Author: Judy Scheel, Ph.D.

Food is Family

Reviving, restoring and creating new memories around food for those in recovery

You don’t have to be an eating disorder specialist to understand the significance of food.

Food plays a role in every physical, recreational and relational arena in life. Food is a representation of a family’s love and often becomes the battleground when a member develops an eating disorder.

A culture is defined by its food – its rituals, recipes, and social gatherings demonstrate how culture lives and breathes in every household.   family-meal

Food is pleasure. But, when a person has an eating disorder, pleasure is often replaced by dread, fear and shame.

Most people can connect food to their cultural experiences and childhood memories. Often, unfortunately, these experiences and memories are complicated for eating disorder sufferers who typically painfully recount family events that involve food. Tensions are often high regarding what and how much or little the sufferer has eaten; family functions turn in to stress filled and polarizing events. The joy and family connection through celebrations and rituals are lost to the eating disorder.

When working with patients in recovery, goals are to find new and pleasurable experiences around food and how to rekindle some aspects of cultural events or rituals involving food that can be fondly remembered and perhaps reinstated. Discovering food as a source of pleasure and creating new or happier memories involving food and family remain primary.

So, to that end…. or rather, beginning, in 2015, it is celebrating food in family, fun, adventure and pleasure that this blog post is written.

It is hoped that for all those suffering with an eating disorder that new experiences and future memories can be created that are fun and lasting despite the current struggle.

I realized that I could usually remember where I have been as a traveler when I think about a restaurant or meal I enjoyed with my family during our adventures. It is usually not the name of the particular village or town, for instance, in the Czech Republic, or Italy, or Peru that allows me to remember the sites I saw, but when I think about a delicious meal or pastry I ate, I can generally then remember the name of the town and then the historic or cultural sites visited. Food first; geography and history are distant second and third.

One such meal was in a restaurant built into a cave in the mountaintop Etruscan village of Orvieto, Italy. My children were little, and the adventure of the meal and its location were second to none…. copious quantities of bread, sweet tasting fish, wonderful bean and polenta dishes. My children were fussed over by the staff, eager to serve two enchanted children who thought, because of the cave, they were characters in Disney’s The Little Mermaid – priceless and memorable. Oh yeah, the Cathedral on the hill welcoming you in to Orvieto was beautiful, too!

I now maintain a home on a mountaintop in the northwest corner of North Carolina – five miles from Virginia – ten from Tennessee – Appalachia to be exact.

I naively (filled with fantasy?) went looking for an Italian market (Salumeria) in the neighboring towns and larger cities of the Appalachian Mountain range to make my family and wonderful friends an Italian lasagna (by an Italian girl from Brooklyn) this past Christmas Eve. I was hoping that if I found such a cheese shop, I would also find that the shop sold cannoli (ha!) the kind I remember that sat on the cash register counters of many Brooklyn cheese shops. I quickly came back down to reality. No such luck. My wish for these wondrous heritage treats and source of familial joy and cultural pride, were nowhere to be found.

Disappointed, I went to the supermarket and purchased the familiar hard, plastic like, packaged mozzarella and ricotta (brand shall be withheld, but truly they ALL taste the same – to me.)   I decided that I could accept domestic Italian ingredients for my lasagna as an alternate source of pleasure for my holiday spirit and remembrances.  Italian cultural food experiences here in Appalachia may exist, but were nowhere to be found by me.  I love biscuits and gravy, but not for an Italian Christmas Eve.

During the day, I prepared the lasagna – cutting up mozzarella, whipping the ricotta with egg, and making gravy.  I recounted to myself memories of childhood Christmases in Gravesend Brooklyn, including the yearly Nativity Pageant and play at my Catholic Grammar School, complete with singing elves  (where I would be in the choir – I was usually the littlest one in the grade.)  I thought about my neighborhood – Avenue U  – an Italian Mecca – replete with the sounds and smells of Brooklyn’s Italy – Mazola’s Coffee, Taverna’s Discount Shop (most presents were bought there, mostly cheap chachkies – the yiddish word for trinkets and collectables – and shower curtains, as I recall,) John’s Pizza, Carmella’s Restaurant, Avenue U Bread Shop (which sold only bread and bread products – including bread store baked Pizza,) and of course the pastry shop at the corner of Avenue U and West 6th Street where the sfogliatelle were remarkable…..crusty, golden flakes of wrapped pastry stuffed with baked ricotta cheese.

