when I could eat again is going to the next potluck. It was ironic to realize that over the past five years of changing my eating habits, sugar is no longer comforting, in fact it made me downright uncomfortable.


There is so much that is comforting about family meals. But it seems more comforting to spend the time together than to hover over everyone anticipating their needs. My family has a voice and knows how to use it to ask if they have needs, they neither need to go hungry nor need to overeat to placate my desire to express love. In fact, we find hugs much more comforting than comfort food and what we used to classify as comfort food looks more like a balanced diet than calorie-packed, cholesterol-loaded, empty nutrition. Hopefully this next generation will redefine “comfort food” to look more like healthy food rather than substituting food for the comfort of love.