What Your Earliest Food Memories Say About You and Your Trauma

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Today’s Guest Blogger is Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. who is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her new research shows how childhood food memories affect your relationships now.

Everyone has childhood memories of family meals, ranging from holiday gatherings to the ordinary breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served around the kitchen table. Perhaps your mother had a flair for preparing Sunday morning blueberry pancakes, or your father was a pro at making Thursday night grilled cheese sandwiches. From pleasant conversations to painful tension and arguments, family meals run the full emotional gamut. Without realizing it, these emotional memories associated with both the food you ate and the atmosphere in which you ate it have become part of your adult sense of self. Painful trauma can be aroused by a simple smell in the kitchen and preparation of an ordinary meal. 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 one’s early years with resilience in young adulthood. The Swedish team believed that the positive associations between food and family help establish a strong base on which future coping skills are built. It can take years to recover from these traumas and build these skills but they can be built.

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 but so too are the food habits and customs you learned through your family. Moreover, as the authors observe, “different dishes and meals help to add rhythm to everyday life…” and that “preparing, cooking, and serving food is … an ‘unexpressed intimacy’” (p. 210).

You can probably relate to these concepts in terms of your current relationships and past relationships. Do you and your partner spend a considerable amount of your time together around the kitchen counter while you chop, snip, and saute? Is sitting down to a long and luxurious dinner a high point of your evening? Or are you and your family more utilitarian, using meals as a chance to refuel and go to the next event in your busy life?  However, you spend your food-related times together defines a key element of your relationships. You may have even sought a partner who shares your views on food, cooking, and mealtimes, or at least come to accommodate to your partner’s if you feel that your relationship would otherwise suffer.

The Swedish researchers proposed that it is those attitudes toward food derived from your memories of your earlier experiences that have a bearing not only on how you and your partner spend time together but more deeply on your sense of security in relationships. Attachment theory, the framework adopted by the authors, proposes that the “secure base” you form in infancy provides you with the greatest resilience toward the challenges you face as you develop into adulthood and beyond. However, you can still bounce back from early difficulties when your identity begins to develop in the transition to adulthood.The steps taken to recover from PTSD and early left trauma happen when you start to establish supportive relationships with your friends and new romantic partners that you can overcome earlier difficulties. You may look differently at your parents and be able, as they note, to “re-evaluate a negative role model.” Food can help you navigate that process and, as they state, “act as a buffer against uncomfortable memories” (p. 211).

To test their ideas about the use of food memories by young adults to help create a life narrative, the authors conducted an intensive analysis based on food memory interviews of a sample of 30 young adults ranging from 18 to 35 years old. The three participants whose interviews were chosen for in-depth analysis were on a vegetarian or organic diet, or alternated between vegetarian food and meat. The authors delved into the material by attempting to elicit the narrative, or life story, that the participants told about themselves in relation to food. In the interviews, participants were asked to describe major turning points in their lives and then to describe their relationship to food before and after the turning point. Each of the three narratives then became the illustration of how food and attachment became connected for the participant.

The first narrative involved “using food as a secure base.” The participant whose interview fit this pattern told of how 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 a father who was an alcoholic. When she herself became a mother, she was concerned about providing her own son with a healthier and more stable diet. 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 love.

The third participant, reflecting a more dismissive attachment style, also had a dismissive attitude toward food. She experienced an eating disorder in adolescence in response to a childhood characterized by separate and divorce of her parents.She was traumatised. As she entered young adulthood, she moved in with her boyfriend whose attitude toward food was very different from hers. He 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 food, and 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.

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