Virginia Sole-Smith, THE EATING INSTINCT: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America

Virginia Sole-Smith, THE EATING INSTINCT: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America

I’m here today with Virginia Sole-Smith, who is the author of the book The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, which is her first book. She is a cohost of “The Comfort Food Podcast” and is a contributing editor at Parents Magazine. Her work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Self, Real Simple, Newsweek, Harper’s, and Elle. She currently lives with her husband and two daughters in the Hudson Valley.

Welcome, Virginia. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Virginia Sole-Smith: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: Of course. We’ve been chatting before recording. I kept being like, “Save that for the podcast.” Now, we can finally talk. She had such good stuff to say.

Virginia: I hope I remember it all now.

Zibby: The first sentence of your book is “September 17th, 2013. It is the day before my daughter Violet’s one-month birthday. It is also the first day that she will almost die.” You go on from there to narrate this horrifying, traumatic experience that you went through with your daughter Violet, the beginning of her life, the aftereffects. Can you briefly tell listeners what happened to her?

Virginia: During my pregnancy with Violet, I, like every first-time mom, thought I was doing everything perfectly. I was trying really hard to eat all the right things, do all the prenatal yoga, the acupuncture. I really felt like building a perfect baby was all on me and my choices. Then when she was born, the delivery was normal. She seemed really healthy at birth. They sent us home saying, “Go to it. Here’s your newborn.” In the first few weeks of her life, I was breastfeeding. It was really hard and exhausting. Again, I was thinking this is what it is. I am feeding her with my body. We are doing the thing. Then the breastfeeding sessions started to get shorter and shorter. We went from those forty-five minute per side kind of sessions to twenty minutes to twelve minutes to six minutes. To be honest with you, I just thought thank god it’s getting easier. I can take a shower. This is good. I have an easy baby. That’s not what was happening.

What was actually happening was Violet was born with a rare set of congenital heart defects. In the first month of her life, she was going into heart failure. When the feeding sessions were getting shorter, it wasn’t because she was eating enough quickly. It was because she was in heart failure. She was struggling to breathe, and she was starving. Nobody around me could tell. We were at the pediatrician’s office for the two-week checkup. Things looked fine. It was in the next two weeks — they give you a two-week window — that everything really fell apart. On that day that I talk about in the book, she plummeted really rapidly. Your blood oxygen level is supposed to be a hundred percent. By the time we got to the pediatrician’s office that morning, she was at about seventy percent. By the end of the day, she was below twenty percent. It all happened really, really, really fast. It was, yes of course, hugely traumatic.

The weird thing about the whole experience, one of so many weird things, was that whole day I was thinking, gosh, I should be feeding her. Is this hospital that we’re sitting in, this emergency room, are they not very breastfeeding friendly? What’s going on here? Of course, it was because she was nearly dying and they were trying to save her life. It didn’t make sense to stop to feed her. What I didn’t know was that morning was actually the last time I would feed her. The trauma that she experienced that day, necessary trauma, life-saving trauma, the result is she completely shut down. Eating had become too hard in those early weeks. She’d learned to associate it with all fear and badness. She stopped eating. She was dependent on a feeding tube for the better part of the next two years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You detailed so beautifully in the book all the ins and outs of the medical issues and traumas. At one point, I wrote, “OMG” in the sidelines — oh, my gosh, I’m looking at too many football helmets here — the margins of your book because I just couldn’t believe after you would get through one scare, then something else terrible would happen. It’s hard enough to be a new mom with a well child. Having to go through this, my heart was just breaking for you.

Virginia: Really, I learned to be a mom and to be a medical mom at the same time. Those things are really intertwined for me. Now that I have a second child who is typically developing and hasn’t gone through any of that, I realize almost after the fact how strange that all is, to have those things forged. The heart condition is this big, complicated thing where —

Zibby: — Is there any history? Do you have any idea where it came from?

Virginia: No.

Zibby: Just totally random fluke or whatever?

Virginia: It is a random genetic mutation fluke. They have no explanation. No one in our family. I had a completely healthy pregnancy. I had a healthy delivery. There were no red flags. That’s what’s really scary. What I do tell parents is there is a screening test that they should do on newborns in the hospital now. If she had that test done, she wouldn’t have passed it. We probably would’ve been fast-tracked into the ICU the day she was born. It’s called the pulse oximeter check test.

Zibby: Say it again slower.

Virginia: The pulse oximeter test. If you’re a new, expecting parent or a grandparent-to-be, make sure they do that test on your newborn. She still would’ve had the heart condition, but we wouldn’t have had the scary, day-she-almost-died situation. She would’ve been stabilized sooner. For whatever reason, our hospital neglected to do it, which is a separate issue. This whole experience of having a medically fragile baby and learning how to parent during that time, again, what I kept coming back to as her mom was this desire to want to feed her. That’s so fundamental to the human existence. That’s the first thing babies do within a few hours of life. They breastfeed or they bottle feed. This is how we bond with our infants.

We have all kinds of research on this. We know that when babies are eating and it’s going well, their heart rates slow down. Their rates of oxytocin and the feel-good hormones rise. Parents, when we’re feeding our babies, we experience all these same benefits. It’s really how we bond with our children and how we fall in love. Suddenly, I didn’t have that. The heart thing was complicated and hard to navigate and its own journey, but not being able to feed my baby was the true heartbreak for me day in and day out in that year. I had to figure out all different ways to bond with her, which I did. We’re extremely close. She’s five years old now and really healthy. It really brought home to me how fundamental and crucial eating is to our happiness as humans and how when it goes wrong, nothing else works. When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.

Zibby: I had twins first, who are almost twelve now. My daughter had an allergy to my milk, so I had to stop nursing her before my son. For a month, I was still nursing him. Then I would have someone else feed her at the same time, like my mother or my husband, baby nurse, or whatever. After a couple weeks, she wouldn’t go to me anymore because I was only breastfeeding my other son. Then I decided I would just scrap the whole thing. It is some sort of, “This is what I’m here for. Am I still her mom?”

Virginia: Right, and these huge feelings of failure. A lot of that, what we have to recognize is biologically, our bodies are made to do this thing. There’s also all this cultural conditioning around it, these expectations we put on ourselves. That’s what I was really wrestling with during that first pregnancy when I thought I could do it all perfectly. That’s not biology. That’s culture telling me I have to be a certain kind of mom. There’s a lot of messages we get about the kind of mom we need to be with food and our kids. It starts with breastfeeding. Then it goes right on to what are you packing in the lunch boxes? How many vegetables are they eating? Do they love kale smoothies? Probably not.

Zibby: Not my kids.

Virginia: Not many kids. That was really what led me to write the book. I had this strange, surreal experience where I was pushed so far outside the normal paradigm of how we relate to food. We had to tiptoe our way back in, figure out how to get back there with her. I realized I don’t want all that back. I don’t want those negative cultural messages. I don’t want to be holding myself to unrealistic standards. The more I talked to other moms and other women, I realized a lot of people are struggling with that in different ways. A lot of people are struggling to feel safe around food, for themselves or with their children. That’s a conversation that we really need to be having.

Zibby: That’s so true. How did you deal yourself, not just dealing with the medical crisis aspect of the whole situation, but you? It’s hard enough for moms to have self-care and all that other stuff. How did you literally deal with yourself? How did you take care of yourself? How did you get through it? Did you cry? Were you sleeping?

Virginia: Did I take care of myself? is a question.

Zibby: How are the ways you saw it affecting you? Not to pry or anything.

Virginia: No, it’s fine. It’s important to talk about because we don’t have a good roadmap for dealing with trauma and particularly trauma with parenting. A lot of me coping didn’t look like super great coping. I remember when she was in the hospital in the beginning, people were always saying to me, “Go take a walk. Get some fresh air.” I wanted to punch them in the throat because I could not leave my baby. Every time I left the hospital room, I was worried she wouldn’t still be there when I got back. These suggestions to run down to the cafeteria and get a nice salad, that’s not what I need. I need you to bring me food so I can continue to sit here. No, I don’t want to drink more water. If I have to drink more water, then I have to pee and I have to leave again. I don’t want to leave. That, on paper, didn’t look like people were worried about me, like, “Virginia won’t leave the room,” but that was what I needed to be doing. I was where I needed to be.

Then as she became more stable, we could branch out and find other coping. To be honest, I did a lot of online shopping that year because I wasn’t sleeping. A little three AM retail therapy helped. Also, I work with a therapist. I still work with a therapist. That was a huge part of my support plan. I have my best friends, who are all moms themselves, on a group text who I could text from the hospital, from any of these moments at any time and get support. My husband and I, we were figuring out how to support each other, which sometimes also looked like saying, “You know what? You need to be taking care of yourself. I need to be taking care of myself. We’re going to give each other that space to do that,” but also knowing that of course he was the only other person who was feeling all this the way I was feeling it.

Zibby: What was it like? Violet, you said that she was throwing up four to seven times every day? You and your husband were trying to deal. Talk to me about that. Tell me, tell me.

Virginia: Initially, she was in the hospital for a month following that first day I talked about where she had, first, an emergency surgery and then an open-heart surgery. Then she was medically stable but still dependent on the feeding tube. They said, “You can take her home, but you have to take the feeding tube with you.” At that point, we went home, but we were basically running a hospital out of our house because we were managing this feeding tube. Feeding tubes, they sound like this neat and easy solution. They are really difficult to live with. In Violet’s case, they triggered a lot of vomiting because they kind of hold your stomach open all the time. It’s tough on a baby’s anatomy. At that point, it was a tube that threaded down her nose, down the back of her throat. The baby, they have little hands and they’re going to rip at this tube on their face all the time. It would come out. We would have to replace it, which is a really stressful and traumatic thing to have to do to your child.

We still talk about those months as being the darkest time of our life. Everyone around us was saying, “You must be so glad to be out of the hospital. Isn’t this so great?” We’re sleeping in shifts. She’s so sick. We’re afraid to do anything. We were both still off work. We were really fortunate my husband’s job, everyone donated a lot of vacation time to him so he could take a lot of time off as well. We could trade it off between the two of us really well. It definitely underscored to me how much we need better support systems for families in trauma in this country, better maternity leaves and paternity leaves, better ways. We were relying heavily on our extended families to help and come in and take shifts with her when we needed to start getting back to work. It was a mess for a long time.

Zibby: If I have a friend who’s going through something like this, because you said how helpful your friends were, what was most helpful to you that a friend or a colleague or something did to help out while you were going through this?

Virginia: People did such amazing stuff. There were definitely people who I could tell wanted to be there and just didn’t know how or what to do. They freeze up and they don’t do anything. That’s what not to do. You’re worried you’re going to be imposing or too much. There are times where that can happen. If you can do something small but concrete like send food or clean their house, send a cleaning service to their house to take care of that — we had friends who went and shoveled our driveway for us because one time we were in the hospital during snow storms. They knew our driveway was snowed in, so they just went over and dealt with it. We didn’t have to think about that. Helping take care of the nuts and bolts of life just like you would for any friend with a newborn is really, really useful.

Definitely one of my favorite things, an old friend from high school who we really weren’t even in very close touch with, but she’d followed things I was posting about it, she sent us a care package in the hospital that was breakfast. Breakfast food in hospitals is particularly terrible. She made these really amazing muffins and sent some shelf-stable milk and homemade granola. That was so lovely to have a delicious, nourishing breakfast versus the sad Egg McMuffin I could get in the hospital cafeteria. That was a really wonderful one.

Another thing a really good friend did, a coworker of mine, she knew that especially in that first year when I was still pumping, because we were trying to still have some breastmilk, I was spending all this time either dealing with the feeding pump breaking down at three AM or being awake and trying to pump breastmilk myself at three AM. I had talked about being awake too much and having all this annoying time to fill. She sent me a $100 iTunes gift certificate so I could get whatever binge-watching shows I wanted. Then later she was like, “Here are all my passwords to all of my streaming networks. Just log on anytime you want.” We were in the hospital. We didn’t have HBO. You really need some good, mindless entertainment. If you can send some not very challenging novel that they might enjoy reading, crossword puzzles were really big. People sent those.

If someone’s really sitting vigil in the hospital, they need some touches of comfort and home and also just to feel cared for. That won’t be intrusive. You’ll be taking care of a basic need. Extension cords are also a great thing to send to someone in the hospital. There are never enough outlets to charge your cell phones in a hospital room. Those are some little things that, if you haven’t been through it, you wouldn’t think of. They can make a big difference. They’re so small, but so helpful.

Zibby: I’m going to send a friend an extension cord. They’re going to be like, what?

Virginia: They won’t, though. They’ll be like, oh, thank gosh, especially on the weekends when family would come visit and everyone would be like, “Can I charge my phone?” What am I, your Best Buy? No. We have one outlet in this room that’s not dedicated to medical equipment. We’re doing the best we can here. Extension cord is really helpful, hand lotion too because you’re using hand sanitizer constantly. Your hands get really dried out.

Zibby: Excellent. Did you ever write an article about this?

Virginia: I might have done a blog post. I can try to find it and send it to you. Oh, I did write for Parents Magazine. I’m a contributing editor at Parents. We did a feature on how to survive a hospital stay with your kids. We did talk about this stuff.

Zibby: Okay, good. Then you’re doing all you need to do.

Virginia: Thank you.

Zibby: You don’t have an assignment from me today. You have this whole section of the book about your own journey. I could not tear away from the page, as any person but particularly as a mom. Then you paired that with a lot of research. You must have spent so long. You have so many interviews and research studies. First of all, how long did that all take you? How did you go about doing all of that work? It seems like it must have been a while.

Virginia: The thing about this book that’s interesting is I think I was writing it for a long time before I was writing it and before I knew I was writing it. To backtrack a little bit, even before Violet, I was a journalist. I was writing mostly for women’s magazines. I was writing a lot about how women relate to food and then later starting to write about parenting and how we relate to food and kids. Especially when I was writing for the women’s magazines — this was back in the early 2000s — I was writing a lot of diet stories and how to get your bikini body and all of that. I was hating it and hating myself a little bit. I didn’t love this message of we should always be making our bodies smaller. I didn’t think that was particularly helpful. I could also see it wasn’t working. People were always telling me, “I tried that diet. I lasted two weeks.” It doesn’t work. The research is very clear on that. Dieting doesn’t work long-term. I was always interviewing these obesity researchers or nutritionists. I was searching a for a long time. I just need to find the right plan. There’s got to be one diet out there that makes you thin but isn’t miserable. You can still eat carbs. It’ll be this lovely, sane way to eat. All the pieces will fall into place. Now, I know that unicorn absolutely does not exist. I was really searching for it. I was accumulating a lot of research on things like detoxing and clean eating, all the different food trends as they came along and becoming increasingly critical of it.

Then like I said, it really was this experience with Violet where I had thought I was doing everything by the book. I thought I was following the rules about how to eat during pregnancy to ensure I had a healthy baby. Then that didn’t happen. That’s when I realized there aren’t any rules. There isn’t a plan here. There’s nobody who can tell you the perfect way to eat to ensure perfect health for your children, to ensure you stay the perfect size jeans you always want to be. This is not how it works. In fact, what I’d seen with Violet was in the first few weeks of her life, eating did work. She was born with all this knowledge about how to eat. She had all these instincts. Then it was this outside trauma, it was this outside thing that derailed all of that. That’s where her story really becomes a metaphor for the whole book. That’s what’s happening to so many of us with food. We are searching for this plan. We’re trying to follow this external set of rules, but we can’t sync them up with what our bodies are really telling us they need. That disconnect is what’s so hard to navigate. When I started thinking about it more broadly as a book, I was able to go back to a lot of reporting I had done in the past but look at it with a more critical lens. I had this knowledge base to fall back on in a way.

Zibby: You had written that other article, “When Your Baby Won’t Eat.”

Virginia: That was the kicking-off point for the book. I wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazinein 2016 telling Violet’s story and talking about our journey to help her trust food again. It was the response to that article that made me realize there was a bigger book. I had all these people emailing me. Of course I heard from other feeding-tube families. Then I also heard from people saying, “This sounds familiar. I don’t trust food. I don’t feel safe around food.” There were all these parallels with how people respond to diet culture that made me want to really explore that deeper. Then I just started collecting pretty much anyone I met, asking them about their relationship with food to the degree that didn’t freak them out, but also thinking about these different problems people were telling me about or things I was interested in and following threads of different ways of having a problem with eating.

There was some I knew. I knew I wanted a chapter on learning to eat again after bariatric surgery. I knew I wanted to talk more about picky eating and kids because that’s such a dominant thing that parents are dealing with. Then other things surprised me. The chapter on avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder, I didn’t know very much about that condition. It suddenly seemed like it was such a big piece of this. I wrote The Times piece in 2016. I really spent most of 2017, it was about a year. I can actually date it pretty exactly because I got pregnant with my second daughter right as I was diving into book research, which was a questionable planning choice. I filed the manuscript two weeks before she was born. I was right on the line. Who’s going to come first? Book or baby? That was doing a lot of researching, travelling to meet with people, sit in kitchens, learn about food, but also talking to researchers as well. It was a mix.

Zibby: That’s amazing. In the introduction, you actually had talked about what you were saying just now about the eating trends and the diets. You also talk about your own struggle with eating. At the end you said, “But I am not always at peace with my body. After all, I’ve never met anyone who really is.” After talking to all these different people, do you still feel that way? Do you still feel like nobody has found the happy balance?

Virginia: I don’t. I’m actually a lot more at peace with my body since I wrote that chapter and since writing the book. This process taught me a lot. Actually, the process of talking about the book with people since then, talking to different audiences about the book and seeing what resonates with people, has taught me a lot more. No, am I every single day of the year waking up, putting on my jeans, and thinking, “Gosh, this is great. I’m exactly where I want to be body-wise”? You can’t. There’s so many messages heaped on us all the time. Doing this research helped me start to identify them in different ways. I can spot diet culture in its tracks now.

Before, and what I think is very common for a lot of women, is you have this belief about yourself and food. I can’t control myself around brownies. I can’t eat dairy, whatever it is. We have these stories that we’ve really bought into about ourselves and food. Sometimes, there’s a medical basis. I’m not saying everyone in the world can eat dairy. Often, it’s more of a “because it’ll make me fat,” is the end of that sentence. We don’t always reckon with those limiting beliefs. In the process of researching the book, I did have to take every one of mine on pretty head-on and tackle it. That really helped me let go of a lot of them. I’m much more comfortable with the fact that my adult body is not the skinny body I had as a child that I thought was going to grow up to be. I’m comfortable with the fact that I look like I’ve had two kids because I’m pretty proud of that. All of that is stuff that I feel really good about now. When I first became a mom, I was still really struggling with all of that, for sure.

Zibby: I could talk for the next ten hours straight about my history with dieting and food and all of my stuff. I’ll tell you the one thing, surprisingly, in the last couple months that has made me be giving up the fight, the struggle, I took this DNA, 23andMe, test. You can go through and at the end it says for other people with your ancestry and DNA and whatever, this is the average weight that they are. It was exactly my weight now, not the weight I necessarily want to be, but the weight that my body seems to want to be at. You know what? F it. Here I am.

