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Can Food Have Love in It?

Do you think food can have love in it, and if so, why? It would be a mistake to see this as simply an amusing or benign question.

When I asked parents what they thought as part of my research for my book Nourished, their answers were unanimous. Food can embody love and it is important that it does. But it can’t do so without including three essential ingredients.

Part of the problem is that we see feeding as more of a nutritional event than a relational one. We are concerned with getting the right nutrients and calories into our kids, along with healthy eating habits. What we have lost sight of is the importance of the context they eat in. And the relationships that go along with it.

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We are most receptive to someone taking care of us when we are attached to them. Kids will follow, want to be like, copy and share the same values as the people they are attached to. Feeding our kids is one of the most frequent acts of caretaking we have. So it is important that we get it right. The challenge is that we are so focused on what food to serve them, that we no longer consider how food was meant to serve our relationships.

Why should food have love in it? Because feeling loved is the essence of caretaking. It is the invisible ingredient that makes food taste better, reduces pain and increases pleasure, according to research by Kurt Gray, a psychologist at the University of Northern Carolina.

Our perception of someone’s intentions as caring can alter our subjective experience and draw us closer to them. It is our child’s relationship to us that empowers us as their caretaker. The one thing our kids need to grow as independent, social and adaptive people is a strong relationship with a caring adult. Feeding them with love is one way to make ourselves irreplaceable as their caretaker.

The Three Ingredients To Food

The first ingredient that is essential is to embody food with love is time and attention. This may seem like a tall order for busy parents with competing responsibilities. How can we give our loved ones a sense that we keep them in mind as we prepare food or share it? There is no single prescription for how to do this. We can only use the time we have to convey the message. Whether that is slowing down to eat together, remembering favourite meals or tastes, or simply getting there first to provide for them before they tell us they are hungry.

Who we pay attention to and how we spend our time reveals what we care about. Most parents long for more time to spend with their loved ones and can be reassured that when we show up and pay attention to feeding them, it is time well spent. This doesn’t always mean homemade meals, it could just be making sure to sit down together and connect over food.

The second ingredient critical to embedding food with love is having good intentions as a caretaker. When people believe someone’s actions were well-intended, they feel more cared for. Intention means that someone is thinking about you and trying to provide generously for you. While the outcome may not be realized—food is burned, or it isn’t their favourite—the act of showing up to care for them is meaningful. Our caring intentions reveal who we hold close and what motivates us. If they see us as having caring intentions, they will be more receptive to what we have to offer.

The final ingredient in embodying food with love is caring and warmth. A simple meal is more nourishing when it is paired with an invitation for connection. The generosity and delight in taking care of someone conveys to them caring and warmth. In contrast is the sense that one is a burden or a chore to feed–as in “picky eating” or complaining about having to make dinner or lunches for the next day. Caring and warmth could be as simple as a note in a lunch bag or having a snack ready after school. There is no one prescription for conveying you care but feeding someone gives us an unparalleled opportunity to show that we do.

The key is to remember that taking care of someone is not just a role we take on but a relationship that forms between us. Feeding someone gives us a unique opportunity to pair two critical needs together—attachment and food.

It is in caring for each other that we become truly human and humane with food, our most trusted messenger.

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