Virginia Sole-Smith Wants us to Drop the Guilt Over Family Dinner

At my house, these days, we eat ice cream every day. By we, I mean my nearly 5-year-old twins and me. You heard me right: ice cream. Every day. Sometimes even twice. My kids and I have also been eating dinner in front of the TV together a couple nights a week.

I recently admitted all this, rather sheepishly, to Virginia Sole-Smith, a Hudson Valley-based mother of two who has dedicated her work to helping parents (herself included) and their children relax their understanding and expectations of how to eat — and live — well.

Sole-Smith is the author of the 2018 book The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America and the immensely popular Substack newsletter Burnt Toast. (She’s also got another book on the way, Fat Kid Phobia, which explores the harm caused by the “war on childhood obesity,” and gives parents strategies to raise happy, healthy kids at every size.) For parents cooped up at home with their families over the past year and a half, with dwindling reserves of energy and shot nerves, Sole-Smith has become a vital voice of reason.

Telling her about the TV thing, my voice took on the telltale tone of confession: I was flooded with guilt. It was the first time I’d really fessed up about it to myself, let alone said it out loud.

“Do not feel bad!” Sole-Smith fired back. “That’s what makes sense for you and your family right now.” Sole-Smith argues that, rather than feeling ashamed, I might reframe my experience as a positive evolution towards more tenable, and relational, eating habits; ones that are responsive to my particular family and our needs in a given moment.

She paused, then asked, “What does dinner really need to be for us?” It’s a powerful question, one that has stuck with me.

I never thought it would be this way. See, I live and work in food. Literally: I’ve got a Ph.D. in it. As a former vegetable farmer, food systems advocate, and restaurant critic turned writer and professor of food studies, I felt certain that food was one area where I would be able to offer my children the world. When I became a parent to twins nearly five years ago, I looked forward to cooking interesting meals for them daily. I imagined us fostering deep connections to food from our backyard garden, our dinner table, and beyond. Then, well, you know what happened. Real life. Two working parents, the daily juggle of child care and housework and socialization and, and, and… Add a pandemic with its complete undoing of routines around child care, school, and work and the dissolution of my marriage in 2020, and things have… let’s just say they don’t look the way I imagined.

Sole-Smith assures me I am not alone. She sees my own experience as just one example of what has been not only a reasonable, but necessary, readjustment of our food habits over the course of the pandemic. And she knows that now, as we shakily begin to re-enter many aspects of our lives that we’ve put on hold — school and camp, playdates, commuting, visiting with loved ones in one another’s homes — our anxieties are at an all-time high.

For her, that means changing both what and how we eat, especially at home with young children. Nowhere more so than in our approach to family dinner. And this, she says, is where most parents get off track.

We’ve been fed this idea, Sole-Smith says, that “we have to jump into this deep connection” at the end of the day. “But dinner’s really hard for little kids.” As she spoke, I pictured my kids, stripped down to their sweaty undies at the end of a scorching summer day, sprawled across the playroom couch, less fixated on the TV than succumbing to its invitation to slow their bodies down and rest. I noticed the guilt rise like bile again, then quickly realized she was right: I can’t imagine a worse time to drag my children to the table and demand they sit pretty while I try to force conversation.

She says she sees such well-intentioned family meals backfire in children’s responses all the time. “They don’t want to eat the steak because it’s hard to chew and the broccoli tastes bitter to them.” Plus, she added, “They’re so tired. Sometimes, they need to be doing something else at the end of the day.”

So what’s a parent to do?

Sole-Smith suggests a less structured approach to family feeding and eating. First, that we stop feeling we need to make up kids’ plates for them. By setting out a variety of finger foods or serving meals family-style, we can encourage children to observe and respond to their own cravings and hunger cues by eating what they want, and in whatever quantity they want, at mealtime. Bonus: we, the adults, get to do the same.

And no matter what, Sole-Smith says, in her home, there’s always “that carb on the table. For her family, that means anything from pesto pasta to boxed mac and cheese to a bag of rolls from the grocery store. “There are periods where that is the absolute only thing my kids touch on the table,” she emphasized, “and other times where they have some of that and some of the other thing. I don’t really track it, I trust them to work it out.”

This may seem borderline blasphemous to those of us who were raised in a meat-and-two-sides kind of household, being told to clean our plates if we wanted dessert (is it obvious I’m projecting here?). But this approach, Sole-Smith says, begins by coming back to a basic, core question that many of us have forgotten how to ask ourselves: “What do I want to eat?”

This means getting in touch with our own cravings and allowing ourselves to follow their instincts. And it means allowing our kids to do the same, permitting them the space and flexibility to exert some control over their own eating habits. It also means living in the reality of our day-to-day lives. Or, as Sole-Smith puts it: “It’s a lot of work to cook every night and I don’t want to do it!”

Those joint realities drive dinnertime at her house, and I could literally feel my body relaxing as she talked me through a typical dinner with her family: “The other night, I wanted steak and salad. I started with that, and then surrounded it by simple sides. There was that comfort carb and fruit from the grocery store that I’d washed and was still in the colander. I also put dessert on the table as an option.”

What came next was even more heartening: Sole-Smith’s family doesn’t always eat dinner all together. “Sometimes I really want curry, so my kids are going to have PB&J at 5 and my husband and I are going to eat later,” she said.

