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Intersection of Life and Faith

Build Community By Sharing Meals

  • Deborah Kesten Guest Author
  • 2001 21 Sep
Build Community By Sharing Meals
In the United States today, it's becoming more and more common to eat alone, to relate to food as a necessary, functional part of life, something to fit into our busy schedules. This mentality has even infiltrated our language. How many times do we hear: "I'm just going to grab something on the way home," "Don't hold dinner; I have to work late," or "Sorry I have to eat and run." The end result: Whichever way you turn the dining table, it's still devoid of people.

Not only is there no time like the present to do something about the loneliness that permeates our culture, there is no better opportunity to do something about it than each time you eat. To access the social salve of dining with others, when I give presentations, I often ask people to think about how they feel in their soul during those quiet, often lonely times while going home after work. How would they feel if they knew that their grandmother had been preparing dinner all afternoon; if they knew that when they arrived home, they'd sit down to eat with their children, spouse and grandparents? Then, perhaps after they ate the freshly cooked food while catching up on each other's lives, neighbors who lived nearby would drop by to chat and share some dessert. Smiles and pleasurable sighs at the prospect are the usual response.

Implementing the healing secret of socializing each time you eat is one way you can take positive, constructive action, not only to heal your relationship with food but also to correct the culture's unbalanced perception of the role of food and to reclaim your heritage. By putting into action the social and other healing secrets of food discussed in this book, you're positioning yourself not only to digest food's healing social nutrients but also its emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits.

Setting the social table
For some, uniting with others through food may seem simple; others might perceive it as a unique challenge. In actuality, dining with people in a pleasant atmosphere is part of our unique heritage as human beings. Whether eating together as a member of a tribe or clan or, more recently, during birthdays or weddings, we've been turning to food to enjoy or celebrate with others for millennia. As a matter of fact, some experts believe that this tradition became less common when central heating evolved, and families no longer needed to gather together in the kitchen to stay warm.

Bringing social nutrition back into your life is especially easy, because it calls for making some minor shifts in what you're already doing. What follows are some suggestions for integrating social ingredients into your daily meals and for making social dining a more intimate and integral part of your life each day.

Set a table for two.
If you're dining alone, "socialize" by placing a photograph of someone you love on the table. As you sit down to eat, conjure up favorite food memories you've shared: perhaps some exceptional pasta primavera served in a favorite restaurant, the time you savored a piece of chocolate together, or a special summer potato salad you all enjoyed at a family picnic. Or does the fresh fruit you're having for dessert remind you of the blueberries you picked together during a walk in the country?

Here's another option: if you have a pet - such as a cat or dog - feed your pet first so you can feel connected to it while you're eating.

Take a social nutrition break.
When my husband and I worked on a clinical research project at a medical university in Europe, we would often join our colleagues for lunch at the local cafeteria and socialize over a simple salad or soup. Every office lunch, snack, or coffee break is an opportunity for you to access the healing secret of socializing. Whether you're "brown-bagging" it with a tuna sandwich or dining on a simple mixed salad you purchased at the local deli, when you're at work, why not make it a point to have lunch with coworkers? Or, in the afternoon, take a social nutrition break by enjoying a cup of yogurt, freshly popped popcorn, or herbal tea with like-minded coworkers. Ultimately, eating with colleagues is an opportunity to build relationships instead of yet another activity that you do alone at the office.

Finesse family fare.
A recently widowed father who was raising two preteen boys by himself told me he realized that his sons and he weren't really eating together. Rather, it was typical for them to eat take-out pizza while watching TV. To change this pattern, he began to prepare more homemade meals whenever possible (macaroni and cheese with a tall glass of tomato juice were favorites) and to turn off the TV while eating. Soon he began looking forward to sitting around the dining room table with his sons and sharing stories about the day.

In the same spirit, if you, your spouse, and your children have busy schedules, is it possible to commit to one or two mornings to having breakfast together? Perhaps you can prepare pancakes, while others can contribute by organizing the toppings, such as yogurt, raisins, and chopped walnuts. Fresh-pressed orange juice and a fantastic fruit salad are other quick and easy - but special and tasty - options.

Create a social Sabbath.
At a seminar I gave, a devout Jewish woman told me that my talk about social nutrition had struck a chord. About 50 years old and divorced with grown children away at college, she realized that she ate alone too often and that she deeply missed both preparing and sharing meals with loved ones - especially Friday night Sabbath meals. Her solution? She planned to begin having a weekly potluck meal at her home with some special friends on Friday night.

If you used to observe the Sabbath but "just don't have time anymore," try bringing it back into your life. Or in the spirit of Sabbath, initiate your own potluck get-together with special friends or family. It doesn't have to be time-consuming to create a dish for a potluck meal. For me, when time is an issue, I might make some sweet potato soup - served warm in the winter or chilled in the summer. Or, if you have the time, consider making fruit pies, prepared with varieties of seasonal fruit: plums, apricots, and cherries in the spring; peaches and blueberries in the summer; apples and pears in the early fall.

Consider "soulful" dining.
Because slaves were forbidden to talk with one another or to socialize while working in the fields, preparing and eating soul food provided a joyous opportunity to spend time together. In this way, meals became social occasions that offered comfort to heart, body, and soul. "Eating soul" can be social in yet another way: because it's recipeless (slaves weren't allowed to learn to read and write), learning to "cook soul" has become an art that has been handed down from generation to generation during time spent together in the kitchen.

Some basics brought from Africa are goobers (peanuts) and benne (sesame seed paste), while meager food rations on the plantations were stretched by foraging for edible wild greens, wild onions, and wild roots, such as potatoes. Today, soul food is still simple - and socially satisfying - fare. In this light, consider having a soul-food feast. Ask an elderly aunt for a favorite family recipe, then prepare it and invite her and other family members over to enjoy it. Or ask some friends to come over to share and prepare some simple soul food dishes that, of course, are recipeless. Some suggestions: spiced mustard greens, corn bread, and a mixed vegetable and bean stew.

Connect with the community.
Ultimately, the healing secret of socializing is about connection with self, family, friends, neighbors, environment, and community - with food as the unifying flavor. Wouldn't it be exciting if communities started to have potluck dinners so that everyone wouldn't have to continue eating alone? On a weekly, monthly, or annual basis, community members could get together for potluck meals by meeting in homes, community centers, synagogues, or churches by creating food-focused street festivals.


Excerpted from The Healing Secrets of Food: A Practical Guide for Nourishing Body, Mind, and Soul by Deborah Kesten, copyright 2001. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, Calif.,, 1-800-972-6657.

Deborah Kesten, M.P.H., a pioneer in the field of integrative nutrition, has worked as a journalist, researcher, and lecturer, and has written extensively about nutrition and health.

How does sharing meals with others help you build closer relationships with them? Why do you think Jesus often mixed eating and socializing? How does communion help you encounter Jesus as you eat the bread of His body and drink the wine or juice of His blood? Visit Live It's forum to respond, or read what others have to say. Just click on the link below.