These memories made me happy.  They were independent of any and all family and relational dynamics or dysfunction. They were the memories that made me smile now and happy then.  Sometimes we don’t quite realize that while searching for foods or ingredients for a recipe or making a dish from our cultural or childhood roots that we are seeking something more meaningful or pleasurable than just a great meal. It was not the lasagna that was the motivation behind preparing it and extending the invitation to my friends.

Evening arrived. Friends came over – real ones. The kinds that are considerate, kind and not judgmental…the kinds that are owed more than will ever owe.

Though I write of the use of food as metaphor and replacement or representation of family in the life and mind of an eating disorder sufferer, sometimes family and friends are our food. Sometimes that which is most sustaining, most pleasurable comes out of the mouths of those we love and cherish around us. Sometimes sitting in the company of kind people makes life pleasurable. All of this happened around the lasagna, not because of it.

If there is one hope that I have maintained and continue to do so in my practice, it is that recovery is possible and that food can be experienced as one source of pleasure, not all, pleasure and certainly not to be feared either. Family and friends who are gracious, thoughtful, non-judgmental and kind make for a rich and pleasurable life. The funny thing is that although the joy and satisfaction was in the pleasure of the company, I will remember this event through the shopping for and preparation of the lasagna.

So, what’s the message? Food is an entry point, but it will never be the replacement for relationships or relational memories.

I wish for all those struggling with an eating disorder to know that beautiful and rich experiences and adventures around food and eating are possible. Food and family can and will be filled again with joyful memories. The comfort that comes with relationships will replace the unreliable and unsatisfying obsession with food and destructive symptoms of an eating disorder.  Hang in there.


Judy Scheel


Talking About Sex with Your Children: Who Is Uncomfortable?

Parent’s sensibility and comfort level go a long way in sex talks with children.

A friend recounted a story about her then eight-year-old daughter who from the back seat of the car blurted out, “Mommy, what’s an orgasm?”

My friend paused in disbelief, but gave some thought to the situation and replied with a question, “What do you think an orgasm means?”  Her daughter Mother-and-daughter-talkingresponded that her teacher drew a picture of it on the blackboard and it looked like a creature from under the sea.   Ahh, my friend thought and then queried, “Oh, you mean an organism?”  “Yes, mommy,” she replied. “What is an organism?”

I laughed along with her at the story and thought about how we explore, communicate, and teach children about anything, especially when it comes to discussions about sex.

I recounted the story and put the question, for the purpose of this blog, to my colleagues and friends. “What would you say if your eight-year-old child asked you what an orgasm was?”  The responses varied.

One research colleague stated that she would begin to explain, from an elementary science school perspective, the physiological responses of the body and the release of hormones and stimulation in response to touch.

One friend said she would ask, “What does orgasm mean to you?” And go from there.

A long-time friend in the financial industry said that he would change the subject and if pressed further would say, “Let’s wait until we get home so we can talk about it together,” with the hope that his child would forget.

Another said he would ask, “How did you hear about that word?” And, “Who told you about it?”

Another clinical colleague said she would enthusiastically state that it is the way to feel wonderful pleasure and something special which is shared between two people who love each other.

One high school teacher friend said that it would be time to get a book on discussing sex with your child.

Another friend and colleague said that she would say that it is wonderful tingly feeling inside your body that happens and grows stronger throughout life.   One friend said that she would go further and say that the tingly feeling is in your penis and vagina that gets better and better as you get older.

There was no shortage of reflective and thoughtful reactions, and all seemed plausible. Most experts agree that communication about sex ought to start when a child is very young and continue through early adulthood and beyond, into the communication of their own adult relationships.*

The Language of Sex

Just like learning to identify emotions and associate them to words, sex is also a language. Using words to identify body parts and sensations can start at a very young age as children learn to speak and associate words.  Pointing to a fork and stating, “This is a fork” to your one-year-old is similar to stating the word penis or vagina as your child is fondling their genitals as you are changing a diaper. Think about how easy it is to talk to a young child about table manners or sharing or teaching them grammar and vocabulary. If there is comfort about the subject matter, then talking is easy.  Sex is just another subject matter.

The same principles that guide healthy psychological upbringing guide healthy sexual upbringing. Setting appropriate boundaries regarding privacy, like knocking on your child’s door and waiting for “come in,” is akin to setting appropriate boundaries with respect to body and touch. For instance, when is it appropriate to cuddle in bed with your child and when is it an invasion of your child’s privacy?   When is allowing your child to sleep in your bed due to a scary dream appropriate versus a means to foster inappropriate dependency or avoid intimacy with the adult partner? Why masturbation is normal and healthy, yet needs to occur alone and in a private place.

Some parents have tighter rules than others across many arenas, including sex. Determining boundaries about what is best to say, when to say it and how to behave in front of your child takes understanding of what makes sense for the chronological age and psychological maturity of the child.  The comfort level and sensibility of the parent matters as well and will affect approach and outcome.

However, parents can and often do rationalize the decisions they make.  For instance, some parents take a liberal view when it comes to nudity.  The most common occurrence is when parents assert that there is nothing wrong, harmful, or shameful about walking around naked in front of their child. Yes, nudity is normal, but complicated when it occurs by an adult in the company of their child. Sometimes nudity is unavoidable when it is accidental or the family is in close quarters like a shared hotel room.  My analytic stance tends toward encouraging parents to make every reasonable effort to cover up even when a child is very young.   Children’s fantasies about sex and falling in love with mommy and/or daddy are real.  Some things are best left to fantasy and imagination.  When in doubt, conservatism in behavior is often wiser.

So why do many parents hesitate to discuss sex with their children?

Generally, children do not hesitate to ask questions.   My friend’s daughter had no hesitancy in asking about what an “orgasm” was.  My friend was comfortable in her response, although acknowledged that she was relieved that the definition of organism, not orgasm, was what her child sought.

Sexuality and sex education start at birth.  How a child is held as an infant translates to the adult need for affection, comfort, and soothing.  A parent’s comfort with masturbation will normalize how the parent talks to their child which affects how their child grows to feel about sexual touch and self-pleasure.  How a parent feels about their own body and sex will impact the nonverbal messages they convey as well as how they approach the topic with their child.

Parents’ ability to talk comfortably about sex is usually dependent upon how they learned about sex and their relational and cultural/religious morals and values about it.  My friends and colleagues, when asked about how they might respond to an eight-year-old child about an orgasm, seemed to vary based largely on their own attitudes and comfort level.  What was most apparent and paramount was that not one person’s answer was shaming or critical of the child.  Doing no harm goes further than the need to get the right answer.

Parents often project their own discomfort, fears, shame, on to their child.  So, if the parent is uncomfortable they assume that their child is also. Sometimes because the parent is uncomfortable the child becomes uncomfortable in response to the parent’s uneasiness. If there is no communication about sex in the household it is reasonable for the child to grow up feeling that something must be wrong or bad about the subject. Guilt ensues quickly as the thinking is often, “How can something that feels so good not be talked about.” Therefore, sex and/or masturbation must be REALLY bad.

Simple recommendations when approaching talk about sex with your child:

  • Respond to the maturity level of your child.
  • Avoid criticism, shock, or shaming your child, no matter what question or comment comes at you.
  • Your answers don’t need to be perfect, just honest.
  • Remember what it was like to be a child, especially when you were going through your own sexual awareness and awakening. Don’t lose the empathy.
  • Find ways to get comfortable. Read. Talk with friends who are comfortable about sex and ask how they handle sexual topics with their child.
  • Try not to take the subject matter so seriously; remember sex is just a conversation like many others.

Most parents find their way with talking about sex and eventually children grow up and figure sex out; some have more complications than others.

Keep in mind that there are always resources available to help those who seek help.  If books and the internet are not enough, seek professional help with a child or sex therapist or sex educator.  If you discover that you know what to say to your child, but feel uncomfortable in saying it, then consider that you may first need some help in working through some of your own sexual issues.


* R. Gornto, “How and When to Talk Your Kids About Sex.” Psychology Today. October 5, 2016.
L. Kneteman. “How to talk to your kids about sex: An age-by-age guide Talking to your kid about sex can be daunting.” Today’s Parent. Sep. 24, 2018