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It’s Not (All) About the Food, It’s (Also) About the Process of Feeding

Posted By Keeley Pratt, Wednesday, July 3, 2013

This blog post is the first in a month-long series about the bi-directional relationship of family systems and nutrition.
I recall from my family therapy training hearing a particular supervisor continually repeat the phrase, "It’s not about the content; it’s all about the process.” I employ the readers of this post to apply that same understanding to the topic of family systems and nutrition, for the purpose of this post is to consider the process of feeding and dining together, not the content of the food itself.

Statistically speaking, more than one-third (35.7%) of adults reading this post (located in the United States) are obese;1 for those readers who have children, 31.8% of them struggle with being overweight, and 16.9% are obese.2 I note these statistics because every single person reading this post can either relate personally to these statistics or loves someone who can. Food is not only meant to be life-sustaining, but also should be enjoyed and experienced socially.

Think back to the last time you had your favorite food served to you… your ultimate favorite food in the world. Think back to how the food looked on your plate. Was it served hot or cold? Was there steam coming off of it? What did the presentation look like? Who cooked it for you? How did it smell? Could you smell it cooking in the kitchen? Does the smell remind you of any warm memories when this same dish was served? Now, recall getting ready to take the first bite of your favorite food. Who was with you when you were served the dish? Did you have to use a knife to cut it? Did you scoop it with a spoon? Remember how all your senses were preparing to taste this food, your favorite food.

Finally, you take a bite, slowly allowing the flavors to absorb into your taste buds, remembering the familiar texture of the food in your mouth. Then you swallow, and smile knowing that there is more where that bite came from. You look around at the other(s) with you, expecting their reaction to be as blissful as your own – to enjoy in the experience of sharing this meal together. Our family and community in many ways determine which foods are purchased, how they are prepared and served, and the dining atmosphere where food consumption takes place. All of these elements employ family systems theory and elements of process that can ultimately impact the experience of feeding and eating.

The purpose of this post is to briefly introduce the dynamics around the process of feeding. This blog is not to discuss "food” itself, or to blame anyone for their (mis)use of food. Additionally, I want to be mindful that our friends and colleagues in Nutrition and Food Science are better equipped to talk about the "content” or nutrient density of food.

1. Food is meant to be enjoyed WITH others: A family that eats together, stays together

The process of eating is meant to be a social experience where family members can join together not only to eat, but also to commune about how their day went. This is a time, set aside routinely, that can serve as a touch point for parents and children, romantic partners, extended family, and others to communicate about their daily ups and downs. In fact, we know that the benefits of family meals include decreased chances of developing, substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, and obesity. Specifically, youth who participate in family dinners with their parents have better overall academic performance, higher self-esteem, a lower risk of teen pregnancy, and greater sense of resilience.

2. Food ≠ love, Feeding = LOVE

We have been taught by our parents, and our parents-parents that love is often shown through the foods we serve at meals. Love motivates us to prepare food for our family, often cooking for hours before it’s served, so that the final product can be enjoyed by all. This can become a challenge in families when a child or partner may refuse to eat a food, critique how a food is prepared, or simply may not be hungry. It’s not hard to imagine how upsetting it could be when a family member refuses to eat or critiques the food that is prepared, lovingly, perhaps for hours-on-end on top of a long workday.

It’s important to remember that the process of feeding is still employed even when food consumption may not take place as smoothly as expected. For example, if your school-age child states, "I hate when you cook green beans!” or your partner remarks, "This chicken is a little burnt this time.” These aren’t personal insults or an indication about how much they love the person who prepared the food for them. We need to encourage our clients and patients to not get caught in a trap where a fight over food might take place. The time we get to socialize with our families every day is limited by busy schedules and demands, and although feelings can get hurt when the effort put into the food preparation may not be acknowledged, family time shouldn’t be taken up by "food fights”.

In order to stay focused on the process of feeding, we should expand from thinking about the content of the food being served (or what is "rejected”) to the process of what is going on with the family at dinner. For example, a child could be having a bad day overall, and the refusal of food is just an indication of something upsetting that happened at school. If a partner makes a comment about the quality of the food, clients and patients can use the opportunity to have a conversation about how the feedback makes them feel. Ideally, conversation should shift over family dinners from food or what is being served to the day’s events.

Other meal-time process considerations include:

  • How are individuals making eye contact during the meal?
  • Is everyone participating in the conversation during the meal?
  • What kind of tone are individuals using during conversation?
  • Does everyone get up at the same time?
  • How are second servings asked for?
  • What kind of thanks is given to the person who prepared the meal?
  • What kinds of topics are brought up during the meal, and how does each person respond?

Keeley J. Pratt, PhD, IMFT, is an assistant professor in the couples and family therapy program in the department of Human Sciences at The Ohio State University, an independently licensed marriage and family therapist, and an AAMFT approved supervisor. Her research focuses on family-based factors that contribute to or are modifiable in the treatment of child/adolescent obesity. She has over 50 presentations at local, national, and international conferences and has authored over 25 manuscripts and book chapters about child and adolescent family-based or integrated obesity treatment, medical family therapy, and supervision in healthcare settings. Currently, Dr. Pratt is working to expand family therapy education to include clinician training on systemic weight-related behaviors (including feeding) and working with clients who are struggling with overweight and obesity.

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