Tu Salud: Food memories can lead to healthy choices

Our relationship with food is complicated and can reflect our deepest emotions and experiences. By being more aware of our relationship to food, including understanding of how food evokes memories and associations with people and places, we can begin to develop healthier habits.

This absolutely doesn’t mean we give up all of the perhaps less healthy foods we may have craved since childhood, but it means we acknowledge the role food plays in our daily journey, the impact of our past experiences with food, and the associations food creates for us.

These strong associations can be to people, seasons in our lives and even sometimes traumatic.

Food is both necessary and powerful, as we use nearly all of our senses to consume it, including smell, sight, taste, touch, hearing and memory.

I think we all have those foods that we associate with strong memories and emotions, usually positive or at least nostalgic. Other foods may repulse us because of experiences they are associated with.

I was curious about other people’s food memories, so I spoke with some friends and colleagues about the foods that come to mind when they think of their childhood. They all mentioned foods they now consider to be unhealthy or are not part of their daily menu, but admitted when they do come across these foods, they evoke strong emotions, memories and feelings. Maribel Sifuentes, now a mother of young children herself, remembers the smells of her mom cooking up a good guiso, with a base of Spam, tossed in with beans, corn, onions and green beans. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we ate spam because it was cheap, but my mom took such care to add the vegetables she could afford and to create flavors that were appealing to us kids. I can still smell the aroma of the guiso and feel my sweaty 10-year-old hair as I would come in for dinner after a long afternoon of play outside.”

Another colleague of mine, Amanda Dave, also recalls Spam®as one of the most popular dishes in her mother’s native Philippines cooking. “It was a childhood comfort food. I know it’s not healthy, but I still just love it. It brings back strong feelings of love and closeness to my mom and her culture.”

Dave isn’t naïve about how her eating patterns were influenced by the food she associates with comfort and family. “But I’ve also learned to add new and healthy food to what I make and I call it my “empowering food”.

By learning how to prepare and enjoy healthy options, I feel empowered– like I’m creating my own healthy legacy. I make a really delicious salad dish with Brussel sprouts, something I didn’t grow up eating, but I now love!”

Another colleague Cynthia Guerra remembers going to the outdoor market in Mexico with her grandparents. “My grandpa would buy me a big stalk of raw sugar cane. I’d walk around that market holding this big stick and then we’d pound it to make a sweet sugar juice.”

My co-worker Vanessa Saldana shares, “Everyone remembers the panaderia closest to their house! My relatives brought sweetbread every time they visited. I remember the panaderia being big and elegant, but now when I go back to visit in Matamoros I realize it was just a little hole in the wall. I try to buy pan dulce any time my mom or dad visits, because it is just expected that you have it at home for coffee or a snack when guests arrive. I try to eat healthy, but cookies and sweet bread are weaknesses because they remind me of my childhood.”

Another friend Yvette Vela shares, “Unfortunately. my earliest food memories are both good and bad. I remember being a little girl and my grandfather had a little neighborhood store right next to our house “a tiendita” and I had access to everything I ever wanted with minimal oversight, that led to a long road of bad eating habits. It has taken years for me to establish a healthy relationship with food because all my bad habits in my youth led me to struggle with obesity throughout my adulthood. It has taken some time, but after 5 years I have been able to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle that has been only manageable by keeping to healthy eating habits.”

But while Vela has struggled with her relationship to food, she also has some great memories of her father, who she lost this year.

“Some of my sweeter memories of childhood are of my father preparing a “lengua” on Sunday mornings. He would prepare the beef tongue the night before with all kinds of spices, onions tomato and chiles. The tongue would cook low and slow all night in the oven or crockpot and when I would wake up in the morning the house would be filled with the most beautiful savory aromas. It was prepared all throughout my childhood. I’m not sure what made this beef tongue so delicious when paired with fresh salsa and corn tortillas but it was perfect in every way. I can close my eyes and go back to those delicious Sunday Mornings.”

My own memories of childhood are varied since we moved around.

My mother of German ancestry who lived in Mexico for many years, cooked up everything from sauerkraut to chile rellenos, blending the cultures that had most influenced her. By the time I had my own babies, and was struggling to breastfeed, Leonor, my 90-year old neighbor started bringing me atoles or (rice/oatmeal soups) and it did the trick. Even now when I’m feeling physically exhausted, stressed or depleted it’s atole that comforts me with its warm aromas of cinnamon.

It’s important to take a moment before you eat each meal, to pause and consider your food, why you are eating it, what it evokes emotionally, and then slowly consider it before diving in. Assess if you are really hungry, or if something is triggering you to want to eat like thirst/dehydration, boredom, loneliness, anxiety or just out of habit.

By exploring our personal history with food, considering what certain foods represent to us, and what it means, we can begin to cultivate an awareness or mindfulness that can help us make better decisions when we eat. Does it mean we never eat that tres leches cake because it is unhealthy? Absolutely not. In moderation, and on special occasions, some of our not-sohealthy foods from the past can serve as a great way to remember and honor our culture, family and past, while trying new and healthy foods can preserve our future.

By beginning to remember and acknowledge how food makes us feel, and exploring that history, whether contentious or friendly, we can begin to make choices with our eyes and mind wide open, because Tu Salud y Vida!