Food Cultures and Step-Families

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Being a stepparent is a journey. When I started on my stepmom journey, I was struggling. All kinds of things were an issue for me: loss of privacy, noise, dealing with the kid’s mom – this all on top of moving, a new job, and a new marriage. We spend so much time talking about the big issues, that another gets little attention sometimes – food.

Out of all the challenging things for me on my stepmom journey, dealing with the food culture in the house was one of the bigger challenges. There were issues with the kids loading the dishwasher “wrong”, refusing to eat something I cooked, hating something I cooked, complaining about having to eat at the table (something I insist on happens at least occasionally). I have managed most of these more minor issues relatively well (I see them as minor now, not necessarily in the moment.) The biggest food-related issue for me has been dealing with changes in my own diet because there are so many yummy foods around.

I’m a dietitian but I have never been a “naturally thin” person. In my teens through half of my 20’s, I had an eating disorder. By the time I was in my mid 30’s, I finally decided that the pursuit of being thin was useless and I started working on loving my body the way it is. I still however tried to focus on eating healthfully. For me, eating for my body consisted of fewer carbs, more protein and lots of vegetables. I’m not saying that my husband fed his children poor foods, not at all actually. It was simply that a lot of the common foods they ate all the time were foods that I didn’t buy for myself because I LOVE them way too much.

I’m not the kind of dietitian that eats nothing but healthy foods. I learned early on in my life, during my recovery from my eating disorder, that eliminating foods or making them “forbidden” was the opposite of what worked for me. I’m stubborn and a bit of a rebel so if you tell me I can’t have something – I want it ALL, ALL THE TIME. I don’t agree with eliminating any one food unless you have to, for allergy or intolerance issues for example. I ate sugar but not a ton of it. I focused on eating 80/20 – 80% healthy foods and 20% fun, yummy foods. That was the best way for me to feel satisfied but to also work on being healthy. It also seemed to maintain my weight fairly well. I wasn’t “thin” and my BMI (ugh) was higher than normal but I didn’t care – I was healthy for me.

Here are some of the foods that were and are popular with my husband and stepchildren: sugary candy, ice cream, and chips and bread or naan with every meal. Mac and cheese was also a common meal. Oh and the cereal – cereal was every morning at breakfast and a very typical late night snack for my husband and the kids. I don’t want to make is sound that my husband was doing a bad job providing food for his children, not at all. He served lots of vegetables, healthy meats, fruits, etc. That wasn’t the problem – it was that I was now living in carb hell. This was fine for my naturally thin husband and his naturally thin children – but did not work for me! When I lived by myself, I simply didn’t buy these foods so they weren’t in the house. I would only eat them occasionally – at work, out with friends, etc.

I need to talk about the cereal. Out of all the foods that were an issue for me, cereal was the hardeest. I love cereal – corn flakes, cheerios – not the sugary stuff but the stuff I ate growing up. I started eating cereal every morning when I moved in, along with a little mac and cheese, bread, naan at meals and my weight started slowing going up. I should note that I was stressed from all the life changes so I was also eating a little more for comfort. I don’t do much of that anymore but I’m sure some of the weight gain was due to that, some of it was due to the fact that cereal and bread taste really good.

I still have the extra weight on my body and I’m fine with it. I am. I know that I’m not unhealthy and I know that my weight is really not important. I believe people can be healthy at all different sizes. Still, I don’t want to continue gaining weight. My goal has been to maintain my current weight – with a little extra allowed in the winter of course.

I have tried many things to help myself without completely changing the food culture that the kids and my husband had before I moved in. One of the most helpful things I do is that I do all the grocery shopping. This way I control what foods are in the house. This works for us because I actually enjoy grocery shopping and my husband hates it. This gives me the ability to control most of the food that comes into the house. Occasionally the kids stop and get something and bring it home or they get something at school but overall this isn’t a huge issue. When I shop, I buy cereal that the kids like but I’m not all that crazy about. I buy snacks that the kids like, but I don’t tend to eat much of – Cheez Its, Pringles, etc. I also plan ahead and buy myself plenty of foods that are healthy – for me. That way, when I’m in a snacking mood, I’m more likely to pick something that I bought for myself instead of things I buy for the kids.

I also have a stash of food in the basement that is just for me. It is food that the kids sometimes eat quickly but are healthy foods for me to eat. So I keep them away from the kids and available to myself only. I even bought myself a little refrigerator, which I have full of sparkling water and cheese sticks.

I sometimes eat different meals than the rest of the family. There are certain dishes that the kids and my husband love but are pretty high calorie. I sometimes eat the meal with them (remember, if I get in my “I’m not allowed to have something” mode, I tend to overeat.) But more often than not, I’ll eat something different at those meals. There is a particular beef dish that I make that is a favorite. I rarely eat it and typically have a salad or soup instead of the beef. This stinks, I know! I wish I had the metabolism that the kids and my husband do but I simply don’t require as many calories as them, so if I don’t want to continue gaining weight, this has to happen sometimes.

I work hard on giving myself large portions of the vegetables and small portions of the carbs. I love carbs so I don’t deprive myself. I tend to make just enough of the carb-rich foods so the kids and my husband eat it all and there aren’t any leftovers. This way, I won’t make the much -loved mac and cheese, a late night snack.

Being a stepparent can bring up all kinds of emotions. Some of us have a tendency to deal with our emotions with food. We feel guilty or shame, we eat to soothe ourselves, we feel guilty and shame for eating, we then hate ourselves for eating, then we feel guilt and shame for eating and then we eat again to soothe ourselves. This cycle can go on and on. For me, the key has been to break this cycle at the guilt and shame point. By giving myself permission to eat the foods I want, I decrease the amount of guilt and shame I have around eating certain foods. By allowing myself any food, I decrease the amount of guilt and shame I have around eating that food. It works for me and works for many of my clients.

In order to do this – stopping the guilt and shame, it is necessary to accept our bodies at a higher weight than what may be “ideal”. This is what I have done. I have learned to accept myself at whatever weight I am at because really – I’m not my weight! I’m so much more. My weight does not define me. I have also rejected the “ideal” weights and body sizes that society has told me I should be. My body doesn’t want to be a size 10 and it never will be again. I’m okay with that. I have to be if I want to live a life free of food preoccupation, dieting, and self-judgment.

And this is important to mention. If people in your life are judging you for the shape of your body or by how much you weigh – please know that this isn’t about you. It is about them. People who body shame others are typically very insecure about themselves and likely are insecure about their own weight, physical appearance, etc. They put you down to make themselves feel better about their supposed “shortcomings”. Set a boundary with these people. I had to do that with someone in my family and it was well worth it!

As a stepparent, it can be hard entering into another’s home and trying to fit into what they have created. It was for me – actually one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. If we want to live our fullest life within our stepfamilies, we have to be an advocate for ourselves. We have to take ownership of our struggles and make necessary changes even if it means their children’s lives will need to change a bit. Our needs are just as important as our partner’s and their children. For me, being in a place where I had already accepted my body and my food-related issues was a blessing. It would be very challenging for someone to step into a completely different food culture, gain weight and hate themselves for it. This can easily be overwhelming by itself but when woven into the issues already present within the stepfamily dynamic, could easily be overwhelming.

Find the support you need. Make the changes you need to make yourself comfortable in your home. Be your own advocate. Work on acceptance of your body. I can tell you that living a life free of food preoccupation, yo-yo dieting, body-hatred is so freeing!