When I was 17, I was living out on my own, free from my parents' rules. But it was no walk in the park, because I happened to be sleeping in one. I was homeless.
During that time, I ate at fast food restaurants like Taco Bell and Jack in the Box. The food wasn't great for me, but if it was convenient for my pocket, then it was convenient for my stomach. In any case, it was better than eating nothing at all.
I had so much going on in my life back then. It took me a couple weeks to notice that my jeans were getting tight. I was gaining weight even though I was only eating once or twice a day. People told me I needed to eat organic and shop at places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. But that was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to cook my own food or go buy a salad, but how was I supposed to prioritize what I ate when I was sleeping at a bus stop?
After six weeks on the street, I went back to my parents' house. But by then, I had gotten used to my bad eating habits. Rather than have my parents tell me what and when to eat, I just didn't. It got to the point where I passed out on my way to Spanish class from dehydration. I was in a health crisis. And I knew I needed help. So I went to a counselor to finally work out my issues.
Now I'm 21, and I work at a youth center where I cook for at-risk teens. A lot of them don't have support in their lives, let alone a home. I see so much of who I used to be in them. They have low self-esteem, and eat too much or too little. And they constantly hear they aren't good enough. But instead of me telling them they can't have chips, and they need to eat a salad, I ask them, "How's your day going?"
I've learned that you have to ask kids what's on the inside before you tell them how to fix the outside.