Food is a universal experience, a shared language that binds all of humanity, the foundation on which we literally build ourselves. The way we engage with food can be both the simplest and most profound way of cultivating honourable relationships with one another and the species who share our planet. For centuries, food has held a central and ritualised position for many cultures. But in today’s modern, busy world, food has been reduced to a peripheral and much less exalted substance. Modernity has certainly endangered the daily practice of food preparation and mindful eating with a culture of convenience, altering both what we eat and the way we eat it. When the act of preparing and eating food is embodied with intention and reverence, it moves beyond the function of simply fuelling the body and instead becomes a vehicle for connection, wellness and transformation.
Historically, sharing a meal may be seen as the ultimate sacred act: from the placing of food in the begging bowl of the Buddhist monk, to the Catholic sacrament of holy communion, to the Muslim traditions of suhoor and iftar during Ramadan. Food preparation was similarly embodied with sacredness. In countless cultures and ceremonies, people have practiced ritual food preparation and eating as a way of celebrating and honouring their connection to the earth, to plant and animal life, to the community, their ancestors and the cosmos.
Food, Faith and Culture
Food and faith are bound in an intimate relationship that predates modern history. Since prehistoric times, the deities of many mythologies were invoked through elaborate rituals in hopes for a good harvest. Harvest deities – such as the Romans’ Ceres or the Greeks’ Demeter – were believed to have offered part of themselves in the form of the fruits of the land. In grateful response, people offered sacrifices to replenish their offerings and held celebrations in honour of the nourishment they received. Ancestral spirits were entreated with gifts to maintain favourable connections in times of need or inspiration. Food was revered as a powerful mechanism for celebrating the embodied divine, as a portal that bridged the earthly and otherworldly planes.
Many ethnic and indigenous cultures continue to maintain extensive food-faith linkages that ascribe ritual importance to food. Take the Japanese tradition of Ōryōki, or “just enough”; a meditative form of eating and mindful awareness practice that requires abiding by a strict order of precise movements. As a form of Zen practice, the meal, eaten with a wooden ōryōki set of nested bowls and utensils wrapped in cloth, represents a number of virtues. Lack of greed is reflected through taking just enough to satiate and mindfully ensure that there is no waste. Awareness is reflected through the specific choreographed ritual of serving, receiving and eating. Respect is demonstrated between the receiver and offerer of food. Devotedness to the higher spiritual form of Buddha is acknowledged through chanting, prayer and offerings. Each movement of the ōryōki is designed to unfold in harmonious consistency, requiring a meticulous awareness of what is happening in the moment, whilst acknowledging and respecting the processes – both natural and physical – that have combined to create the meal.
Beyond specific religious and cultural practice, food and its preparation have been a vehicle through which (mostly) women have traditionally cared for their family’s physical, cultural and spiritual needs. Chicken soup has not become the common dish to serve someone with a cold simply for its mix of vitamins and minerals, but because it symbolises a mother’s care and love, becoming a medium for the metaphysical transference of these qualities. Making many traditional foodstuffs meant the convening of generations of women in a kitchen, a room in which women’s knowledge, friendship and spirit was concentrated and radiated. It involved deeply sensual and tactile forms of knowledge in the search for the right ingredients, or for a particular texture, feel or taste. When a traditional recipe is passed from generation to generation, it is imbued with the cumulative sacred energy of countless generations of ancestors that have mixed their time, dedication and energy into the same tasks. In this way, food and its preparation hold accumulated layers of meaning. The kitchen becomes a conduit through which connection to our heritage, our loved ones and ourselves becomes manifest through thoughtfully and even playfully preparing a meal.
A Cultural Disconnect
In today’s hyper-modern world, so many have developed an adversarial relationship with food that is unbalanced at best and completely severed at worst. Food sensitivities and allergies, eating disorders, obesity and diet-related disease are the mentally draining and physically damaging manifestations of the angst and confusion around food and eating. Modern culture has seemingly disconnected us from the very thing that gives and supports life. This disconnect is reflected in the literal distancing between food’s point of origin and natural state and the meal that all too often turns up on plates or consumed whilst on the go.
Diets across the globe are increasingly displacing wholesome nutritious food with unhealthy, highly-processed edible products. These products are created from substances that have been transformed, reconstituted, significantly degraded and extracted from what were once wholefoods, often grown in intensive, monoculture systems that significantly damage the environment. These may include refined flours and starches, hydrogenated oils and fats, sugars and the multiple variants thereof, remnants or low-cost parts of animals, synthetic vitamins and minerals and (often chemical) additives and preservatives.
