The Chocolate Cabinet by Geneen Roth

The Chocolate Cabinet
by Geneen Roth

A mother of an 8-year-old was desperate. “My daughter is gaining weight by the second,” she told me. “I am so afraid that I have passed on my troubles with food to her, and I don’t know whether to remove all candy from the house, take her to a doctor, or put her on a strict diet. Help!”

“What is your daughter’s favorite food?” I asked.

“Chocolate,” she said.

“Does high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes run in your family?”

“No,” she said.

“Is your daughter’s health good?”

“Yes.”

Desperation calls for radical measures, so I said, “On your way home, stop at the store and buy enough chocolate to fill an entire kitchen cabinet. In your kitchen, designate one cabinet The Chocolate Cabinet and fill it to overflowing with the chocolate you bought. Now, tell your daughter that this is hers and hers alone. Tell her that she can eat as much of it as she wants and that you will fill it back up when the cabinet gets even a tiny bit empty. Do not criticize her. Do not watch her with hawk eyes. And make sure that cabinet is brimming with chocolate. Wait three weeks, and then let me know what happens.”

She looked at me in disbelief. “Have you lost your mind? If I give Gracie free rein over chocolate, she will devour every single piece before I can get to the store and buy more. She will gain a million pounds. I will create a monster!”

“Try it,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”

Fast-forward three weeks. The desperate mother says, “When I first told Gracie about the new plan, she didn’t believe me. She waited until I left the kitchen, and then she plowed through the contents of her cabinet before I could change my mind. I filled up that cabinet four times that first week (with gritted teeth, I admit). But when Gracie realized I was not going to criticize her and that I was absolutely serious about letting her have as much as she wanted, she ate less and less. By the second week, I only had to buy a little chocolate, and by the third week, none at all. She is more relaxed around food. She is losing weight. I am a chocolate-cabinet convert!”

Does this story (it’s true, by the way) make you excited? Slightly hysterical? Have you come up with 25 reasons why this wouldn’t work at your house? You are not alone.

However, while some of your reasons may be based on fact, most of them are about your own relationship to food and hunger and abundance, not your children’s. And here’s the litmus test: Ask yourself what would happen if you filled one cabinet with food you wanted but believed you’re not supposed to have. What would happen if you let yourself eat it without criticizing yourself? I can’t swear to this, but I bet you have (at least) 25 reasons why that wouldn’t work.

It’s not about the food. Although the chocolate-cabinet idea was radical, I was almost positive that what Gracie wanted wasn’t candy. She wanted her mother’s (positive) attention. She wanted her mother to trust her. But mostly, she wanted to believe in and trust herself, and only way she could do that was by first learning those skills from her mother. The drama around food and weight gain was the language that Gracie was using to communicate with her mother. The real issue is never the food.

My mother was a fat kid whose own mother took her shopping in the Chubby section of Macy’s. Growing up, my mother felt self-conscious, ashamed of her body around boys, clothes, socializing. Because she loved me and didn’t want me to suffer the way she had, when I was a kid she began watching what I ate, restricting certain foods from my diet, telling me I was getting fat.

How did the hawk-eye, restrictive approach work?

Not so well. In response, I began hiding frozen Milky Ways in my pajama pants, sprinting past my parents’ room and sitting over the trash can in my room eating the candy bars as fast as I could, ready to spit them out if my mother opened the door and caught me. I began feeling as if I needed to look a certain way for her to love me, eat certain foods for her to approve of me. And so I began living (and eating) a double life: When I was in front of her, I’d eat cottage cheese and chicken without skin. When I was out of her sight, I’d stuff myself with everything I wasn’t allowed to eat in her presence. Food became the language of our relationship. And although, as my brother often points out, I’ve made a career from the dysfunction that resulted, I would not recommend this path to anyone.

When I hold my online workshops, mothers from all over the world ask me questions about food and their children. Mothers from Montana and New Jersey, Thailand and Brazil all have the same concerns. They all love their children and don’t want to pass on their pain to their daughters (or sons); some of them have children who are already showing signs of starving themselves or stuffing themselves. They all want to know: How do I best love my child when it comes to food? What will help her the most? 

I tell them, “Attend to your own relationship with food first.” Be honest with yourself about what you actually believe. Do you believe you can’t trust your hunger? That if you really let yourself eat what you want, you’d start at one end of your kitchen and chomp your way across the country? Do you believe there is an abundance of what you need, want, love? 

After you begin exploring your own relationship with food, be mindful about what you communicate to your children. Deprivation, force, and shame do not ever, under any circumstances, lead to positive change. If you judge your children, if you create a moral standard about body size, if you withhold approval based on what they weigh, nothing good will come of it. They will begin judging their bodies, hiding their food, and defining their worth by what they weigh. 

And ask yourself this question: If you could fill a cabinet with anything — food, attention, time — what would it be? Chances are, it won’t be chocolate. Commit to being lavish with yourself with what you really need. As you do that, you will become a living example of self-care and trust and love. You will be who you want your children to become. Believe me, they’ll notice.

