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How divorce affects meal time – It’s complicated

As most of you will agree, food is important. Important due to our necessity for nourishment, but also important because of the emotional connections we humans have with it. To many, food means family – meal time is a time to connect and discuss the day’s events which creates stronger social bonds with one another.

So how does this relationship with food change when a family separates due to divorce? What happens to meal time? How does meal time change within the context of a new setting and people? These are the hard questions that a fellow colleague, Melanie Kurrein has sought to answer in her current Master’s thesis.

The project came to fruition after a thought-provoking class discussion about the human relationship with food. One student commented that her relationship changed after her parents’ divorce. Her interactions with food adjusted depending on whose house she was at – her mom’s or her dad’s.  After discussing and honing her research question, Mel sought out to give teenagers, who had experienced family divorce, a voice.

She interviewed 9 teens between the ages of 11 to 17 years old. All had gone through the divorce and were now dealing with new family dynamics – a single parent, new step-parent, step-sibling, or half-sibling. Mel asked them to photo-document their experiences with food – whether positive, negative, along with the people and places commonly associated with meal time/eating. These pictures helped to spark conversation.

Most of the teens described positive aspects at both their homes, but a few commented that they often felt like guests in their new homes. Sometimes the food rules changed between homes, especially with a step-parent in the mix. Oftentimes teens mentioned that they would use food as power, understanding that not eating or not talking during meal time was a clear way to express frustration or anger. In some cases, they would use food to pit parents against one another, asking for food that they get at one parent’s home or comparing the meals from one home to another.

Melanie found that the teens did a lot of work to try to fit in and be a part of this new family relationship. This isn’t surprising. We all want to fit in no matter what the social context. Being an outsider from an evolutionary standpoint brings one’s survival into question. While survival in general isn’t necessarily the concern here, social and emotional survival could be.

Divorce is complicated. Being a parent is complicated (so I’ve been told). Providing the right food in the right way is complicated. There are no simple answers to such a complex issue as divorce, but understanding how this change can alter something as basic as eating is important. It is important because our relationship with food as a child largely dictates our relationship with it as an adult.

M

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