What happens to the kids when both parents model poor eating habits

This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.

By Lorren Lemmons

I’ve asked my husband to stop logging his food at the dinner table. Each night, he zeroes the food scale with his orange Fiestaware plate and measures out ingredients one by one: marinated pork, salad, Brussels sprouts. I’m tired of him bending over his phone, positioning it under the table so the kids won’t see. He seems gone from us in those moments, tabulating his wins and losses on the scorecard of health. 

The kids used to ask about the food scale, but now they’re used to it. “I use it to know how many calories I’m eating,” my husband tells them. “Calories are energy,” my seven-year-old responds, something we’ve taught him for years, ever since he asked us why we didn’t want him to eat too much sugar. If we don’t use our energy it stays in our body, we told him. It’s good to eat food that is more than just energy, food that has protein and vitamins and fiber.

I log my food too, but I’m less scientific about it. The app I use has general terms like “large bowl,” “medium handful,” “mugful.” I’m reluctant, defensive, as I type in my list of sins—the fruit snacks I scarfed down in the car, the leftover cookies I ate for breakfast instead of the soft-boiled egg I should have eaten.

Sometimes the kids analyze their food too. “Chicken has protein so I’m gonna have muscles,” my four-year-old says, picking up the bite-size pieces with his fingers. My seven-year-old munches on leaves of romaine lettuce; he’s always been picky, sensitive to texture and nervous about new foods, but he does like lettuce, which feels like a victory. I wonder if he eats it now because as a young child, we told him greens were brontosaurus food. He also likes the meaty tyrannosaurus food, as long as it isn’t over-seasoned, but he scorns bread and rice. Somehow he is paleo without anyone teaching him. My toddler ignores the food on her plate, squelching ketchup in her fingers. She rubs it on her face and through her hair, yelling, “Sauce! Sauce!” 


I’m a fat woman. I once read an article about a plus-size pregnancy where the mother-to-be referred to herself as a “woman of size.” I like the phrase—it suggests substance rather than excess folds of flesh, implies queenliness and grandeur rather than repulsiveness. 

I don’t drink alcohol or gamble or watch pornography, but I eat for pleasure. I wear my vice on my body, a scarlet letter proclaiming my lack of temperance. I’ve done Weight Watchers in its various iterations, tried low-carb diets, hit the gym several times a week for most of my life, but at night, when my husband is putting the boys to bed or working out, I pull things from the pantry and devour them like I’ve been stranded in the desert for weeks—spoonfuls of peanut butter, three or four fun size candies left over from Halloween and Valentine’s Day parties, the occasional “mug cake” thrown together and heated in the microwave. 

My husband is not a fat man. He is well over six feet tall, a dental officer in the US Army, and thus held to certain physical standards. “Being in the Army is adding years to my life,” he says after his yearly physical fitness test, where he has been weighed, measured, and found satisfactory.

My husband fears obesity. His mother died young of uterine cancer, but before it struck her she dealt with type 2 diabetes and hypertension. His father has had two heart attacks, the most recent less than a year ago. Since then, my husband is passionate about health and fitness, as if by honing his body and giving it only the best fuel, he can fight off mortality. As if the wounds of the past can be undone if he commits to ensuring only the very best future. 

Our children are not good eaters. We don’t eat the rainbow. Their diet consists of white foods and artificial coloring. When we go to a restaurant, they eat bread and fries. It takes coercing and bribery to convince them to try new things. 

I only feel like I’m feeding them well when I pack my sons’ lunches—carrots in Ziploc bags, oranges partially peeled to make eating them easier, nitrate-free salami, whole wheat crackers. If these things end up in the garbage, I don’t want to know—I’ve done my part by sliding them into the Star Wars backpacks hanging by the door. When they’re home, my kids ravenously scavenge the refrigerator, pulling out GoGurts and cheese sticks, asking for bagels with Nutella or cinnamon and sugar. I always give in, exhausted by my own decisions in the kitchen, letting them graze on processed snacks until dinner time while I eat my frozen entree standing up, washed down with a can of diet soda. 

If you look at my husband’s and my social media feeds, you see different realities. His is full of meal planning ideas and weight lifting videos. Mine has several therapists and dieticians promoting intuitive eating and health at every size. I’m not really sure what I believe, although I’ve read the books and seen the studies that fat can be protective, that lack of it isn’t necessarily a sign of health. My husband counters that he’s heard fasting promotes longevity and tells me I should sleep more. When I bring up a statistic from my body positive insta-follows, he says, “That can’t be true.” 

I know we’re both doing it wrong. I’m teaching our children that restraint is a shackle, something to fight against; he’s teaching them that tight control is the only way to avoid obesity, the preventable disaster his wife and parents have fallen into. I write “Get healthy” on the top of my list of resolutions each year, but I’m still not sure what it means-—is it the number on the scale? My body fat percentage? The food on my plate?  

When I think about what I want for myself, it’s to be more in control, to not feel the urge to sneak into the kitchen and feed the hungry beast until it’s too full to move and it slinks off to a corner to nap off the feast. When I think about what I want for my children, it’s the same—to enjoy food, but to not feel enslaved by it. For eating to be natural and simple, not something that needs to be analyzed and regimented. For their bodies to be a vehicle for joy and pleasure and doing good, not things to be measured and weighed. 

I stumble forward. I avoid the word fat, avoid calling food bad, praise my kids’ bodies for the things they can do. My daughter rubs her round belly and dances wearing only a diaper, and I pray she keeps her boundless joy in her physical self. My oldest asks for a pull-up bar and tries to do chin ups with his skinny, lanky arms, and we encourage him, praising his growing strength. My middle son asks me why I’m fat, why I look different from the pictures in my wedding album, and I keep my voice neutral when I tell him that sometimes I eat more energy than my body needs, and so the energy stays on my body and it gets bigger. 

I don’t know what my kids will say in twenty years when they sit on therapists’ couches, dissecting the wounds of their childhoods. I’m sure they’ll have plenty of fuel. But I hope it’s not self-hatred for eating too many Oreos or failing to meet the cultural standard. I hope they love the vessels they inhabit, and that they can find peace and pleasure in sustaining and caring for those vessels.

I fumble as I try to teach them this, because it’s something I haven’t mastered myself, something they see lived out on opposite sides of the spectrum in their two parents. I think of it each day in the train of meals and snacks that seem endless—can I give them both health and self-acceptance when it eludes me so completely? 

I hope my children can find the balance my husband and I approach imperfectly from opposite directions—health without rigidity, and nourishment with joy and freedom.

Lorren Lemmons is a pediatric nurse, freelance writer, military spouse, and mother of three. She lives in Georgia with her family.

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