With incomprehensible ingredient lists, the inclusion of purposefully obscured genetically modified organisms and veiled transnational food supply-chains, the formulation – and reformulation – of industrial food-like products has severed food from any meaningful connection to the place and people from which it came. Unfortunately, modern culture has sacrificed connection for convenience, with the human body and the environment paying the price. When we begin to expand our relationship to food beyond simple caloric gratification and are instead motivated by an interest in nourishment – of body, mind or soil – the value that has been placed on the convenience of processed foods naturally comes into question.
Even when a diet is predominantly made up of wholefoods, cooking and eating have largely been divorced from an essential human ingredient: mindfulness. The purposeful, but gentle effort of being present with our experience. All too often the stresses and distractions of the day drag people into an alienation from the here and now. Televisions, laptops, iPhones and emails, projects, deadlines, people and preoccupations can take us away from the everyday moments through which we can reconnect with our food and ourselves. As described by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “There are some people who eat an orange but don’t really eat it. They eat their sorrow, fear, anger, past, and future. They are not really present, with body and mind united.”
Beyond individual stressors and distractions, being mindful of the time we dedicate to engaging with food and each other is also important. In general, people are spending less and less time preparing their own meals and eating them together. Whilst it may be natural to dismiss the family meal as a nostalgic remnant of times gone by, there are many positive benefits of gathering at the dinner table. Children who eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week eat healthier and are less likely to engage in disordered eating behaviours, show better academic performance, have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, have lower depressive symptoms and report being closer with their families. Being mindful of the time spent around the dinner table is a simple solution to cultivate connectedness, communication and interaction amongst families.
Sharing a meal with others also promotes social connectedness, increased happiness and better health. The simple act of gathering around the communal table helps establish human connection, which is crucial to maintaining happiness and a sense of belonging. It also encourages better eating, not just from a nutritional perspective, but a psychological one as well. Engaging in the pleasures of commensality provides an opportunity to de-stress; to leave behind our individual pursuits and grant ourselves a small pleasure over the constant barrage of productivity.
Cultivating Connection: Food and Mindfulness at Mealtime.
We are a part of a vast food web, a web of life that connects all things across time and space. Food not only connects us to plants and animals but landscapes and territories, their histories and politics. It connects us to distant peoples and to places within ourselves that hold memories and meaning. Slowing down and thinking about the many layers of food: from where our food comes from, the human effort and resources that helped grow it or the quality of life of farm animals, to how our bodies are being strengthened and nourished from the foods which we feed it, can be a powerful way to stimulate mindfulness and influence behaviour.
The “How” Part: Preparing Food
Asking ourselves how we view cooking is an important first step in engaging mindfully with food. Is cooking a chore or a duty, a boredom or a waste of time? If it is difficult finding enjoyment and entertainment in cooking, a shift in mindset or approach – even simply as an experiment to begin with – may help in reconnecting with the pleasurable aspects of cooking. Preparing food can be a way of engaging all five senses at once:
Selecting ripe, bright seasonal fruits and vegetables can create a multi-coloured or textured meal. Smell can be stimulated with the use of herbs and spices and pausing and appreciating the aroma of a meal as it’s cooking. Cultivate taste with fresh ingredients and good quality local produce. Turn the meal into a tactile experience through experimenting with different textures and components. Set the mood by playing music. Engage family and friends and make it a communal adventure.
Take a small step – wonderfully rich and delicious meals can be prepared with few ingredients and with very little effort – just a little time, practice and willingness to experiment.
As Thich Nhat Hanh has noted, your meal is a perfect demonstration of “inter-being”. When serving meals, acknowledge the many processes that have come together to form the fare. Our meals are a small manifestation of the sun’s energy, the rain, soil, pollinators and the hardworking hands that harvested your produce. Increasing our awareness as we eat transforms eating from a base act of material consumption to active participation in a vast network of existence. Take on the same process as when preparing food to appreciate the colours, textures, flavours and aroma of the meal. Be present and attentive to those who share it with you. Put aside your devices for aside for a moment.
When coming together over food, see it as a celebration and an opportunity to acknowledge and honour the hard work of others and the gifts of friendship. Let the flavours of the food be enhanced by the stories shared and the connections formed over the course of the meal. Through the simple process of sharing a meal, we can build a healthier physical, social and emotional fabric for ourselves and our communities. In this way, preparing and eating food becomes a moment for reflection and gratitude, interwoven with the everyday aspects of life. It becomes a sacred act.
Resources to re-engage with food
Read: Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh & Dr Lilian Cheung
Connect: The Family Dinner Project – providing conversation starters and other resources for the family dinner table
Cook: thefoodcoach.com.au – simple, healthy recipes categorised by meal type or ingredient