On food in relationships

Some of my earliest memories involve eating with friends - the type of friends whose parents permitted sugar.

At Mary’s house we ate Key Lime Pie.

At Sara’s house we could make our own cookies.

At Jesse’s house we ate popsicles and fruit gushers.

Olivia’s pantry was always stocked with decadent truffles and her freezer with three kinds of ice cream.

Mine was the house of homemade bread. I took that for granted.

Even as an adult, relationships have often meant access to "off limits" food. This is odd, considering I stock my own pantry. I technically don’t need Jesse’s mom for fruit gushers. But still, being with people seems to allow for a certain type of permission to eat that being alone does not.

At least, until yesterday.

Yesterday, I took myself to lunch. Just me and me, eating solo at a restaurant for the first time ever. Sure, I’ve bought a sandwich at a coffee shop, gone solo through a drive through, but I haven’t sat down at a proper restaurant and done the deed alone.

I felt a bit self-conscious telling the host “Just one.” But right after me, another person came in, also indicated that it was just him, and sat right next to me. I didn’t look at him, but I liked that he was there. Maybe it was his first time, too?

(That’s the thing about me: I won’t talk to you, but I will absolutely write a story about you.)

Until yesterday, if I wanted to go out to eat, I needed first to find a partner. And truthfully, as a disordered eater, I rarely sought that experience out: Uncontrolled portions, ambiguous calorie counts, unknown ingredients. Not to mention eating out throws off the whole day: A bigger lunch means I’m confused about what to do about breakfast and dinner. At least with a lunch buddy comes a built-in excuse for inviting in madness. Who, me? I was content to eat a salad packed in Tupperware, or better yet, nothing at all! But - sigh - duty calls.

All this to say: Friends and partners technically aren’t the purveyors of good food, but sometimes it still feels that way.

As I drove home from the restaurant, I reflected on the role of food in my last relationship. This man was abundantly practical. He made enough food on Sunday to eat the same thing all week. He knew the best deals on chicken breast within a ten mile radius. He knew the total cost of each well-balanced meal he put in front of us. He knew what and how much to eat in order to stay full, and he did exactly that. He did it all, unemotionally. All without needing permission.

You’d think that such a level-headed approach to food would have been just right for me. How healing, to be constantly exposed to someone who ate both fried Oreos and turnip greens in the same, unremarkable meal. Wouldn’t this model for me that elusive brand of “balance” I’d heard so much about?

Not quite. For me, at least, it isn’t enough to see an example of a “normal” eater. We also have to talk about it. There are some skills you can learn by observation, and others must be taught - preferably in the same language, and preferably after “level setting.” Although I am often averse to and confused by workplace language, “level setting” makes sense. In this context, it means the following: “Here are my assumptions. What are yours?” It means, “Help me understand the way you think about food.”

I’m learning now to have these conversations, mostly in the context of my present relationship. My girlfriend is allergic to cooking, and as such eats most of her meals out, many of them alone. Being alone and eating what you want is normal to her.

Last Saturday, I made the three hour drive home from our weekend trip. We’d eaten a large lunch around 1pm, and I was confused by what that meant for the rest of the day. Would a normal person want a snack at 5pm? Would they want a meal at 7? I was personally struggling to so much as pull over at a gas station, let alone a drive-through. I called her up to “level-set”: “Here’s how I’m thinking about food today. What about you?”

She ate her favorite meal, alone, for dinner, and she bought candy on the way home. Her body said it was a “candy night,” so she bought candy. Case closed.

It was she who inspired me to take myself to my favorite restaurant. Sure, it would have been better with her, but she lives far away. And anyway, I’m in the business of imitating healthy people.

I wonder sometimes if I'm writing about issues particular to women, or women with disordered eating, or women in their twenties with disordered eating, or maybe just particular to me. For me, food and relationships - be those relationships with family, friends, or partners - are hopelessly intertwined. On a purely biological level, mom controls access to food from an early age. Developmentally, then, we learn different "food rules" in different contexts, whether that means popsicles with friends or skipping lunch in high school.

Yes, relationships offer some of the first opportunities for learning - some of it disordered, some of it healthy. But lately, I've realized that relationships offer opportunities for unlearning, too. My approach, then, is similar to that of AA: Find someone who has what you want, and ask them how they got it.

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