Everyone has childhood memories of family meals, ranging from elaborate holiday gatherings to the ordinary daily fare served around the kitchen table. Perhaps your mother’s linguine was a regular Wednesday night staple, or your father’s french toast was a Sunday morning highlight. More than the food you ate, though, what about the quality of the emotional interactions around the actual meals? Were there constant arguments or enjoyable retelling of stories? As it turns out, your food memories can play a role in influencing how you now respond to your relationship partners. In a recently-published study, Elisabeth von Essen and Fredrika Mårtensson (2017), of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, examined the relationship between food memories from your early years with your later resilience as an adult. Now that you’re in midlife, you’re creating your own family memories for your kids, but you’re still influenced by the ones you had as a child.
An intriguing notion that von Essen and Mårtensson point out is that food choices and meals serve to tell the much larger part of the story of who we are and how our lives have developed. Being a vegan can become a central aspect of your sense of self as you explore the type of person you wish to become. You can always change your eating habits no matter how old you are, and as you do, certain aspects of your identity change too.
The Swedish researchers proposed that attitudes toward food derived from your memories of your earlier experiences have a bearing on your deepest sense of security in relationships. They interviewed intensively a sample of 30 young adults ranging from 18 to 35 years old, focusing on three participants who differed in their narratives of their food history.
The first interviewee was said to use “food as a secure base.” The soup with bread he cooked and ate with his mother became associated with security and togetherness. He returned to his memories of these good times when sharing meals with his adult friends, and he still recalled fondly the times he spent in the kitchen helping his mother prepare these simple but nourishing meals.
A second participant, by contrast, had a rocky history with food, having experimented with a number of extreme dietary fads. In childhood, she had grown up eating anything that could be microwaved, having a mother who worked nights and an absent, alcoholic, father. When she herself became a mother, she was concerned about providing her own son with a healthier and more stable diet than she had as a child. She reported that, after a great deal of struggle, she was eventually able to feel good about her eating habits. Nevertheless, she feels she’s still too preoccupied with food and that it takes too much of her energy. This pattern reflects what in attachment theory is known as the anxious/ambivalent style. People who experience this approach in their adult relationships similarly can be preoccupied and uncertain of their partner's true feelings.
The third participant had a dismissive attitude toward both food and relationships. As an adolescent, she had an eating disorder and as an adult, had no particular interest in eating regular meals. Her boyfriend, however, expected to eat “proper meals” on a regular schedule and to spend time together both cooking at eating those meals. She was currently, as the authors noted, struggling to overcome her tendency to downplay both food and romantic feelings toward her partner; in other words, “to figure out how to integrate food with the new life situation including a partner” (p. 214).
This study, though small in scope, shows the role that your memories of food, can play as you navigate your own life experiences. Think back on your own earliest memories of the meals you ate as a child and also, as importantly, to the emotional associations you have to those meals. Did you feel that mealtime brought you together with the important people in your life, or were they those hurried affairs in which you microwaved food that came out of a box? When have you used food to help comfort you during periods of stress? Or was food always a source of stress so that you try to focus as little as possible on the meals you prepare? How do your feelings toward food play out in your closest relationships now, and particularly in the way that you and your partner negotiate mealtimes?
Your food memories can sustain and influence your psychological as well as your physical well-being. If those memories are painful ones, the findings of von Essen and Mårtensson suggest that it’s never too late to rework them into a story with a happier ending.
von Essen, E., & Mårtensson, F. (2017). Young adults' use of emotional food memories to build resilience. Appetite, 112210-218. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.01.036