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wasting food, hunger, and finding that “stopping place”

Posted by on Sep 9, 2010 in Blog Posts | 19 comments

Here we are at Cracker Barrel, which was across from our hotel on our recent drive (2 days in the car!) to see family. I skipped the Kids Menu, and M ordered rice, chicken, corn and milk. I had roasted chicken, beans, stuffing and corn. We ate maybe 25% of what was on the table. I ordered her a main meal because all the kids stuff was the typical fried, limited fare that M doesn’t love anyway. She had biscuits for the first time. She liked the corn bread too. We had a pleasant meal, but here is what we left. (I suppose we could have shared entrees had I realized how much food there would be…)

It got me thinking again about poverty, food insecurity (or restrained or unreliable feeding) and how it effects what we eat and how much we eat.

  • I waste food because I can afford to. (The photo above is at the end of our meal.)
  • I can stop eating because I know I will have enough, good-tasting variety of foods before I get truly hungry again. (Reliable meals and snacks.)
  • I can try new foods and introduce my daughter to new foods because I know I will have other things to eat, and because I have enough resources to try something that might not get eaten.
  • I can stop because I can eat any of those foods when I want to. (I don’t need to eat 2 biscuits because if I want to order them again sometime, I can-without guilt.)
  • I leave food because I have never been truly hungry (childhood food insecurity and hunger often has long-lasting effects, with adults who experienced it more likely to feel anxious or panicky with food, and more likely to binge when foods are available-a smart survival strategy at the time…)
  • I leave food because I have learned to eat in a way that is tuned-in to my internal cues of hunger, appetite and satiety.
  • I am lucky…

If I weren’t so lucky, I would have ordered food for M that I KNEW she would eat. If I didn’t know when the next meal was coming, I would order reliably filling foods with lots of calories for the least amount of money. If I hadn’t eaten all day because I was “saving points” for dinner, or didn’t have any cash, or felt guilty about how I blew my diet yesterday… (you see where this is going.)

(BTW, M doesn’t really have to “think” about any of this, or know it on any rational level. In spite of my inclinations as a chatty extrovert, I don’t explain or rationalize any of this to her. I do my jobs with providing reliable, good-tasting foods every 3-4 hours. She just shows up and listens to her body… She stops eating when her body tells her to.)

Poverty, how much we eat, what kinds of foods we eat, are more complex than most (especially in the public health world) would have us believe. Food is at it’s heart survival, and making it simply into a moral issue without a deeper understanding of the complexities–the physiology and psychology of hunger (monetary or self-inflicted)– is dangerous and short-sighted.

How do your childhood experiences of hunger (in any form) effect your eating today?
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  1. familyfeedingdynamics

    seeinginsideout, how lucky your sons have been! Sounds wonderful, if not just a bit from my Sesame Street urban fantasies from the Midwest upbringing.How sad for your mother. I do wonder how my mother's generation, who knew such hunger during and after the war in Europe have managed. My mother ALWAYS wolfed her food down, ate lots, fast, but we had the structure and the genetics and enough activity that she stayed stable in terms of weight and health. I can imagine how dementia would play into memories of deprivation. THANKS for sharing!

  2. Pam

    Kou, Angel Food Ministries might be a possible resource for you, depending on whether there's one close to where you live:
    They are a Christian organization, but it's open to anyone.

  3. familyfeedingdynamics

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. It is indeed good fortune to have reliable, good tasting food, and enough of it, without all the headgames…Glad you are making that journey.

  4. Moo

    I am another who was expected to clean my plate at every meal, sometimes even gagging while forcing unwanted/unliked food down. We were also a family of extremely quick eaters–there was always a rush to eat and then leave the table to go do something else–and so I don't think I ever learned to listen to my body's hunger or full signals. Even now when I visit my parents' home, we're finished with a meal in about 20 minutes. There's always enough to eat, but JUST enough. Leftovers are carefully saved even if there's only a spoonful remaining. I think this might be a holdover from both my Mom and my Dad having grown up during the Great Depression.

    The theme of "special" food is also one with which I'm familiar. Even as an adult, I tend to binge on things that I really love even though I know that I can now have them any time I want. I don't have to overeat; it's not like this is the last batch of chili that will ever be created on the planet.

    It seems especially wasteful to me to leave food on my plate in a restaurant, and so stuffing myself in order to finish it is common. Somehow I can never manage to just ask for a box and take it home, and most of the time I'm not going right home so can't really take it with me. I'm learning to leave food on my plate now, but it's very difficult because it is so wasteful. "Think of all the hungry people in the world," was a common refrain during my childhood, and even though my finishing everything I ordered doesn't make anyone else less hungry, it's still what goes through my mind every time I leave food uneaten.