Geneen Roth has authored many books:

Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money

Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything

When Food Is Love

The Craggy Hole in My Heart and the Cat Who Fixed It

Breaking Free from Emotional Eating

Feeding the Hungry Heart

When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair

Appetites — On the Search for True Nourishment

Why Weight? A Guide to Ending Compulsive Eating

Being Hot Fudge Sundaes

Here is another excerpt from Geneen Roth’s new book Women Food and God. I have ordered this book and am looking forward to its arrival. When I read the first paragraph of this section of her book entitled Being Hot Fudge Sundaes it reminded me of something I had written myself about being defined by numbers and yet how we are so much more than our physical bodies.

Being Hot Fudge Sundaes

“It’s never been true, not anywhere at anytime, that the value of a soul, of a human spirit is dependent on a number on a scale. We are unrepeatable beings of light and space and water who need these physical vehicles to get around, and when we start defining ourselves by that which can be measured or weighed, something deep within us rebels.
We don’t want to eat hot fudge sundaes as much as we want our lives to be hot fudge sundaes. We want to come home to ourselves. We want to know wonder and mystery and possibility, and if instead, we’ve given up on ourselves, if we’ve vacated our longings, if we’ve left possibility behind, we will feel an emptiness we can’t name. We will feel as if something is missing because something is missing—the connection to the source of all sweetness, all love, all power, all peace, all joy, all stillness. Since we had it once–we were born with and as it–it can’t help but haunt us. It’s as if our cells remember that home is a resplendent and jeweled palace but we’ve been living as beggars for so long that we are no longer certain if the palace was a dream. And if it was a dream, then at least we can eat the memory of it.
During the first few bites, and before we get dazed by overeating, everything we want is possible. Everything we’ve lost is here now. And so we settle for the concrete version of our lost selves in the form of food. And once food has become synonymous with goodness or love or fulfillment, you cannot help but choose it, no matter how high the stakes are. No matter if your doctor tells you that you won’t live another month at this weight. Because when you are lost, when you are homeless, when you’ve spent years separated from who you are, threats of failed hearts or joint pressure don’t move you. Dying does not frighten those who are already half-dead. The most challenging part of any system that addresses weight-related issues is that unless it also addresses the part of you that wants something you can’t name—the heart of your heart, not the size of your thighs–it won’t work. We don’t want to be thin because thinness is inherently life-affirming or lovable or healthy. If these were true, there would be no tribes in Africa in which women are fat and regal and long-living. There would be no history of matriarchies in which women’s fecundity and pulchritude were worshipped.

We want to be thin because thinness is the purported currency of happiness and peace and contentment. And although that currency is a lie—the tabloids are filled with skinny miserable celebrities—most systems of weight loss fail because they don’t live up to their promise: weight loss does not make people happy. Or peaceful. Or content. Being thin does not address the emptiness that has no shape or weight or name. Even a wildly successful diet is a colossal failure because inside the new body is the same sinking heart. Spiritual hunger can never be solved on the physical level.”

Women Food and God

Official Description of the book Women Food and God by Geneen Roth

“No matter how sophisticated or wealthy or broke or enlightened you are, how you eat tells all.

If you suffer about your relationship with food — you eat too much or too little, think about what you will eat constantly or try not to think about it at all — you can be free. Just look down at your plate. The answers are there. Don’t run. Look. Because when we welcome what we most want to avoid, we contact the part of ourselves that is fresh and alive. We touch the life we truly want and evoke divinity itself.

Since adolescence, Geneen Roth has gained and lost more than a thousand pounds. She has been dangerously overweight and dangerously underweight. She has been plagued by feelings of shame and self-hatred and she has felt euphoric after losing a quick few pounds on a fad diet. Then one day, on the verge of suicide, she did something radical: She dropped the struggle, ended the war, stopped trying to fix, deprive and shame herself. She began trusting her body and questioning her beliefs.
It worked. And losing weight was only the beginning.
She wrote about her discoveries in When Food Is Love, her first New York Times bestseller. She gave huge numbers of women their first insights into compulsive eating and she changed huge numbers of lives for the better.
Now, after more than three decades of studying, teaching and writing about what drives our compul-sions with food, Geneen adds a profound new dimension to her work in Women, Food and God. She begins with her most basic concept: The way you eat is inseparable from your core beliefs about being alive. Your relationship with food is an exact mirror of your feelings about love, fear, anger, meaning, transformation and, yes, even God. But it doesn’t stop there. Geneen shows how going beyond both the food and feelings takes you deeper into realms of spirit and soul to the bright center of your own life.
With penetrating insight and irreverent humor, Roth traces food compulsions from subtle beginnings to unexpected ends. She teaches personal examination, showing readers how to use their relationship with food to discover the fulfillment they long for.
Your relationship with food, no matter how conflicted, is the doorway to freedom, says Roth. What you most want to get rid of is itself the doorway to what you want most: the demystification of weight loss and the luminous presence that so many of us call “God.”
Packed with revelations on every page, this book is a knock-your-socks-off ride to a deeply fulfilling relationship with food, your body…and almost everything else. Women, Food and God is, quite simply, a guide for life.”
Click here to watch a short video of author Geneen Roth talking about the book.