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Food and Family - The Importance of Valuing the Family Dinner

By Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC

Eat to run. Run to eat. These are two very different statements, yet they reveal a similar message about food— one that is narrow-minded and marginalizes food by saying that it is meant to only satisfy the body’s need—either for calories or pleasure. This little idiom was once stated to me and for a long time painted a harsh black and white image of food in my mind.

Over time, I have come to realize this is quite an unhealthy view of food and, unfortunately, one that I held for most of my life. I have seen food as fuel more often than not. Most of the time, it seems, I eat to perform; to give my body the appropriate nutrients it needs to be at its best. Many other people perform exercise to eat and enjoy the foods that they love and do not have the willpower to give up. Yet this black and white image of food is too simple, too unappreciative of the true value that food is meant to hold for us. Being a personal trainer and having completed a degree in exercise science. I have come to understand food’s most beneficial, and detrimental qualities. Being a competitive runner, I have always been aware of the foods going into my body, even from a young age. And having grown up on an organic dairy farm, I rarely go a meal without thinking what I might create to make it healthier for those eating it. Growing up understanding that food is most nutritious when you're closest to the source and that the land upon which it is grown is also stewarded well, will forever impact the way that I view food. However, food is not only a fuel. Food is not just for your taste buds either. Food can do so much more. The balance comes in taking in food as a whole and seeing it from all perspectives: physically, culturally, socially, and spiritually. What is the appropriate response to food, then?

Like many of you, I might feel slightly bad when I give in to a sweet splurge and feel oh-so-proud when I make a healthy meal. In my naivety, however, I've often failed to recognize the full value of food. I appreciate a colorful plate of healthful variety; I thank God for the bounty before me, yet I frequently fail in the effort to truly enjoy the food or those I am eating with or be thankful for its origin. I eat, oftentimes, too quickly. I think more, or sometimes not enough, about the nutrients than I do than the pleasure or the company with which I am eating. Most of us rarely question the effort that goes into the preparation of the meal. Or what it means to gather together and pause for a moment to enjoy the people we are eating with. It is my ultimate goal to value all the benefits food has to offer; especially in the way that food brings people together. I am relearning this more as I sit down at each meal with my own family now - taking the time to appreciate, celebrate, and give thanks together, for not only the meal, but the simple and meaningful act of gathering together.

A lot of people see food as an enemy or a supplement to good health—don’t eat this, try this new vitamin rich “blank”, or stay away from “you name it.” It can become very confusing and sometimes frustrating. How can we better appreciate the simple act of eating? Instead of focusing on food’s nutritional value (or lack thereof) only, try re-educating yourself to see food as life-giving, pleasurable, and a way to show love to your friends and family. Stop using food as a reward or punishment. Food and eating is a time to connect with family and a way to educate them how to eat right. In fact, family dinners provide ways to get your family to eat more fruits and vegetables, try new foods, and control portions… a loving act in itself because you are caring for the health of your family. When offering a plate of food to the hungry, as many people will do throughout the year, think about the way in which the food speaks of care to those eating it. This simple action of feeding others has a way of connecting people in a unique way; a prepared meal and dinner table tells those about to partake of their importance to you. Gathering around a table to dine is not as common today, but still very necessary for this reason. Eating is a time to rest, to relax, and to respond to those who sit beside you. As described from The Spirit of Food, a collection of writings on food and eating, one chapter depicts the waning family dinner as a way of loving, “It is sad how foreign it is to sit unhurriedly, to eat lovingly crafted food attentively, and to have meaningful, personal conversations during meals… Offering our hospitality is a medium of grace that opens hearts to deeper things. It is a simple way of loving.”

When you eat, realize that much more than a physical process is happening in your body. Try to grasp all the benefits of food—that it is much more than a fuel, pleasure, or diet tool. Food is a gift that can bring friends and families together to share in the nourishment of tasty food and the love of one another. A gift that's found in the passing down of traditions in making, eating and sharing nutritious food together; In the slowing down of a hurried pace to enjoy those around you; In the enjoyment of food to the fullest! Take a moment at your next family meal to reflect on the goodness found as you sit around the table with your loved ones and join together in good food and fellowship. And maybe then you will begin to see food as it's truly meant to be.

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