National Eating Disorders Association
Blog

The Miracle of Macaroni (and corndogs)

Suzanne Oliver

As my college-aged daughter was landing on the tarmac after ED treatment away from home, I stood at the stove feeling apprehensive about the sour cream I was stirring into the chicken paprikash and the homemade macaroni and cheese that was baking in the oven.  My mind buzzed with all the concerns she could potentially raise, and I felt keenly aware of the return of mealtime anxiety.

Was I provoking her too much with this meal – one that had become a staple and favorite of her brothers in her absence?  I tossed a lemony, field green salad as an accompaniment and thought the meal had good balance in color, density and food type.  No, I decided, I was not provoking her. This was simply food.  I would no longer allow it to enchant me with its false power.  On its own, the food was meaningless. It was me who had filled it with portent as fear for our daughter’s health and future had plagued me day and night.  The embodiment of that fear appeared in my nightmares.  It was a lurking, pock-marked gnome with backwards legs and my daughter’s features.  I woke in a panic believing that this was what she was becoming. 

Throughout her treatment, my own mealtime anxiety ebbed as our daughter became less restrictive, but I realize now that I unwittingly endorsed her strong opinions about food as I continued to plan and serve meals that were within her comfort zone.  Macaroni and cheese may be a comfort food for many, but at our home it was not generally on offer.  My boys were rarely served steak or burgers at home. I stopped making chocolate chip cookies.   Chicken, pork loin, fish, stir frys, sweet potatoes and whole-wheat pasta were staples. These are all fine foods, but they were too carefully edited.  As a result I think now that my attempts to reduce mealtime anxiety may have perpetuated it. 

At the treatment center where my daughter has been, the most fearsome meal served to the residents is the corndog.  The nutritionist told me that when corndogs are served, she always gets phone calls from distressed parents whose children have called complaining of this simple sausage wrapped in cornmeal.  I confess, I received a call after the corndog was served and felt sympathetic.  How can a corndog be good for anyone, I wondered?  Then I remembered enjoying the novelty of corndogs as a kid, the surprisingly tasty contrast of sweet, yellow corn and salty pork.  Everyone should get a chance to savor a corndog! 

If today I were given a chance to relive all the anxious dinners of the past few years, I would not let myself be a prisoner of fear – neither of my own fear nor my daughter’s.   By shaping my behavior in response to that fear, I believe I allowed the fear to grow.  Not always, but too often. There was ice cream. There were birthday cakes.  There were restaurant dinners with onion rings and cheeseburgers.  But it was a balancing act – an attempt to keep the peace for the younger brothers and to snatch at normalcy whenever possible.  We all did our best.

And now?  Recovery and gratitude. When our daughter walked in from the airport, it was dinnertime.  She filled a plate of chicken and macaroni, and, after a little salad, went back for seconds.  It felt like a miracle to be sharing this dish of macaroni, talking, and laughing all the way through.  We have disempowered the food and, in doing so, recovered a relationship of love freely given and gratefully received.   It has taken effort, especially on the part of our courageous daughter.  But in the process, the miracle is that we have all learned to communicate more skillfully and to eat and to love more freely.  

 

Additional Resources

For advice on how to talk to your child about concerns about food and weight, please see the Parent Toolkit. 

 

NEDA is here to support you during the evolving COVID-19 outbreak. The health of our community, especially those who are most vulnerable to the virus' serious complications, remains paramount. To access resources that can provide free and low-cost support, please click here.

Resources