Family Conversations about Food


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Families socialize their youngest members to understand the way the world works. Think about who taught you right from wrong, how to act when at the grocery store, or what to say when you meet someone new. Chances are, it was your family, probably your mother. Before children enter the school system around the age of five, it is up to their families to teach them how to behave in the social world in which we live.

You might have learned about healthy eating in your high school health class, but those few weeks of information likely didn’t do much to change the years of information you had been soaking up from the way your family eats. Whether they were intentional or not in teaching you what foods are “good” or “bad,” which foods have special meaning, or which foods count as a special treat, people tend to pick up this information from their families. Families establish rules around food and family traditions are often centered around food (think turkey at Thanksgiving and grilled meats on the 4th of July).

A theory in the field of family communication science helps explain how our families growing up shape the way we eat and think about food as adults. Family Communication Patterns theory (Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002) explains that all families find a way to co-orient, or come together to share a sense of reality and view of the world. Families do this in different ways. Some families have open discussions about a wide range of topics and find common ways to see the world through those discussions. Sometimes at the end of those conversations, parents insert their opinion as the correct one. So after encouraging open discussion, at the end of the day the parents’ views should be followed. This type of family is called a consensualfamily. Other families encourage those open discussions and then allow each family member to make up their own mind, or even privilege the voices and opinions of younger members by adopting their position on an issue. This type of family is called permissive.

Heidi Klum (mom of four: Leni, Henry, Johan and Lou (above)): “I’m not someone who [lives] like, ‘OK, this is a museum and you can’t sit here and you can’t touch this and everything has to be put in its place - [the kids] live here as much as we do. You come into our house and a giant elephant and lion are welcoming you. We have toys and things everywhere.”

Protectivefamilies are families where the parents’ ideas and values should be followed, like in the consensual family, but without having much, if any, open discussion. These families likely talk about food only to enforce what parents believe. It would be tough to come home and announce one day that you are vegetarian in this type of family. Parents in protective families might refuse to cook a separate vegetarian meal for you. Alternatively, the two types described above would be open to at least understanding why you’ve decided to go vegetarian and would likely engage in discussions about how they can accommodate your new diet . Finally, laissez-faire families do not enforce any kind of family-level values or engage in many discussions. Parents in the laissez-faire family type likely do not care much about whether a member decides to go vegetarian or otherwise change their diet.

These patterns are useful in understanding how families influence the way we think about food because each of these family types go about shaping those thoughts in different ways. As you could see in the example above, suddenly changing the way you think about food (going vegetarian) would be handled differently in each family type. Consensual and permissive families likely have the most conversations about food, whereas in a protective family children (and adult children when eating with their parents) are likely expected to simply eat whatever is on their plate.

Understanding how families influence their members’ eating habits is perhaps more important than ever as recent research has found that Americans eat much more meat than the national guidelines suggest is healthy (United States Department of Agriculture, 2018) and red meat consumption has been linked to a variety of cancers, obesity , type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Families can work to change the national conversation about food, lowering uncertainty and stigma about reducing meat consumption and challenging stereotypes and tropes about vegetarians or vegans. Incremental practices like meatless Monday can begin to change how American families eat and talk about food.

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