Recently I was asked to write a magazine article highlighting some actionable things we can do to work toward creating healthier mindsets around food and eating for both for ourselves and for our children. Keeping the Jewish orthodox community in mind, I enumerated five ideas and would like to share them here. I’ll start with one in this post, and will discuss the others in subsequent posts. Hopefully this will open a healthy dialogue with everyone about how we can make some important changes.
The first idea is Shifting the Focus. Sadly, we are often paralyzed and controlled by the number on the scale or by the numbers/sizes inside our clothing. To combat this, we need to shift our focus and rethink our relationship with food. Food is nourishment, providing us with the energy for activity, growth, and all functions of the body including breathing, digesting food, and keeping warm. Further, nutrients from our food deliver us with the materials needed for the growth and repair of our bodies as well as for keeping our immune system functioning and healthy. Food sustains us and is needed several times a day, each and every day. Food cannot be removed from our lives if we are challenged by it, rather we have to learn to live with it in a healthy and constructive way.
As orthodox Jews, we believe that food is a wonderful bracha from Hashem that is both a promotion of health and a protection of life. Food plays a critical role in our Oneg Shabbos and Yom Tov, as well as in all our simchas. We spend a great amount of our time and energy in the planning and preparation of it. So, on the one hand, cooking and baking large meals is emphasized and expected, yet often the message given to women and girls is to be careful not to enjoy it too much ourselves. We should be able to cook and bake well, but not personally indulge in it. How then, do we create a healthy mindset, a balance between the joy of food but not the fear and overindulgence of it?
Firstly, food should not be used as a reward – not in school, not for losing weight, not for going to camp, not for anything. Food should never have to be earned. We need to eat to survive. Strings should never be attached to any type of food. Many schools and camps use food as a reward. I know that when my kids were younger, they were given pastries, soda, and candy regularly as rewards for all kinds of achievements, from attending minyan on time to winning a spelling bee to completing various learning programs to memorizing chapters of mishnayos to winning bunk competitions to rewarding class accomplishments, etc. And, no matter how much I begged, pleaded, and threatened, no one was willing to put a stop to it. I even offered to buy other types of prizes for the school, but to no avail. Using food in this way sends the wrong message around what food is and how it is meant to be used. This has to change.
Secondly, just as food should not be used as a reward, it should also not be used as a punishment. I know of many stories where girls were not allowed to partake in certain activities or events until they lost a specific amount of weight or were compelled to lose weight by being given different foods from the rest of the family and so, for example, when the rest of the family was eating pizza, the child was only allowed grilled chicken. All of these exemplify using food in a negative way. While parents undoubtedly have their child’s best interest at heart, using food in this way is dangerous as it causes confusion, misperceptions, and outright contradictions regarding what food is meant for and how it is to be used. This undermines healthy eating habits and can potentially disrupt a child’s ability to accurately recognize and respect hunger and fullness signals.
Ultimately, food needs to be used as a tool for our health, and while it can and should be enjoyed and appreciated, it should not be used as a reward or as a punishment. We must be so careful how we speak to our daughters about food, what they eat, when they eat, how much they eat, and what they weigh.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and personal experiences!