Why Eating Together Matters

All right, I was a little fired up yesterday.

(My mom’s response? “You’re like that critic in Ratatouille. Authors will be afraid of you reading their books.”)

Actually, I try hard to be generous in my readings. This may sound corny, but a number of years ago a teacher said that we ought always to “love the author”–as in, “love your neighbor,” and the author is your neighbor–and that has always stuck with me. But sometimes? Sometimes there is just nothing good to say about a book, and yesterday was one of those times!

But if I rack my brain, there is one good thing to say about the book: it brings attention to something that matters a lot: eating together. It’s something close to my heart, something I’ve written about quite a few times (here, here, and here, and also in several undisclosed locations.)

And it’s something that I try to live daily: ever since my husband and I married, we’ve made eating together a priority in our lives. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about it is because eating together with him is one of the things that helped me heal from years of disordered eating and thinking.

But even before that–in my tortured starvation years, when the thought of eating clenched my stomach and filled me with fear–I could eat heartily with my mom. Once, when I was 17 and just a few days away from a very serious operation, she came home from work to find me curled up, filled with anxiety, and very hungry from a day of self-inflicted fasting. She took me straight to the diner for a Belgian waffle topped with ice-cream, which I ate with gusto. In her presence, and hers alone, I could eat with childlike abandon, even if elsewhere I was disordered as ever.

Interestingly, numerous studies have confirmed what I have experienced: that meals eaten together are good medicine. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you start talking about “studies,” so I’ll keep it brief and name just a few:

  • A University of Minnesota study published in The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that frequent family meals led to better nutritional intake, and a decreased risk for “unhealthy weight control practices” (read: eating disorders) and substance abuse five years after the initial study.
  • A Harvard University study published in Archives of Family Medicine showed that eating family dinners “most” or “all” days of the week was associated with eating more “healthfully”–families eating meals together ate meals that were lower in fat, higher in fiber, and richer in important nutrients than families “never” or “only sometimes” eating together.
  • Another University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that children who ate family meals consumed more fruits, vegetables and fewer snack foods than children who ate separately from their families.
  • Other studies (like a Lou Harris-Reader’s Digest national poll) showed higher scholastic scores among students who frequently shared meals with their families; another survey of high-achieving teens showed that those who ate a lot of meals with their families tended to be happier and more hopeful than those who didn’t.

Sadly, in our society, shared meals of any kind are quickly becoming a rarity—many people regularly eat alone and on the run. A few years ago, the BBC presented a magazine article titled “Portrait of the Meal-for-One Society,” reporting that half of all meals eaten in the UK are eaten alone. The article attributed this trend, in part, to the ubiquity of ready-to-eat meals and to the dramatic rise of single-person households. Although I was not able to find data suggesting just how many meals are eaten alone in the US, current research regularly reports a steady decline in the number of meals that children eat with their parents; in a 2007 study, for example, just 39% of 12-17 year olds reported eating with their parents 6 or 7 times per week; 30% ate with their parents three times a week or less.

Every culture attaches high significance to eating together. I’ve read of cultures in which it’s considered inappropriate for engaged couples to eat together before being married. Thought of in this way–as an act of serious intimacy–it’s no wonder that Jesus came under fire from the religious folks for eating with sinners. In that act, he was getting dangerously close to them, dirtying his hands with their stains, so to speak. But for Jesus’ followers, sharing meals became very important. It became one of the primary ways of celebrating their unity and of reaching out to other people. In the early church, the oddity of people of various backgrounds eating together constituted, for some, a “proof” of the gospel.

Eating together is what people do. I think it’s kind of what we’re made to do; it’s one of the things that helped human culture develop. It’s only specialization (and, you know, things like microwaves) that makes eating alone feasible at all. And we don’t really need university studies to tell us that it’s just good to eat with others.

{look at all the people THEY can fit around the table!}

But that makes me think: there are plenty of people who, for various reasons, eat alone. If you’re one of them–or if you know one or more of them–why not find a way to create a ‘family’ for sharing meals with? In our own home, this has meant extending our table often, but in a casual way, as in “join us for whatever we’re eating, even if it’s just noodles and broth.” It’s the kind of sharing that, to me, is least like charity, because whether we’re the ones accepting or extending the invitation, we’re going to be blessed.

Am I too thin to say “accept your body”?

Last week, I received a comment on the Audrey Hepburn post–in which I urged that one can be beautiful no matter their size–that gave me something to think about. You can read the comment in full on the original post (here), but this snippet sums up the basic point:

“This is a message that is very lovely, but I have to say…you look beautifully thin in all of your pictures. It seems to me that it is somewhat easier to share the epiphany now your figure is closer to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

I have already responded, and you can read my response in full, but the question implied in the comment has continued to pester me. Would I be as happy/contented with food and my body if I were NOT thin?