  5. seeinginsideout

    privilege and story have so much to do with these patterns, reactions, and cravings. beautiful that you raise it and let us in on it. this brings up so much in me. thanks for that too. sorting, sifting, remembering, trying to separate truth from childhood emotions. all good work.

    in my adult-formed family we never throw out food, use all leftovers, think creatively about what we can do to share and taste and keep costs down in restaurants. often we travel with home-packed food: mostly fresh vegetables and fruits – so not so easy in restaurants to begin with. both my grown sons enjoy cooking, love a wide variety of cuisines. our great advantages were not financial – they were living in NYC throughout their childhoods, being members of a working food cooperative and growing a garden where they learned how the earth provides – not packages. they ate their share of fast food but on their own and with friends. they advise me now when they discover things.

    i've had to deal with my own feeling that if there is food, i'd better eat it now, since growing up there was a serious feeling of not enough. luckily i've learned that i do have what i need and that whatever "this" is, it will be enough. strangely, my 87 year old mother, who has dementia, now has totally focused on food – endless cravings, endless complaints, deep feelings of not getting what she needs. quite revealing and not just a bit sad.

  6. familyfeedingdynamics

    thank you all again for sharing. You give me much to think about!

  7. familyfeedingdynamics

    Coupons. Another peeve. All those shows where women buy $300 for $3… They all have massive pantries full of boxes and bags of convenience foods, things I don't really like or want to eat. I sometimes use them, but have no idea how one could do meal-planning with actual ingredients and try to use coupons. I keep my eyes open, but largely ignore the coupon craze. I do know roughly what most foods cost, and have a threshold. So, if grapes are cheap, we eat lots of grapes (then we don't eat them for awhile when they are out of season.) I have a rough meal-plan based around proteins, but chose veggies and fruits to fit in largely based on price. It's not perfect, but seems to work OK. Then I also buy frozen pizza etc on sale and incorporate that into the menus when I need to. Not easy!

  8. familyfeedingdynamics

    We grew up with a very frugal mom. Meat was the most fought over, but was there on a regular basis. I don't remember being forced to clean my plate, but we didn't throw food out. My dad has an amazing metabolism, and needed and got regular exercise to feel normal. he would vacuum up anything we happened to leave on our plates. He also regularly eats questionable food from the fridge rather than throw it out. I remember my mom boiling veggies for dinner and saving the liquid for soup. They definitely struggles when they eat with us when we allow M to leave food on her plate. I still have twinges of guilt about wasting food, and know that I have often in the past tried not to waste and eaten beyond full. I often take left-overs home when I can, but I am now more comfortable leaving food than I was in the past. It's been a process.
    Secrets would be a great resource for you too. Intuitive eating takes time. I think that's one thing I like about Satter's work. It acknowledges it is hard work, and that sometimes months or years are needed to get it, and that we will still "make mistakes" with our eating and that it's OK. Good luck!

  9. familyfeedingdynamics

    A great resource would be Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family, even if that family is only you, or you and a partner. It is a fabulous resource for getting started and being realistic. (lots of meal-planning sites are too cimplicated for me and I like it, have the time mostly and the money.)
    Secrets has awesome recipes, including 4 ingredients, using canned foods, making casseroles, all the how-tos from boiling potatoes etc. It is a very gentle, real-world book and has a great section on what we are talking about. That getting ENOUGH food is the basic start. I hope you'll check it out and let me know what you think!

  10. ruththereader

    This also points out the silliness of the "The average American consumes (insert large number here)pounds of meat,or sugar, or fat per year!!!(wring hands, express concern)" headlines we often see. Just because a food is purchased does not mean it is consumed. duh.

  11. Elizabeth Scott

    Is this the website? Scroll down a bit. She gives two detailed menus and shopping plans for very low cost meal plans for families.

  12. gruhlkegm

    I remember staring at peas on my plate for what seemed like hours after dinner. I was taught to clean my plate, so learned to ignore when I was full. My mom put me on the grapefruit diet for the first time when I was about 9 or 10, it was a ritual for every summer. That's when I started sneaking food, especially sweets, which she had a whole cabinet full of. As a young adult I was quite poor, even getting food stamps for awhile. As a result, I have a real hard time throwing away good food, even though now we are no longer poor. I'm working on intuitive eating right now, but it's an uphill battle.
    @ Kou–do you live in the U.S.? If so, there is a food co-op program called the SHARE food program, where for $15-$20 you can purchase a set package of fresh fruits, veggies and meat once a month that is worth like $35-$45. It helped me make ends meet for several years. Just a thought!

  13. Kou

    Since there wasn't much real grocery shopping when I was younger and my fiancé's parents buy food on a daily basis, neither of use really learned how to grocery shop. I tried looking online for advice, meal ideas, and tips but most sites assume you will have more money and the ability to watch sales and shop at multiple stores. We shop at Walmart.

    So we buy breakfast (usually cereal) and dinners for 7 days and that's about it. Lately it's been a lot of sandwiches and burritos. I have a hard time coming up with meal ideas.

  14. randldub

    First of all, thanks very much for acknowledging your privileges and acknowledging that privilege plays a humongous role in how we make our food choices.

    I was raised by a fat-phobic mother and was restricted from certain foods from a very young age. It's the primary reason why I developed a binge eating disorder. Another contributing factor: we were working class and on a tight budget through most of my childhood so mom would often by "just enough" food and be disapproving if we wanted more than what was served.

  15. familyfeedingdynamics

    Kou. I'm sorry. It's not fair. Have you found any helpful online resources? I remember a great pantry one, but I seem to recall lots of dry beans that need soaking. it's one thing I can't get down or get my act together with. Something I should think about…

  16. Kou


    My mom was alcoholic so she had trouble keeping jobs. There were many times that we didn't have any food in the house aside from condiments and canned vegetables. When we did get food in the house I ate too much because I felt it might not be there later.

    Now? Still in a situation where there isn't enough money, so not enough food. It's hard to grocery shop for two people on $50 a week. I haven't been able to figure it out so I don't get to eat what or how much I want most of the time.

  17. lyorn

    After 25 years, past hunger has finally lost control over my eating. That long to convince myself that I can get any food I want, whenever I want it. And I *still* suffer from food anxiety now and then.

    We were poor when I was a kid, poor on money and more so on time, and while we had enough to eat, it was always the same: Bread, potatoes, pasta, oatmeal, milk, yoghurt, and what seasonal fruit we got from the neighbors who had an orchard: apples, pears and plums, mostly. I was never hungry, but wasting food was a strict no — you ate what was set before you. I got in the habit of splurging when I was at friends' homes where there was a greater variety of food, especially meat, and cake/dessert. Being a good eater was seen as healthy in a kid, so this behaviour was encouraged gently.

    Later came the diet years — we finally had enough money to eat well, did that for a year, gained a few pounds, and panicked. I was hungry all the time, so whenever there was an opportunity or excuse I stuffed myself, because tomorrow I might not be able to find an excuse or an opportunity. I knew that it was stupid and harmful while I was doing it, but I would not have expected it to stay with me for most of my life.

    Living in the certainty that there will be food tomorrow, to the degree that one can forego food today means one is really fortunate.

  18. KellyK

    There are a couple things that stick with me hunger-wise. As a kid, I had to clean my plate, and it became tough to tell when I was actually full. I'm doing better about that now, but still if food is in front of me, I have a habitual tendency to keep eating whether I want it or not. (When I feel full at a restaurant and still have food left, I usually hand my plate to my husband so he can put it out of my reach.)

    I also remember having a screwed up lunch schedule in seventh and eighth grade. It was a junior/senior high school, so 7-12 in one building. We ate lunch before eleven, so I'd get home at a quarter to four and be ravenous. And then as a junior and a senior, it was the reverse, with breakfast at 6:30 and nothing else until after 12.

    I find it funny that now I eat lunch at 11 most of the time, and it seems like the right time to have lunch. But as an adult, I get to have an afternoon snack at two or three if I want, while I didn't have that option as a kid.

  19. ila

    I firmly believe that experiencing deprivation as a child was one of the factors that contributed to my binge eating later in life. We were quite poor when I was growing up and, while we never went hungry, most of the time we couldn't afford anything beyond bare necessities. When visiting friends or family, I used to jump at the opportunity of eating the kind of foods we never had at home – I think that's how I developed an (in my opinion undeserved) reputation for being greedy. I'm also notorious for not once, but twice eating a whole box of chocolates in one sitting (at five and nine years old) – a story that is often retold at family meetings as a funny anecdote. As a kid, I never knew when I would have the chance to eat a "special" food again, and that's where the urge to overeat came from. Even as an adult, living on my own and earning my own money, it still took me a long time to realize that I could buy "special" food whenever I wanted, so there was no need to binge on it as if there was no tomorrow…