I’ll never forget the day, my son came home super cranky from a birthday party. I was taken aback because this was a celebration that he had been really looking forward to. When I asked why he was so grumpy, it quickly came out that he was hungry and resentful. It turned out that he barely eaten at the party and when I asked why, he said, “I didn’t think you would want me to eat too much junk food.”
Furthermore, he was upset that he hadn’t gotten to enjoy all the special foods the other kids had devoured. And all because he was worried that I wouldn’t approve.
Given what I do for a living, you might think that this was a moment of pride for me—that he was able to determine which foods were healthy and which weren’t and had avoided the unhealthier options—but, in fact, it made me deeply sad.
Sad, because instead of just living in the moment and enjoying the celebration with his friends, my son had spent time worrying about what I would think of the different snacks. And not only that, he had chosen to skip certain snacks and treats because of what he thought I might think.
The Dangers of a Deprivation Mindset
As someone who struggled to build a healthy relationship with food for much of my life, one of the patterns that I had to work very hard to overcome was what I like to call the deprivation mindset. This is the when you make rules or set restrictions on the types or quantities of food (or both) that you allow yourself to eat.
The thing is, when we deprive ourselves of the foods that we desire, we are setting ourselves up for one of two outcomes: 1) misery because we aren’t allowing ourselves to enjoy our food, or 2) rebellion where we boomerang in the other direction and end up feeling guilty about our behavior. Not fun.
So, for me, one of the keys to having a peaceful and happy relationship with food has been to make sure that I don’t deprive myself of the foods and flavors that I love, but instead, allow myself to savor and enjoy them more fully.
At that party, for whatever reason, my son went the deprivation route and came home cranky because of it. As we talked about it afterwards, I explained to him that while we might not usually have some of those foods in our own home, that doesn’t meant that those foods are off limits or bad. And, in fact, there are no foods that should be considered off limits. I also made sure that he understood that at a party or a play date he should feel 100% free to enjoy and explore any foods that are offered, and that I hoped that he would never again feel as if he needed to please me as he made his food choices.
Why I Believe Snacks and Treats are Important
For many of us, the foods that we most often restrict are snack and treat foods. We have received messages from the prevailing diet culture that these foods are “bad” or “junk.” It can even be implied that eating these foods is a moral or self-control failure.
But the truth, to my mind, is this: while they may not be as nutritionally dense as other foods, they still have value.
They taste good, they give us pleasure, and they are often shared in social situations when we are bonding with others and often celebrating. So enjoying them should not be something that brings us guilt or regret, but instead is associated with the benefits they bring into our lives. Yes, those benefits may be different than what a vegetable, lean protein, or whole grain gives us, but they are still valuable in their own right.
How to Enjoy Snacks and Treats Without the Guilt
So how do you shift from a deprivation mindset to one in which you can embrace snacks and treats without the guilt? For me, the key has been two-fold. First, learning how to become more attuned to my body and mind’s needs, so that I can honor them healthfully and happily has been really important. And second, focusing on the big picture rather than individual things I eat has been essential.
Learning to Listen to My Body
Our bodies are crazy smart. If we can learn how to listen, they will tell us what we need, both physically and psychologically, when it comes to food.
Now, it’s important to note here that for those of us who have been living with a deprivation mindset for years, learning to listen to our bodies is going to be a slow process. But I’m here to tell you it’s doable!
For me, the first step was to just take note of how different foods made my body feel – both physically and emotionally. After eating a salad for lunch, did I feel full and satisfied or was I still craving other food? Following that toast and egg for breakfast, did I feel focused and content? Was I hungry an hour later or could I make it to lunchtime? As I asked these questions of myself, without judgment, I began to learn more about what foods sustained my body and satisfied my soul.
The next step was to pay attention to quantity – not to control the amount, but to learn how much my body actually needed. If I ate a giant piece of cake, did I feel happily full afterwards or overstuffed? If I had two scoops of ice cream, did I want more or was I satisfied? And the same was true for other foods, too. If I ate a giant bowl of soup, did I feel comfortable or too full? As I listened, I learned where my limits were and what actually made my happy and satisfied.
It’s All About Proportion
Over the years, I’ve learned that I do better when I think about the big picture when it comes to my diet. So, instead of limiting certain foods or making food rules, I like to think of it as trying to get the proportions right.
Instead of thinking about each and every food I choose, I ask the question: is most of the food I am eating nutritionally dense and helping my body to feel strong and energetic? If the answer is yes, then when the cake, cookies, or fries show up, digging in and enjoying them can be a guilt-free and happy occasion, rather than one wracked with anxiety.
In my family, that means that we try to fill our meals with delicious food that nourishes us, but we also enjoy snacks and treats on a daily basis. Sometimes those snacks and treats are on the healthier end of the spectrum and sometimes they are straight-up decadence. Either way, we enjoy and savor them because, in the end, that is what food should be about.
My Ultimate Motivation: Building a Positive Food Experience
In the end, I believe snacks and treats are important because, like all other delicious foods, they help to build a positive food experience for myself and my kids. My hope is that if I can model a relationship with food that is free of guilt, deprivation, and shame, then my kids have a better chance of avoiding the years of anxiety, deal-making, and misery I experienced when it came to my diet – and that’s the best treat of all!
Does this sound like a philosophy on food that would fit for your family? Then sign up for a free trial of The Scramble’s weekly meal planning service so we can help to fill your family’s life with delicious (healthy) food.