This is what I’ve concluded: that THIN does not = the source of my happiness.

(Not to mention, there are PLENTY of ways in which I fail to meet our culture’s standards of beauty. I do believe I actually WEIGH MORE than Audrey Hepburn ever did–and I’m, what, ten inches shorter than she was?! I’ve even got me some visible attributes–low muscle tone, spotty-lookin’ teeth (the front ones are caps), scoliosis, blue sclera, skin that’s thin and easily bruised–of a bona-fide genetic disorder! My “defects” are in my DNA, people!)

But you know? We all carry marks of our brokenness–whether visible or not.

These days, though, I’m pretty much comfortable and content with my body, scars and bumps and all. I have a healthy relationship with food and I’m reasonably active and things like {food/exercise/my body} don’t take up an inordinate amount of my time or my mental space–my contentment is NOT because I’m a certain size, a certain weight, or a certain level on some index.

Here’s the strange thing: my body hasn’t really EVER changed all that dramatically (you know, except for the pregnancies). Yet ten years ago, this body was a torment to me, and I had no idea how to eat without overdoing it or under-eating or just plain feeling guilty all. the. time.

I was terrified of food, terrified because LIKE ALL NORMAL HEALTHY PEOPLE, I liked food. I thought that indifference to food was ideal, and all interest in food was gluttonous, possibly sinful, and would make me fat. Thing is, it’s kinda hard to avoid eating. So I would eat, but because I felt so disconnected from my body and my appetite, I never could seem to feel contented and satisfied. I was also terrified that I would lose control and eat too much, which happened too, sometimes, because, again, I was so disconnected.

Now here’s an important point. I don’t think that this way of thinking is particular to me or in any way unique. Rather, I think it is a way of thinking that is particular to a consumerist culture. This is not to evade responsibility for my own thoughts and actions, but instead, to put those in a bigger context.


Think of all the ads for weight loss products and programs and gym memberships and everything else. They always carry with them the promise (the lie) that YOU YOU YOU can change your body–that it’s raw material for shaping any way you desire–if only you’ll buy this, do that, have enough control, pray enough, or whatever. And think of food advertising and the general culture surrounding food today: it’s all about having it YOUR way and making things suit YOUR taste and shaping YOUR identity through what you consume (I AM a vegetarian, I AM an organic consumer, a dieter, an overeater, or whatever.)

And think of all the cultural baggage surrounding eating and dieting and thinness. This quote from Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating, a memoir of her daughter’s anorexia, seems to me particularly true of our culture:

“We…have fallen for the notion that food is a regrettable necessity. As if the ideal, the holy grail we are all working toward, is to do without food altogether—and as if we not only should but could attain this state, were we good enough, determined enough, strong enough. As if that’s what we should want.”

But you know what?

All of this stuff? It’s very ME focused. And THAT–not overeating, not being overly fastidious, and certainly NOT loving food–is the essential definition of gluttony: your stomach gets in the way of loving God and your neighbor.

I no longer see my body as a raw material to be shaped by my own willpower with the help of consumer products–I see it as the handiwork of a wise and wonderful Creator.

And I no longer feel guilty admitting that I LOVE food!–Because I see it as a gift from God and the fruit of rich and complex histories involving both nature and culture.

Am I only able to feel this way because I’m a certain size and shape? I don’t think so. Truly, I no longer buy the lie that only THIN is beautiful. I’ve known too many truly beautiful people who didn’t conform to any standard of beauty in any way.

And I’ve known too well the ugliness–within myself, an ugly self-centeredness–that comes from an obsession with thinness (and looks in general). If God had seen fit to build me big instead of small–or if the years see me growing rounder (which they probably will)–I really hope my message would (will) be just the same:

~Your body is a gift, but who YOU are does not = your body.

~Your beauty does not depend on your looks.

~Food is a gift meant to be eaten–WITH JOY.

{Of course there’s more to my story than this, but I’m saving other parts for other days. Meanwhile, Thank you for your comments. I welcome them eagerly and treasure each one.}


White Collar’s Woman Problem

[Or, Tiffani Thiessen is not fat.]

{Today I’m delighted to welcome my co-blogger from the CT women’s blog, Gina Dalfonzo, with a guest post that grew out of a Facebook discussion we had on actresses and weight. Thanks so much for joining me at Eat With Joy, Gina!}

The last thing I want to do is bash any actress because of her weight. There’s more than enough of that going on already, and even the super-skinny ones get more than their share of it. All I want to do is reflect a little on a dynamic I’ve been noticing on one of my favorite shows. The way it’s been shoved in our faces, I could hardly help noticing it.

I’m talking about the detective series White Collar, on the USA Network. It’s an excellent series that has managed to take an old formula—con man helps FBI agent catch criminals—and make it fresh and entertaining. That is, when it comes to the two main male characters, Neal the con man (Matt Bomer) and Peter the FBI agent (Tim DeKay).

But lately, when it comes to the female characters, things are feeling a little clichéd.  

With one or two rare exceptions, the women of White Collar are either (1) involved with Neal the con man, and scary skinny, or (2) married to Peter the FBI agent, and allowed to have a few curves. Other fans of the show seem to be noticing this trend too, from what I hear.

Neal’s main love interest this season, Sara Ellis (Hilarie Burton), looked as if she could easily be broken in pieces. No sooner did Neal and Sara end things than along came a gorgeous female Egyptologist (is there any other kind of female Egyptologist?), played by Eliza Dushku, with long thin legs that the camera lovingly traveled up and down at every opportunity. And before this season, there was skinny Kate, and skinny Alex, and . . . you get the idea.

All these women were made to play super-smart, super-sexy, super-skinny superwomen, to an unbelievable degree. Literally unbelievable. Here’s a tip for future reference: If a show’s creator keeps earnestly assuring interviewers that his female characters are strong, smart, independent women, it’s a good sign that they’re not coming across that way on the screen. In the case of Sara and of Raquel the Egyptologist this season, what we’ve seen on the show is lots of attention to their looks, with a little token lip service paid to their supposed smarts. Sara, in particular, seemed to lose her brain every time Neal looked at her—and even though Matt Bomer is handsome enough to make any girl go a little tongue-tied (this version of New York is populated almost completely by beautiful people), it got annoying in short order.

In many ways, Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen), Peter’s wife, is a welcome corrective to all this. She’s attractive in a healthy-looking way, and she actually has a personality, not to mention one of the best marriages in a TV landscape largely devoid of good marriages right now. I give the show’s creators credit for coming up with a woman who’s a normal human being instead of a sex kitten, putting her in a great relationship, and casting an actress who doesn’t vanish when she turns sideways.

So it’s truly disheartening that Thiessen catches flak sometimes for her weight. The other day, researching this article, I was Googling “Tiffani Thiessen White Collar.” I’ll leave you to guess the first “f” word that the autofill function gave me. It wasn’t flattering. And it wasn’t fair. Thiessen is a normal, healthy weight, especially for a woman who recently had a baby in real life. (Hilarie Burton also recently had a baby in real life, but as Erma Bombeck used to say, she must have carried it in a shopping bag.) But any normal, healthy woman would suffer by comparison with the parade of skeletons that’s been marched past Thiessen on the show.

{Rachel's reaction: "wait, this is the one people are calling fat?!"}

The long and the short of it is that White Collar is showing an unhealthy obsession with the current Hollywood ideal of the skin-and-bones woman. And it’s especially saddening because White Collar is so strong a show in other ways—my friend Kim Moreland writes here about how well it handles themes like justice, order, and goodness —that slick Hollywood trappings, such as anorexic-looking women, stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

And in spite of the show’s best efforts, they’re not looking so good.

Continue reading White Collar’s Woman Problem

Weekend Eating Reading

…the weekly weekend post!

Weekend Eating Reading briefly discusses at least one good book that’s somehow related to ‘joyful eating,’ and is, throughout the weekend, updated with links to notable or newsworthy articles on topics relevant to readers of this blog.

This week’s books:

Guess which is designed to make you eat more than you want to--carrots or carrot cake?

The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler, MD

The British have a term for it–“more-ish.” It means a food that you WANT TO EAT MORE OF. Or, maybe more precisely, a food that makes YOU want to eat more of IT. If you’ve ever struggled with overeating, whether occasionally or chronically–and maybe even if you haven’t–you’ll want to read this book. It offers a staggering account of the science that goes into engineering foods to make them hyperpalatable–that is, to make them press all the right buttons in your body and brain to get you to want more, more, more, and more. This book is fascinating and disturbing. Read it! (or read more about it here, first.)

Oh! And this book:

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think by Brian Wansink, PhD

The picture’s extra big because that’s what American serving sizes are like–EXTRA BIG. And guess what? When packages are extra big, and you can’t get a good visual clue on what you’re eating, YOU EAT MORE, even if you don’t really like it. (!) And that’s just the way Big Food wants it.  This book’s also got some fascinating science, though it’s more psychological than bio- & neuro-chemical (as the other one is.) There’s lots of fun stuff to read about here.

More links will appear hear as the weekend goes on:

Chilling cartoon about widespread starvation in Somalia & US nonresponse HERE

HuffPo’s reporting on the ground turkey fiasco HERE

Cassie Green, remarkable food person! Read about her HERE

Enjoy it! And eat your food with JOY!

My Audrey Hepburn Problem

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–‘what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad