Families and Food: An Extension Perspective
Families and food. These two topics are integrally related because food is all about relationships! In my view, the relationships we have with food are impossible to separate from the relationships we have with other people. I have been fortunate to work in New Mexico with the Cooperative Extension Service for 14 years, and much of my career has involved working with families and food. Indeed, the Cooperative Extension Service has a long history of providing communities with trusted information about food science and nutrition. Since 1914, Extension has been connected to land-grant universities providing community outreach in the areas of agriculture, natural resources, family wellness, youth development, and community economic development. Even today, the Extension continues to provide a wealth of food science and nutrition resources for CFLEs to use in their own practices.
… the relationships we have with food are impossible to separate from the relationships we have with other people.
As a county family and consumer sciences agent, I provide community programs in a wide range of areas, including nutrition, food safety, chronic disease self-management, family finances, and family development. The settings for this education are as varied as the topics and include teaching adults and/or youth in community centers, schools, churches, agencies, housing facilities, at community events, in community gardens, among other locations. All these spaces provide opportunities for me to hear participants’ stories about their personal relationships with food. They share their struggles and their successes, and, as a group, we discuss strategies for improving their food relationships.
Over the years, my participants have shared common themes about their interactions with food. I am thankful for my educational background in family dynamics, counseling, and cultural identity because this training has improved my understanding of participants’ lived experiences. Examples of themes that commonly arise in class are (a) the emotional meanings and associations people have with food, (b) the influence of family dynamics on eating habits, (c) the importance of food in celebrations and family rituals, and (d) the connections between food and cultural identity.
First, emotional meanings and associations with food strongly influence our eating habits. For some of us, we think about food simply as providing nourishment for our bodies to function. Others of us give strong emotional meanings to the food we eat. Food may provide emotional comfort in times of stress, or we associate food with love, status, or celebration. We may associate specific food items or food rituals with loved ones or with our cultural identity. These meanings or associations frame our relationship with food; some of these relationships may be healthy, others not so healthy. In addition, these food relationships often stem from childhood experiences and continue to develop over our lifetime.
In my classes, people often share stories about what food means to them. For example, many are taught from a young age to eat everything on one’s plates and recall being punished for wasting food. This can lead to experiencing intense feelings of guilt if not everything on the plate is consumed. Unfortunately, eating everything on one’s plate despite feeling full results in eating significantly more calories than our bodies need, which can lead to serious health consequences. Being aware of guilty feelings when eating and understanding the origin of these emotions can empower people to adopt healthy eating habits by selecting strategies that address these thoughts and emotions. In class, we discuss the psychology of using smaller plates to limit portion size because this allows our minds to enjoy eating a full plate without overconsuming calories. I encourage people to be honest with themselves about their emotional relationships with food because this will help them select strategies that work for themselves and their families.
A second theme I often hear is the influence of family dynamics on eating habits. Family dynamics can be especially challenging when one family member is diagnosed with a condition such a diabetes. Meal planning recommendations for people with diabetes are healthy for everyone in the family, but sometimes not everyone is onboard with adopting healthy eating habits. This can cause conflict within families and lead to feelings of isolation for family members with diabetes because they believe they need to eat a “special diet” separate from the rest of the family. Feelings of hopelessness and depression are common among people with diabetes. I have also heard many stories of family members “policing” the diet of the family member with diabetes. They may have good intentions and do this out of care and concern, but these interactions can cause conflict and feelings of resentment among all family members. This is a prime example of when improving communication skills, such as “I-messages,” can be particularly helpful for families.
These meanings or associations frame our relationship with food; some of these relationships may be healthy, and others not so healthy.
A third theme shared by participants is experiencing feelings of stress when trying to eat healthily at family gatherings and celebrations. This challenge is often connected to the last theme I mentioned: the strong connection between cultural identity and food. In New Mexico, we have large Native American and Latino populations. For many cultures, food is an integral part of cultural identity and celebrations of special events. It can be challenging for people who are trying to lose weight and/or managing diabetes to navigate these special celebrations. Some family members may equate food with love. Thus, if a participant does not eat a family member’s special cultural or celebratory dish, it may feel like a rejection of the family member’s love and cause significant family conflict.
When faced with these challenging family situations, it helps to think about a plan ahead of time. One strategy shared with me quite often is making sure to at least taste special dishes. Having a small amount, such as tablespoon of the item, can sometimes help reduce family conflict. Literature on healthy celebrations recommends centering celebrations on activities instead of food. This is a great idea, but I have observed connections between family rituals and food to be so strong that this strategy can be difficult to implement.
New Mexico has a program that addresses many of themes I have mentioned. Kitchen Creations is a cooking school for people with type 2 diabetes and their families. Funding comes from the New Mexico Department of Health and the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service. This four-part cooking school typically meets once a week for 4 weeks. A registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator teaches the diabetes management portion of each class, and an Extension professional teaches the cooking portion. This is a great program that (a) increases knowledge of healthy food choices and meal planning for people with diabetes, (b) presents healthy versions of familiar foods and introduces new foods that are economical and easy to prepare, (c) provides hands-on opportunities to learn cooking techniques using ingredients that are more healthful or new to participants, and (d) offers opportunities for participants to share and learn from one another.
An important aspect of Kitchen Creations is that participants may bring a family member. This recognizes that people with diabetes are part of a family unit, and the family needs to negotiate healthy meal options together. The curriculum promotes the idea that healthy eating for diabetes is healthy eating for everyone.
The Kitchen Creations curriculum presents healthy versions of familiar foods and also introduces new foods. I appreciate that this program takes into account the cultural identities of the audiences it serves. A cookbook was developed for the program that includes recipes reflective of our state’s Native American and Mexican heritage and is offered in English and Spanish. In addition, cooking schools have been provided to African Americans, incorporating culturally appropriate recipes for this audience as well. It is important for food and nutrition programs to consider the cultural identities of the populations they serve. Programs telling people to completely change their eating habits, give up foods they love, or eliminate foods associated with their cultural identity will likely be unsuccessful. Participants may feel so discouraged that they completely give up on trying to improve their eating habits.
A final aspect of Kitchen Creations that leads to its success is the structure of the class. The class breaks up into groups, and each group prepares a recipe. Then the entire class shares a meal practicing the strategies taught by the dietitian or diabetes educator. The process of cooking together allows participants to learn from each other and can also reduce feelings of isolation. I have observed cooking activities to have a highly motivating effect on participants.
Throughout my career, I have seen participants in food and nutrition programs make profound changes in their lives and the lives of their families. While they deserve all the credit for making those changes, I am happy and proud to have supported them by providing reliable, research-based information within a supportive and motivating environment. I credit my CFLE background with helping me provide food and nutrition programs that recognize the importance of individual, family, and cultural contexts.
Karim A. Martinez, M.S., CFLE, is a county program director and family and consumer sciences agent with the NMSU-Doña Ana Cooperative Extension Service. She has a B.A. in sociology, a B.S. in family and child science, and an M.S. in Family and Consumer Sciences; she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Administration at New Mexico State University.