Food – is it ever simple?

People say having a child makes you see everything in a new way, with fresh eyes, removing the jaded filter that somehow affixes itself to us as we spend time in the world. But I had thought this meant things like smelling the flowers, or noticing snail trails: things that I knew about but had just forgotten to pay attention to. I didn’t quite realise what should probably have been self-evident: that it would require of you that you go right back to the beginning, and re-discover one by one each of the building blocks that are needed to make up a human. Suddenly you are faced with everything from the other way around: instead of the answer, you have the problem, and instead of the solution, a need.

So, for example, with feeding. You merrily look forward to feeding your baby, lured on by beautiful pictures of babies held securely in their parents’ arms, the adult smiling and the baby content, whether with the breast or the bottle. Meanwhile the stage is set for weaning several months later, with recipe plans and guidance on portion sizes to tempt you on. It doesn’t occur to you until you are faced with it that there may be a question: will the baby want to feed? Will the method you’ve so carefully chosen be accepted by your baby? Will they take to it, and if not now, how long might it be before they do?  

If a baby can reject certain kinds of food or feeding approaches, it makes me wonder how they learn to identify what food is. What is food to a baby? What does it mean to them? I would like to think that understanding this is still relevant to how we feel about food as adults. For some time I’ve thought of food as something that gives me the strength or energy to get by. In pregnancy this was heightened to a more urgent necessity: throughout the nine months I needed food in order to feel less sick, so that most of the time I wasn’t too fussed what it was as long as it was available. But since having a baby I’ve started to notice that food does require attention, and it is not a side issue in the life either of a little person or a big person. The need is perpetual and doesn’t go away. But I think this need only becomes inconvenient – with its nagging way of inserting itself into our days – when we lose sight of what food is for.

Food is rhythm and punctuation: I find structure incredibly reassuring; long days without plans scare me. But when other activities are yet to be decided upon, the need to feed can at least give the day a beginning, a middle and an end. I find it sad somehow when it feels like that is all there is, or you become part of an institution where the food-window is simply determined by the time on the clock. It can become then just a matter of getting the thing done. But as things are at the moment, I enjoy the rhythm of working to my baby’s timing, where she will let me know when she is hungry, and all I need to do is to be ready for it. Whatever happens with each day, I can be sure of these intervals, these pauses where we can both stop to get what we need.

Food is an expression of love: I think food is such an essential that this is something which as human beings we really get. Jesus seemed to tune into this when he said: ‘There isn’t a person among you who would give his son a stone if he asked for bread, is there?’ The child asks for what he knows to be good, and the parent’s instinctive response is not to deny it. But it happens too in friendships and relationships of all kinds, and most of the time we may not even ask for it. A colleague brings some vegetables into work that they have grown in the allotment: not only because they have some going spare, but in the knowledge that someone will be able to enjoy what they have shared. A friend comes over to visit and brings a sharing pack of Borders biscuits (the posh ones), and suddenly the thing which I wouldn’t have thought to buy if I’d seen it in the shops feels like the perfect treat.

Food is given: It comes from somewhere, and often from someone. It is given by the earth, and by those who tend the earth, or man the machines that harvest it. It is given by those who cook and plan and put the food together. It is given so that we can give to ourselves, and so that we can give to others.

Food satisfies: But it is about more than meeting the hunger. It brings relief to our bodies; it settles us. Until this point, so much of our energy can get absorbed in straining for what we don’t have, but once the body settles, there is room to look around again and begin something new.

In a seventeenth century poem by Edward Taylor, food forms the basis of a religious metaphor, but through this focus on the bread of life there is also a reimagining of what all living things share in common. The soul is pictured here as a bird, and instead of the soul being the ephemeral part of a person, it becomes the very part that requires physical sustenance:

When that this Bird of Paradise put in
This Wicker Cage (my corpse) to tweedle praise
Had pecked the Fruit forbade: and so did fling
Away its Food; and lost its golden days;
It fell into Celestial Famine sore:
And never could attain a morsel more.

Alas! alas! Poor Bird, what wilt thou do?
The Creatures’ field no food for Souls e’er gave.
And if thou knock at Angels’ doors they show
An Empty Barrel: they no soul bread have.
Alas! Poor Bird, the World’s White Loaf is done.  
And cannot yield thee here the smallest Crumb.

I find it a surprise that not even the angels can help. But sometimes it feels like that: everything you try is empty, and everyone has run out. It underlines I think how consoling it is when you do find that ‘soul bread’, and when you work out what the source of that is for you.

Perhaps that is what I am coming to: that it is a journey for each of us to discover what nourishes us, what tastes we like, and what satisfies our hunger. It takes time to work out how we get it, and then how we continue to get it. This is ok; it is how it is meant to be. But because this is all a matter of learning and discovery, there are two further thoughts I have about some of the pitfalls I am most keen to avoid for my daughter.

Food is not a measure of being good: The two have become incredibly hard to disassociate for our culture, and within our society, and I believe this makes the ‘relationship’ that we have with food very difficult to maintain and to enjoy. There is the saying that we are what we eat. But what I choose to eat does not make me either good or bad. At worst, I might make a poor decision that makes me feel poorly a little later on. But this should not define my sense of my own ‘virtue’ or ‘sin’. Food is not the problem.  

And secondly…

Food doesn’t have to be your standard of perfection: Though it is all too easy to think that this is what we should be aiming for. The perfect meal plan, the perfectly balanced plate, the right amount of nutrients, the right level of energy for the right time of day. I thoroughly enjoy learning about all of these things. But it is too hard to manage this every day, all of the time, and I also feel that trying to be perfect (with food) rather misses the point. Food can be messy, things go wrong, experiments sometimes fail and we do not achieve the desired result. There will be another day. What didn’t work today can serve as practice for next time.

Because although I don’t always feel this, it is ok to be hungry, to admit that I am, and it is ok to be full, and to be glad of it. This is what I want my daughter to know.