Lessons From My Mother

As part of Legacy.com's ongoing Recipe Vault series, food bloggers and network stars share how recipes connect us to those we’ve lost.

Every year on the anniversary of my mother’s death, my rabbi reads Mom’s name from a list of all the people we are remembering on that day.

I’m prepared for the moment – I know it’s coming. And yet, hearing my mother’s name – Judith Rose – spoken aloud is always a little unsettling. You see, before my mother’s death, I didn’t realize that when people die, their names die too.

It makes sense; no one has any reason to say my mother’s name. But still, the phone never rings with someone asking to speak to Judith Rose. She never comes up as a potential party guest. After almost fifteen years, my mother doesn’t even get junk mail any more.

My brothers and I may talk about “Mom” and occasionally I’ll run into an old friend of hers who talks about “Judi,” but those are remembrances. There’s something different about the formality of my mother’s name being read aloud in front of the congregation by someone who never even knew her. It’s like my mother is being called up for an award! She made the list!  She is here. And she’s here now.

I didn’t know that I would miss my mother so much. I won’t lie – we had, shall we say, a difficult relationship. When the initial grief of her death passed, I experienced a period of respite and healing. Yes, I continued to churn over old wounds, but since she was no longer able to hold up her end of the fight, I found myself softening. And with that softening came a different kind of grief. In this grief I could celebrate my mother’s life. I could feel compassion for her efforts, sympathy for her struggles. I even started to appreciate aspects of her personality I’d never really recognized before. Who knew she was so generous?

Now, after all these years, I have come to realize one more thing: In her death, my mother gave me a gift she never could have given me in life. She gave me my career.

I was five months pregnant when my mother died. She was sixty-five years old and weighed just over three hundred pounds. Although she had not been obese for her entire life, she had struggled with her weight ever since I could remember. And while I may never know the extent to which her overeating caused her death, I do know it caused her years of distress.

When my daughter was born I became obsessed with the question, ‘How do you teach children to eat right?’ I wasn’t concerned so much with nutrition; rather, I wanted to ensure that my daughter had a better, happier “food life” than my mother, her grandmother. I wanted my daughter to be able to nourish herself and have a happy relationship with food.

How do you teach kids to eat right? Because I am a sociologist I naturally began to think about habits. And because of my mother’s struggle with her weight, the first habit I taught my daughter was to honor her own hunger and satiety. My husband and I made a commitment to never encourage extra bites – you know the ones I’m talking about, “Just two more bites” – because we didn’t want our daughter to learn to overeat. In our house, no one ever says, “Clean your plate.” Identifying and teaching other eating habits soon followed suit: eating different foods from day-to-day, consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, and definitely, no emotional eating.

It didn’t take long for my personal parenting agenda to become my professional agenda. I started reading the research literature, looking for everything I could find about nutrition and habits. I observed and then interviewed scores of parents to learn why they fed their kids the way they did. I fleshed out my “habits” approach to teaching kids to eat right, and then began writing, delivering workshops and coaching other parents. Eventually, a book was born. I used to be a criminologist. Now, I was a feeding expert, a parent educator, and an author. Thanks, Mom!

But over the years I have come to realize that I am more than that. I am the next page in my mother’s story; the page that turns my mother’s pain into something positive. Every day, parents tell me how desperate they are to teach their children good eating habits. They all know what their kids ought to eat. Where they struggle, though, is in getting their kids to eat the right foods – and I can help them. Again, thanks, Mom.

When parents adopt the “habits” mindset their feeding struggles begin to melt away. Habits, it turns out, are a lot easier to teach kids than nutrition. In contrast to nutrition, which has a zillion moving parts, there are only three habits anyone needs to know.

  • Proportion: Eating the healthiest foods most frequently.

  • Variety: Eating different foods from day to day.

  • Moderation: Eating when you’re hungry, not when you’re full, and not because you’re bored, sad or lonely.

It’s also more effective to teach kids eating habits. When children know how to behave in relation to food, they start to make the right eating decisions on their own—no matter their age.  

Habits matter. That, it turns out, is something my mother also taught me. Sometimes her lessons were misguided (say, in the form of dieting) but other times they were spot on (as when she taught me to start dinner with a salad).

Sadly, my mother was never able to implement what she knew about eating right to conquer her own demons. She did her best, though, to give me the tools for a better “food life.” I have used those tools, along with my own experience, expertise and training, not just to put my daughter on the right food path, but to help thousands of other parents effectively shape their children’s journeys too. My mother would be so pleased. She tossed the first pebble. These are the ripples.

Yes, I have learned a lot from my mother. So next year, when my rabbi reads Mom’s name, I’m sure I’ll miss her as always. This time, though, I hope I’ll also remember that Judith Rose really is being called up for an award.

Dina Rose is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert. She is also the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating.