Bless my dad, but he, along with my grandmothers, are the reason I was a chubby kid. In my family, to show love, one fed others. Feeling sad? Let me make you a snack. Already had lunch? Well you’re at my house now so surely you’re ready for a second lunch. Too full to finish the meal I lovingly prepared? You may as well have stabbed me through the heart with your fork. Like in many cultures, in my house feeding people showed you cared.
In my grandparents case at least, this stemed from growing up in a war-torn country where a chicken dinner was a twice a year event and menus were dictated by what grew in the backyard. Sharing their limited food with others and giving people elaborate foods when they were so rare was a far greater sign of love than any Tiffany’s ring or rose bouquet. So the tradition continues today, when Easter presents are tubs of bocconcini and leaving Nonna’s house without at least four types of homemade/ homegrown produce is impossible. The only difference now is that our food supply is abundant, never ending, and we have access to any thing, any time. So the practice of using special or rare foods to welcome, love and care for others is a bit lost. Hot cross buns aren’t special when they’re available year round, dessert isn’t as cherished when it becomes the norm, and the concept of eating a big meal when there is an abundance of food becomes a daily occurrence- not one that helped humans adapt to the “famine or feast” periods throughout history.
As a result, as a population, we become more and more overweight. As an individual, relationships with food becomes strained. It took me years of practice to retrain my body and mind that a meal was finished when I was 80% full, not when my plate was clean. It’s taken years of convincing Nonna that yes, her lasagne was delicious but no, not wanting seconds was not a personal attack on her, nor a strategy to stop her loving me. And I, like many, are still struggling with the habit of using food as a comforter or reward. This is the reason I encourage so many parents not to base dessert on a child’s dinnertime behaviour, nor as a comforter when they’ve had a bad day. Because it turns into an adult who justifies a block of chocolate when they’ve had a run in with their boss, an adult who eats a tub of ice-cream when their boyfriend dumps them, and, worst of all, an adult who places their happiness on what does or doesn’t go into their mouth.
So I’ll keep working on that one- that what I do or don’t have when I come home won’t be based on how tough that day has been , but what my body needs, and what else I’ve eaten during the day.
And I’ll also keep working on the habit that I too have inherited- that feeding people shows them I love them. Because I won’t deny I’ve inherited it. By working on it, I don’t mean that I will stop doing it- after all, people need to eat, people need to enjoy food and people need to use it to connect with others. Instead, when I feed people I have my dietitian’s hat on. That means two things: 1. Cooking for others doesn’t necessarily give you the excuse to whip out the pork crackling, add extra cream to the strawberries, and forget the veggies in the spag bol. It’s hard to love someone if you’re slowly giving them diabetes. 2. It also means moderation. These things can happen, but they shouldn’t be the norm when entertaining, sending the message that healthy= not as tasty. How much people do or don’t eat should not be taken as a sign of how good you cooked or how much they like you, rather a sign of what their body is telling them at that meal.
So with those two things in mind, I recently made these Coconut, Chocolate and Zucchini Brownies. I was back home with my parents and wanted to do something nice for them, but realised that we really didn’t need a slab of traditional brownies sitting around the house (along with the fact it was zucchini season and the veggie patch was producing more than our stomachs could take). These are just as delicious as the traditional ones, but are much more nourishing. A standard brownie recipe has 60% more kilojoules, three times as much saturated fat and double the total fat and sugar. It also lacks all the wonderful nutrients in the zucchini which makes these brownies wonderfully dense and moist, and doesn’t leave your hands as greasy as the standard type.
Tomorrow it’s Valentines Day. My Italian blood runs strong and a lovingly cooked meal beats the Tiffany’s or roses any day. Love someone with food, but in the good way. Make them these brownies. Or, even better, love yourself. Listen to what your body needs- enjoy food, but like a toxic ex don’t let it control the relationship. And ignore Nonna’s voice in your head crying out “mangia!”.