Virginia: That’s fascinating because the research shows over and over how much weight is controlled by genetics. We aren’t very comfortable with that knowledge because it means that we should give up the dieting fight. This whole “it’s about willpower” myth we’ve been sold, it’s not. Sure, we have a range that we can all move around in to some extent, but it’s narrower than a lot of us like to think. The weight that you’re genetically determined to be at may not be what diet culture tells you, but it’s the right place for your body. That’s so freeing.

Zibby: Although, I eat dessert every single day without fail.

Virginia: That means you’re at the right weight because you can eat dessert every single day. This is the weight you can be at and live a happy life.

Zibby: When I was younger and I was always trying to be thinner than I ever would have gotten to be, I would always be like, why can’t I be one of these people who eats everything they want and not gain weight? Now, I’ve realized I can. It’s just I have to be this weight.

Virginia: Exactly. That’s so important, though. It’s so interesting. We can all be that person. You just have to be comfortable with the weight it’s going to put you at.

Zibby: I eat very healthy most of the time, aside from my sweets. I feel like as long as you’re eating well for your body, protein and vegetables, and you’re not at risk for all these diseases and whatever, but within the obsessive —

Virginia: — Yes, that’s the problem. For most of us, that “ideal weight” we have in our head, it has nothing to do with health. It has nothing to do with disease risk. It’s a completely manufactured thing. That’s what we need to let go of.

Zibby: It’s also a lot of stress that I don’t have time for. I just took a side and threw it out the window. If I don’t spend every time I get dressed thinking, “When I am going to get back into those jeans?” —

Virginia: — Just get rid of those jeans.

Zibby: I just got rid of them all. This is amazing. Now, I have two pairs of jeans, but they both fit. Turns out, I hate wearing jeans.

Virginia: It’s a ton of mental space you get back. It’s a ton of it.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to take over this podcast.

Virginia: No, that’s fine. I love hearing about that. I love hearing about people’s stuff with food. It’s why I wrote the book.

Zibby: I was a Weight Watchers leader. I have so much I could tell. I’m going to just put myself on pause. One other thing, you mentioned in the book that research on eating disorder patients suggests that — this is related to parenting your kids to make sure they end up with healthy eating habits — it suggests that highly pressurized mealtimes early in life might play a role in the development of these conditions. I feel like I overcompensate by not making my mealtime so stressful. Then my son wanders around and eats Goldfish instead. That’s not right, literally.

Virginia: We’re in that journey with my eighteen-month-old right now. I feel you.

Zibby: I want to know how much pressure do you think, or did you find in your research, is too much pressure? How much is necessary to make sure they eat enough, that they’re going to actually sleep that night, and that they’re getting proteins and vegetables, and that they’re not going to be constipated, and all the other stuff you have to watch out for? Where’s the line? Does it say? Where’s the manual?

Virginia: There is something of a manual that I’ve found. There’s not really a manual, of course, with all things parenting. I think what it is, is we’re putting pressure on the wrong things. Parents feel like we need to be in charge of what our kids eat down to “Three bites of broccoli before you can have your cookie,” or “You’ve had too much pasta. Now, you need to eat this.” We feel like we need to micromanage their plates. It doesn’t always come across as the type of truly onerous pressure that I would worry would necessarily put that kid — I should also note with eating disorders, there’s a strong genetic component as well. It’s not to say every high-pressure meal situation is going to put a kid on track to an eating disorder. If you have vulnerabilities to that, these things do play a role. People who have eating disorders can often date them back to a particularly traumatic food experience. It’s worth thinking about.

The thing is even if it’s the more benign pressure, even if it’s just comments at a birthday party of “Oh, my god. You guys have had so much sugar. You’re going to be crazy tonight,” or “You keep coming back here eating all the brownies. You’re not leaving any for your friends,” those kinds of comments really undermine a kid’s confidence in their own body. What we need to be doing instead of trying to police them bite by bite or food group by food group, what I’m trying to teach my kids and what the research is showing me is a useful tool to try to teach our kids, is to listen to their bodies. When I say teach them, I actually mean just get out of their way. They’re born knowing to do that. Kids are born knowing when they’re hungry. They know when they’re full. They know that food is supposed to be comforting. Those are the three core eating instincts we all have. Those get disrupted over time by, in Violet’s case, overly intense traumatic experience. For all of us, slowly social-messaging culture, diet culture, all this stuff chips away at it. Some of that’s normal. The way a newborn eats like seventy-five times a day is not how a three-year-old can eat. We have to socialize them to a mealtime schedule, to learning to eat at the table, and not wander around with the Goldfish, which again, I hear you. It’s something we’re working out at my house right now.

We have to, over time, teach them etiquette and schedule and general mealtime practices. We don’t have to teach them how to feel hunger. We don’t have to teach them how to feel fullness because they know that. Any time we talk to them about that, we’re actually making it harder for them to hear their own bodies. That’s where parents can back off. We don’t have to be in charge of our child’s hunger. We also don’t have to be in charge of our child’s weight. That is a even harder one to let go of. Parents feel like, “Oh, my gosh. My child is in a bigger body.” If they’re really underweight, “It’s all my fault. I’ve screwed something up,” when kids grow in all different ways. Growth charts are really complicated. It’s normal for kids to go through a stalkier phase right before puberty. Then they lean out. There’s all these things that happen with kids’ growth that are beyond our control. You sitting there and counting out bites of food or otherwise having a really involved relationship with their plate in that way, you’re not actually impacting any of that. You’re just stressing out your kid with food and making it harder for them to trust themselves. That’s the kind of pressure, again, it can be very well-intentioned. It’s almost always really well-intentioned. We love our kids. We want them to be healthy, but we’re going after the wrong things.

Some things I’ve learned to do instead when my daughter has one of those meals where she’s basically eaten carpet lint and a couple of blueberries and you’re like “What?” I say to her, “Does your tummy feel full ‘til breakfast? It’s dinner time now. There’s not going to be any more food until breakfast.” Sometimes she’ll say, “Yup. I’m good.” I don’t understand that, but okay. Other times she’s like, “Oh, my tummy needs three more bites.” She’ll come back and eat a little more. If then an hour after dinner when we’re getting ready for bed, then she does the “But I’m so hungry,” I always have the same response, which is, “You can have a banana, or you can be hungry for breakfast.” Then you can really suss out, if she’s really hungry, she’ll eat the banana. That’ll fill her up and tide her over. It doesn’t have to be a banana. I just pick that because it’s a food that my kids like, but they’re not going to sabotage dinner —

Zibby: — Banana sales spike in New York City.

Virginia: I just use a banana because kids like it, but they don’t crazy for it. You know they’re not going to skip dinner to get the banana. Nobody’s ever coveted that that dramatically. Any kind of food that feels filling to you and will take the guilt off of “Oh, god. They want to bed without dinner,” if they’re hungry, they’ll eat it. If they’re not hungry, they’ll starting whining and saying, “No, I want something else.” Then you know it’s more about wanting your attention, wanting another bedtime story. It’s not really hunger you’re dealing with. You can say to them, “This isn’t really hunger. We need to talk about hunger clearly because it’s really important to be clear on when our body is hungry.” Then you can just let them go to bed not having eaten that much. They’ll be fine. They’ll eat a bigger breakfast tomorrow. They’ll make up for it.

On the flip side, if you have a kid who fixates on foods, let’s talk about the kid who — maybe they’re in a bigger body, maybe they’re not — they’re just one of those kids who’s never left the table without clearing their plate and eats bigger. Similarly there, you have to say, “I’m trusting you to listen to your hunger. If you’re really hungry for more, of course you can have more.” You can talk about portions in a, “This is the cake we’re all sharing for someone’s birthday. Let’s make sure everyone has a piece before we go back before seconds.” That’s manners. That’s not portion control. That’s a polite way to talk about it. You don’t comment when they eat way more than you feel like they should be hungry for because you don’t know. You’re not in their growth spurt. You’re not in their brain. You can step back and trust them to know the how much and even the whether or not to eat a food. You’re in charge of what foods you offer.

Zibby: Wow. That was so helpful. I’m serious.

Virginia: I’m glad. I didn’t invent that method. I should note it’s rooted in a philosophy called the division of responsibility in feeding, which was created by a feeding therapist named Ellyn Satter. I always make sure to mention that because she’s come up with that, “You’re in charge of what the kids are in charge of,” which I find super, super helpful. She has lots of good books that I recommend people check out. I’ve looked at it in my own family’s life and then in reporting on this with other families.

Zibby: Now, it’s working?

Virginia: It’s working beautifully. My kids are five and a half and eighteen months. My five-year-old is Violet, who has gone through this whole journey. She still is a more cautious eater. She probably always will be. My younger is a more ravenous, eats-everything kid. People will say, “Are they good eaters?” That’s the question you always get asked. I hate that question because right there, we’re putting judgement in it. We’re putting some sort of value on this kid if they’re a good eater. What I always say is, “They’re really good at listening to their bodies.” It looks different meal to meal. It looks different kid to kid. They’re listening to their bodies. That’s very cool.

Zibby: I want to mention, quickly, your podcast. Tell me a little more about your podcast.

Virginia: More of all of this feeding stuff, especially if you’re a parent, a mom in particular, I cohost a podcast called “The Comfort Food Podcast.” I host it with my best friend Amy Palanjian, who is the creator of the very popular food blog Yummy Toddler Food. Toddlers are when food goes off the rails for a lot of kids. A lot of babies eat everything when they first start solids, not all babies, but there’s a common trajectory where babies kind of eat everything. Then they hit eighteen months and they suddenly start rejecting food all over the map. Parents freak out. They don’t understand where all this pickiness came from.

It’s actually developmentally totally appropriate for toddlers to go through that phase. It lasts ‘til they’re like seven, so it’s a long journey you’re on where they’re naturally more cautious. They’re developing more independence and more opinions. It’s part of their whole thing. How you handle that can really determine whether you end up with a long-time picky eater or a kid who eases back out of it. She’s a great resource for all of that. The podcast, Amy brings more of the practical, what-to-do-about-dinner-tonight tips. I do more of this diet culture analysis and really looking at how diet culture is impacting how we feed our kids. We call it the podcast about the joys and meltdowns of feeding our families and ourselves. We look at it from all sides. It’s a lot of fun.

Zibby: I’m totally going to start listening to this podcast. I don’t know how I didn’t know about it. Now, I’m in. Any advice to aspiring writers, having just published this fantastic book?

Virginia: Writing as much as you can and reading as much as you can are really the cores of how to learn to be a writer. The reading piece of it sometimes gets forgotten. I see a lot of people blogging and putting a lot of content out there. That’s great, but you really learn to be a good writer by reading a ton, both books like what you hope to be writing but also — I actually read a ton of fiction. I read more fiction than I read nonfiction. I definitely read lots of nonfiction. When I’m researching a book, I read a lot of nonfiction related to that. At my core, I’m a fiction reader. That’s where you learn storytelling. That’s why as a writer, even though I’m a nonfiction writer, I’m drawn to people’s stories. In this case, they’re stories with food. That’s what grounds us. It gets easier. It’s hard to talk about any complex social issue like food and diet culture in the broad sense. When we make it about this individual person — Gina in the book who had weight-loss surgery in order to have a child, someone else in the book who only eats six foods and went to prison and had to figure out how to manage that food fear during prison — that’s how you really connect. For me, reading tons of fiction has made me a much better writer.

Zibby: Thank you so much. This was a little parenting counseling for me today. Thank you.

Virginia: I loved it. Thanks so much for having me.

Virginia Sole-Smith, THE EATING INSTINCT