The tradition of saying grace before eating is in danger of dying out along with the shared family meal. If your household is like mine, where we grab food out of the fridge and eat standing in the kitchen, eat on the run or eat in front of the computer or TV, then it has probably been awhile since you have sat down with a beautiful plate of food in front of you and took a moment to express gratitude for the gift you are about to enjoy.
How about for a change we begin our meals, as well as our discussions on health and nutrition by “saying grace “? Doing so, in the way that I envisage, might mean a great deal more than a simple prayer mumbled mindlessly before tucking in to the bounty before us.
After months of reading everything I could find on the subject of nutrition, in an effort to cure myself of chronic hunger and the resulting problem with my weight, it suddenly struck me that I needed to pause for a moment and remember to “say grace” like my mother taught me as a young child. The spiritual discipline of expressing thanks for food before thoughtlessly devouring it has more merit than we might imagine. “Mindful Eating” is being taught to the generation who has forgotten how to feed themselves in an effort to curb overeating. Saying grace is one way to eat “mindfully” and might have more to do with health and weight management than you may have realized! Because by saying grace we give thanks for one miracle and request another.
The first miracle is that we have food to enjoy and to nourish ourselves. The miracle that Mother Earth, as much as we have abused her and taken her for granted, still graciously produces food for us to eat. That the farmer still plants his seed, the rains still come, the crops still grow, and we still have the health and strength to work to earn a living and obtain food for ourselves and our family. When our food arrives already highly processed and pre-packaged we become disconnected from the process by which it comes to our table and lose all sense of appreciation and awe for the fact that we have it at all. A return to local, traditional, whole food goes a long way to bringing back this sense of wonder.
The second miracle is one that we ask for in faith: That the food we are about to eat will nourish us and bless us with health and strength for the day ahead. We ask that the food we eat will be good for us. The prayer we used to pray as children was: “Dear Lord, Bless this food to our bodies, and bless the hands that prepared it.” This ritual is a simple acknowledgement that we eat in order to care for our bodies, that it requires a moment of grace for this to be possible at all and that it is fitting to honor those whose labor, love and creativity went into preparing the food. However, as much as we may do everything within our power to prepare a healthy meal, given the current state of our planet and our food supply, it is more appropriate than ever to appreciate that whatever benefit we may gain from our food is a blessing not to be taken for granted. In many cases this requires nothing short of a miracle!
Most cultures and religions have festivals and traditions around the harvest, food preparation and the sharing and enjoyment of the meal. Although these have been largely lost in our fast-paced, deadline driven western life style, recovering them can be enormously beneficial. Yoga therapist Brandt Passalacqua, teaches eating as a practice of self-care. He recommends beginning meals with a meditation. See “Make Peace with Your Plate.” I particularly like this part:
Say to yourself, “Today I will nourish myself in the best way I know how. In this moment I am nourished. I have all that I need.”
How about saying grace, not just at the dinner table, but wherever food is an issue? Discussions on the subject of diet can be remarkably ungracious. They can become zones of conflict and fierce disagreement, or like-minded individuals can subtly use their particular diet as a way to create a sense of superiority and self-satisfaction at the expense of those that don’t happen to buy into their approach to food. This is particularly true of judgmental, condescending attitude made socially acceptable by “the cult of beauty” so revered in western culture. One of my favorite Joey scenes from Friends illustrates the ungraciousness of it all really well:
My mother was a gracious lady who not only taught me to say grace before eating, but to behave graciously when sharing food with others. Once incident from my childhood is especially vivid in my memory. Having been raised a vegetarian, I had a hard time understanding and accepting that meat is food. We were at a meal with friends and family where meat was served, and I must have said something childish and inappropriate, expressing distaste at the meat dishes on the table. I was sharply pulled aside by my mother and informed that I had just behaved very rudely and that one never criticizes the food on someone else’s plate because by doing so you are criticizing and rejecting them and hurting their feelings. I learned a valuable lesson that day, not only in social graces, but about the sacredness of food. Just because it isn’t something you happen to eat because of personal or dietary preference, it is still food and still worthy of the proper respect*
In addition to often being quite unkind, diets are usually reductionist. Food is deconstructed down to almost atomic level and the concern is almost exclusively with macro and micronutrients and calories. What if eating “whole food” means more than not overly processing it physically, but also not over-processing it intellectually? A big part of eating whole food is appreciating the “whole food.” Not just what is in the food, but the food in it’s completeness and fullness: It’s taste, texture, color and smell. The intricate natural process by which it was grown. The physical labor and skill of the farmer. The effort, planning and creativity of the chef. The family ties and social bonds that it reinforces. The celebration that it invites us to join. The beauty of enjoying it, not only as fuel but as food in which we delight and take great pleasure.
Michael Pollan discusses the problem of “nutritionism” and the resulting reductionism in “In Defense of Food” in which we regard food as a “delivery vehicle for nutrients.” Since nutrients are invisible you need experts to tell you how to eat. Experts that can help us look past the food itself to the nutrients it contains and use this a basis to dictate what to eat and what to avoid. As Pollan puts it:
“As soon as you accept the nutrient view of science, you accept the expert driven food culture. It’s sort of like a religion . . . We need a priesthood to navigate the relationship for us.”
He goes on to say that food gets divided up into “evil” nutrients that we try to drive from the food supply, and “blessed” nutrients, that if we can just get enough of will cure all our ills and possibly allow us to live forever! With nutritionism the whole point of eating is about health and what we eat ranges on a spectrum from destroying your health on one end to redeeming it on the other. However, Pollan tries to remind us that throughout history people have eaten for a great number of other, equally legitimate reasons: Pleasure, Community and Identity. He warns that we are in danger of reducing our understanding of food to a very narrow set of “nutritionist” beliefs, which wouldn’t be so bad if it worked. However, he points out that reducing food to a question of health hasn’t actually made us any healthier! Ain’t that the truth!
The nutritionist approach to food doesn’t work for my fledgling attempts to learn how to feed myself again, nor is it helpful in the Bold Experiment. I can’t afford to leave what I eat up to “the experts” because so far they haven’t been able to help me. Nor can I reduce food purely to a question of health via the demonization and deification of a list of macro and micronutrients. Among other things I would like what I eat to nourish me and improve my health, but in so doing I don’t want to give up eating for pleasure, put strain on my relationship with others or lose my identity. For me “nutritionism” is a recipe for disaster because it creates disordered eating – in my case yo-yo dieting and mindless binge eating when it all gets too overwhelming. I am trying to avoid replacing my junk food addiction with “orthorexia” – an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating! (Pollan)
I am learning to feed myself again. Learning to say grace again. It’s helping me and maybe it can help you too. Before you open your mouth to put food in it, or say something about what the person next to you is eating, don’t forget to say grace!
* I believe that the respect for food should be extended to all whole foods. The same is not necessarily true for processed food and junk food specifically when it functions as a drug. This “food” should be named for what it is and put where it belongs. However, the person consuming it should always be treated with the utmost grace and kindness. If junk food calories are really the only ones available, one should still say grace over them, and hope they will do some good, but this is never ideal and the aim should always be to restore whole food to your own food supply and that of others.