Sole-Smith’s messaging runs directly counter to the decades’ worth of relentlessly peddled strategies about how parents can get kids to eat their spinach and steer clear of sugary snacks and stay slim and fit rather than “letting themselves go” into soft, rounded bodies.

This, Sole-Smith says, is a set of messages based on problematic notions of purity and discipline, virtuous and sinful, healthy versus slovenly. They are also, she is quick to point out, rooted in patriarchy: The notion that women need to control their and their children’s bodies via regimens of deprivation and control, framing certain foods as “good” and others as indulgent or “bad,” is yet another pervasive message that keep women scrambling to keep up and disconnects them from their sense of themselves as autonomous, intuitive individuals and caregivers.

“Make it much less about nutrition and much more about connection,” Sole-Smith urges. “It might be family dinner if that’s accessible to your family, but it doesn’t have to be; if that’s not something that’s possible, with parents commuting back to the office, maybe it’s breakfast, maybe it’s weekends.”

We are, Sole-Smith concedes, all flattened after the past year and a half.

What if, I asked, that means my kids only want to eat white carbs or see me lying on the couch in my underwear with a bag of cookies? “Try to step back from the food itself,” she said. “If you’re really working through anxiety for yourself or your kid, focus on the bigger issues before you start taking away the comfort foods.”

Right, I thought as she spoke, why would you take away something soothing at a moment of transition and heightened un-ease? I wouldn’t take my kid’s lovie from her right now or start threatening to limit her time with it, so why try to curtail the noodle intake from her diet? “There’s nothing inherently bad about eating comfort foods, but a lot of it is that we don’t have other coping tools. We need to build them first — if you give a child other tools to cope with their stress, anxiety, sadness, etc. they will gradually lean less on the food.”

She also cautions parents against the wholesale demonization of processed foods (though she readily admits Big Food’s marketing practices are often predatory). “In your own home, I believe it’s possible to have a fairly neutral relationship to these foods.” Her kids, she offered, are presently on an Uncrustables kick, and she’s going with it. “If, back when I was more of a food snob, you had told me I’d be embracing them…” She trailed off chuckling.

That ice cream every day thing? When I told Sole-Smith about it, she laughed with recognition. “Last summer, my kids and I did that every day after nap. I called it cool treat o’clock.” It taught her something important: “It started as me just me trying to fill a block of time, but very quickly it meant our kids weren’t fixated on iced cream. After about three weeks, they were leaving melting puddles and went to play.”

She knows, though, that these shifts in how we approach feeding our children, let alone ourselves, isn’t easy. All Americans, but especially American women — regardless of race, class, or education level — are bombarded with conflicting messages around food and body image from early childhood. Even women who were fortunate enough to have had body positivity communicated to them as young people are still overwhelmed by a mainstream media narrative that keeps us running on literal and proverbial treadmills, always urging them to get thinner, more toned, to “clean up” their eating habits — all in order to achieve, well, perfection.

These messages, if they are to be undone at all, often require years’ worth of individual attention and energy (and often, a lot of therapy). If women choose to become parents, they often both tacitly and explicitly pass on their own muddled and unhealthy relationships with food and their bodies to their children, while they continue to wrestle with their own.

“This is what diet culture teaches us to do,” Sole-Smith tells me. “Whenever you’re going through a difficult or stressful time or feel out of control in some way, the thing you’re supposed to be able to control is food and therefore weight, yours and your children’s.”

This is certainly true of me. I was round-bodied, bookish, and fiercely independent from a young age, inclined to my own worlds where I wrote stories, made music, and dreamt of a life in the theater. My mom was a gritty, active woman who gardened, hiked, walked the dog in the woods, and swam laps in the public pool during the summer season but was still locked in a constant battle with her body. I could tell when she was feeling down on herself by the lack of her favorite coffee ice cream in our freezer or how many Jane Fonda workouts she squeezed in while I watched Reading Rainbow.

I was in eighth grade when my parents split up, and I leaned hard into diet culture in response. I would weigh myself daily, naked and after peeing, as soon as I woke up. After pocketing my lunch money and eating a chalky SlimFast bar, I’d end the school day starving and scarf pizza with my friends. Later, full of remorse, I’d head to the gym to burn it off.

At the time, I thought I was chasing better health and fitness; now, I see it clearly as a desperate bid for control and validation: If I was skinny, I subconsciously believed, I’d win my parents’ love and attention.

My memories, particularly around using food as a tool of control after my parents’ divorce, have been haunting me lately as I take on the reverse role: Now it’s me navigating being a single head of household and mother to two young children who, I know, are looking to me for stability as their notion of family, home, and community have shifted over the past year and a half. I’m worried for them and for me. I don’t want those patterns to play out again in yet another generation.

Sole-Smith is quick to empathize and also to normalize using food and eating as a means to grapple with a general sense of anxiety and loss of control in our families and culture at large. “It’s completely understandable that we’re all going there right now. But study after study has shown that perfectionism around food doesn’t work.”

“If you figure out a strategy that works out for you and your kids right now, they — and you —will be more relaxed and happy, and the food will get eaten.”

Which brings us back home, and into our daily lives, and the question of what, and how, to eat in the here and now.

Me? I’m about to file this piece and hit the freezer. It’s cool treat o’clock.