My best breakfasts happened on Tuesday mornings. Oatmeal swirled with cinnamon sweet potato mash, bacon cupcakes filled with sweet sausage and topped with egg, avocado plated to look like a tree, or — my favorite — strawberries and bananas plated to look like snowmen and small towers of goodness. The meals would be eaten slowly as we chatted and caught up. There was no overeating, and involved as they sound, the meals didn’t last for hours (we both had to get to work). They also didn’t take any special techniques or preparation (just making sure all the ingredients were on hand or making do.) Sometimes the plating would be so nice that we would take pictures. Sometimes the food had to be experienced more, so we ate with just our hands. Sometimes the meals didn’t turn out as expected, so we just enjoyed scrambled eggs and bacon with the same fun and ease. It was the experience that was focus. Tuesday mornings became my favorite meal of the week as I was able to provide a nurturing experience to another and by default take more time for myself.
This is not the norm, however. The norm is something a lot less colorful and tastes a lot more bland. Meals are often hurried, eaten in cars, workstations, or in front of televisions. Foods are chosen because of ease, craving, punishment or reward, or they involve the conceptual necessity of needing a particular food “I need to eat more vegetables, so I will just eat more vegetables”. As a matter of observation, with so much focus being placed on what one should eat, very little (if any) focus is placed on how a person can eat it. The emotional experience of eating has fallen away to the hyped practice of functional eating.
Food has become nothing more than a tool. In the process of trying to outwit death with disease-fighting superfoods like Acai or Noni, or short-circuit undesirable lifestyle results such as weight gain by doing a cabbage soup diet, we have lost our connection to food and the connection food provides us to one other. This is the greatest saboteur of successful lifestyle changes — our connection to each other.
The focus on dissociating emotional need from food is not working. We are heavier, blander, and unhappier than ever. Perhaps, rather than becoming masticating technicians, we should start focusing on our emotional needs, especially in the context of food. Perhaps, rather than brushing our need for connection aside like so many crumbs on a table, we hype them up. Embrace the need for connection and community — one in which you nurture others and by default nurture yourself.
I remember the pride my grandmother would have when she watched me eat a meal that she prepared. She would not sit and eat with me, however — rather, she would stand watching, ready to fill my plate again. This ritual didn’t last long because it made me uncomfortable — instead, I started retreating to the television. When my grandfather would sit and eat with me, however, I would happily sit with him at the table for as long as it took to finish a meal, and sometimes longer. Years later, I understand her pride but I appreciate his wisdom even more. He never had to tell me to finish whats on my plate because we would just be there, together, eating, talking.
Luckily, you don’t have to wait a single moment to enjoy the experience of eating. As a champion of the concept of Change Anything to Change Everything, the very first thing you can do is eat the what you currently are eating, but invite another to join you. Is McDonalds your standard lunch place? Bring a friend along. Dining in your cube, invite another lone eater and munch on your sandwiches while chatting about the layout of your individual cubicles. When you are ready for bigger changes, here are a series of ideas that I have toyed with over the years:
- Eat with your hands - Doesn’t matter if it’s spagetti, salad, or fried chicken. Have one meal a week that is utensil free. You might like it or be completely disgusted by it, just keep a towel near by and get ready to laugh a lot.
- Throw a dinner party – There are few things that generate as many feelings of joy as being able to say, “I have a dinner party to get to.” All it takes is a simple main dish with some accessory dishes. Everyone will want to contribute: perhaps wine, desserts or sides, with games to follow. If you can trigger a feeling of community where everyone has a purpose – “I’m the wine guy,” the experience is only heightened.
- Full Tupperware exchange – If you flinch at the idea of the work and time that is needed (even if the reality is it doesn’t take much), pick seven of your closest friends, each choosing a recipe they have been chomping at the bit to try. Make enough to provide a serving or sample to each of the seven and meet once a week and exchange a serving with each other. In this case, you don’t need to eat together, as long as there is communication afterward about the various dishes. Even if you are physically alone when eating the sample, you are mentally together and paying a little more attention so you have some feedback to the chef.
- Copycat critic – Do you read restaurant reviews? If yes, choose a review and try to see what the critic sees. Did the reviewer mention the art on the walls? The comfort of the chairs? Or perhaps the friendly faces of the kitchen staff that are visible through the window? You and a friend can mimic the experience of someone who pays an extraordinary amount attention to detail without the added stress of it being your job.
- Become a food critic – Whether professionally or recreationally, become someone who others will refer to when searching for a date idea. Spending more time on the experience of the meal than you normally would so you can provide the perfect recommendation for someone looking for a romantic lunch or a loud surprise party. (The copycat idea, if repeated, may lead to this naturally.)
- Take a cooking class – Have you ever dated a chef in training? The fun you can have with food when learning about it from shop to chop to chomp is endless. Whether a class on how to make sushi or a several-week course on baking, you need tasters and sometimes an extra pair of hands.
Regardless if you’re eating for performance or weight loss, if you aren’t taking the time to explore the emotional connections that food easily provides, you are creating a battle where there could be a party. As a side note, you know you’re doing it right if you’re laughing so hard that the occasional crumb falls out of your mouth. Bon appetit!
The Gift Of Service
There is much written and idolized about selflessness and service to others. We celebrate great acts of heroism; write songs about the protesters to oppression; create Facebook memes highlighting quotes from inspirational martyrs. Many of these are well deserved.
The Affliction Of Service
However, there also lies a dark side of service, and that’s what I call the Affliction of Service. This is the chronic state of self-sacrifice that has a distinctive cost to you in body, mind, and spirit. You are not saving lives or preventing crimes against humanity. You are simply choosing to needlessly DO for others while IGNORING yourself.