'Tis the season of dietary overindulgence, which starts with Halloween and lasts through New Year's Day, when many resolve to undo the damage inflicted by too many Christmas cookies. Seeking a balanced perspective on food in this unbalanced season, I eagerly read Christianity Today's cover story on the food movement. Leslie Leyland Fields argues for thoughtful food choices governed by our belief in a God who rules all creation, while cautioning against seeking perfection through our diets. Fields introduced me to the term orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. While I don't know anyone with orthorexia, I know plenty of people who are anxious about what they and their children eat, myself included.
In some ways, I'm laid-back about food; my kids get to keep all their Halloween candy and tuck potato chips into their tuna sandwiches. But I also know how I'm supposed to feed my family, and how often I fall short. When I pack an especially healthy school snack (hummus and pita, for example, instead of the usual cheddar Goldfish), I secretly hope the teacher will notice that I'm following the school's healthy snack policy to the letter. I worry that I'm not vigilant enough about my kids' diets given that my husband's family has a history of diabetes. I would like to lose a few pounds but feel defeated when, yet again, I skip breakfast, only to satisfy mid-morning hunger pangs by stopping at Starbucks for a latte and scone.
Anxiety drives out gratitude. When I'm worrying about whether my kids' snacks contain trans-fats or how many servings of fruit they've had today, I forget how fortunate I am to be able to feed my children when they are hungry. In his Four Freedoms series, Norman Rockwell illustrated "Freedom from Want" with a joyful family at a Thanksgiving table, the matriarch setting the turkey down in their midst. Freedom from want is no small thing, yet I often fail to give thanks for this privilege, one that much of the world does not share.
Modern eating is also characterized by a lack of mindfulness and appreciation for how food feeds spirits and communities as well as bodies. We eat at our desks, in our cars, in front of the TV, consuming our food quickly, alone, so we can move on to the next thing. The extremely health-conscious may see food as medicine, consumed solely for its nutrients and health benefits. Fields describes a "save-the-world theology of diet," which "often reduces food to the function it performs: food as social justice; food as nutrition; food as righteousness. All of these views diminish the fuller meaning of food found in the Scriptures."
In Scripture, food is a gift arising from the goodness of God's creation. Food is to be eaten together with family, friends, and the oddball folks who are never invited to the good parties. Jesus repeatedly used food as the most obvious way to illustrate that God's love is offered to everyone — everyone invited, everyone fed, everyone satisfied.
I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Since my first surgery two weeks ago, I haven't cooked a thing. Friends show up regularly with soups, casseroles, breads, and sweets. Dinners heavy on ingredients like bacon, cheese, and sour cream are followed by rich desserts. It is comfort food, substantial food, more about love than meeting a nutritional profile — like the food we will make and eat with loved ones on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many of my family's recent meals do not qualify as healthy eating. But they sure feel like good eating. I keep recalling Luke 10:8, in which Jesus instructs the 70 that when a town receives them, they are to "eat what is set before you."
As my family has eaten what is set before us, anxiety has given way to gratitude. What we eat isn't entirely up to me, so I'm free to enjoy a meal without worrying that it's not balanced or colorful or whole-grain enough. Freed of meal duties, I sit down at an attractively set table (the flowers sent by other friends help this effort nicely) and really listen to my kids' thank-you prayers. Because I didn't make the meal, I don't interpret my kids' rejection of certain foods as a failing grade on my "good mother" report card. I am, for the moment, free of food-related anxiety and mindless consumption because I accept the food we're eating as a gift, given freely out of love and for our well-being.
But aren't all our meals gifts from God's bounty, given freely out of love and for our well-being? It's easy to call up gratitude and mindfulness when we approach a holiday table loaded with favorite dishes and surrounded by those we love. It's a little harder when I'm scrambling to serve a decent weeknight meal to tired, choosy children between piano lessons and homework. For me, it has taken illness and the overwhelming generosity of friends to see that it's really a simple thing God asks of us: Eat what is set before us, and enjoy the meal.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer who focuses on Christian reproductive ethics and disability theology. She is writing a book for Westminster John Knox Press (forthcoming in 2011) about the ethics and theology of assisted reproduction and genetic screening. She writes regularly for Her.meneutics.
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Previous Christianity Today articles about food and Thanksgiving include:
A Feast Fit for the King | Returning the growing fields and kitchen table to God. (November 5, 2010)
Marching Farmers, Homeless Slaves | How Christianity's Jewish roots point us to a different kind of Thanksgiving. (November 25, 2008)
Look at All the Lonely People | A radically old way to reach out to a friendless culture. (November 14, 2006)