“Few of us are aware that the act of eating can be a powerful statement of commitment to our own well-being, and at the same time the creation of a healthier habitat. Your health, happiness, and the future of life on earth are rarely so much in your own hands as when you sit down to eat.”
~ John Robbins
~Q~In some areas of life, simplicity may seem a poor substitute for all the toys and treats of modern, state-of-the-art living. When it comes to eating, however, I doubt whether many would prefer the modern array of pre-processed, almost pre-digested foods served straight from the microwave and eaten in front of the television to real home-cooked meal, made from quality ingredients and eaten at the table with good company and good conversation. Why accept the former when you can weave the ideals of simple eating into your home and into your life?
Eating is important. I think we can all agree on that, but not only is the physical process of putting food in our mouth important, but also how we do it. Your grandparents had it sorted out well; the family sat at the table, the food was served and the family ate. Modern life has blurred this process; many of us sit at the table with our family very rarely and some of us only on special occasions such as Christmas or Thanksgiving. Surprisingly, a number of families have given up eating together entirely; members of the family eating in isolation ~ perhaps two at a time on occasion. A mechanical process, getting what they want when they want, and eating it. I want to suggest that individual ‘feeding’ is a poor substitute for the social occasion that is a family meal. The table that families will sit at will also vary; some prefer a kitchen table, where food is served at the heart of the home; others prefer to eat in a dining room ~ hopefully close by. But both of these become impossible if the table itself has been dispensed with; as it has in many homes in the UK!
The first step towards simpler eating is to have mealtimes and have a table to eat at. Something about a family eating together suggests all kinds of things are going on besides merely the intake of a meal. There is a social interaction ~ ‘how was your day?’, ‘what happened at school today?’, 'did you get that hail storm at lunchtime?’ ~ all signs of conversation between people. Young children at the meal table are learning to talk by watching and listening, and older children are learning to join in adult conversation. Where does this happen if not at the meal table?
Why do I suggest that these things are important ~ and what have they got to do with simplicity at all? I think the answer is that by family protocol and tradition, we are signifying the importance of the family as a group and, of course, showing that food is vital. Food is not something that we throw down our throats before we get on with the next ‘exciting’ thing we have to do. It is, quite simply, a matter of life and death! Family traditions based around eating that you decide to introduce may be setting some kind of pattern for generations to come ~ they are very important.
If we look at families from a cultural point of view we note that the meal table is a place of spiritual interaction ~ most religious traditions start with grace or the blessing of the food. My own family follows the Quaker tradition of silent grace. We have introduced the idea of a short reading before silent grace to ‘give them something to think about’; this might be from the Bible, the Quaker book Advices and Queries or a book of prayers for children. If we do use readings (sometimes we don't) we are careful to select them to reflect our personal religious preferences, the time of year, and other family, or world events. The member of the family taking grace is different each time to get away from paternalistic (or maternalistic) traditions. Grace need not be like this and it can be adapted so as to be appropriate to any religious tradition. It is possible to envisage that a non-religious family might consider having a short period of ‘thinking time’ at the start of the meal as an alternative to grace.
It is also a good idea, then, to start the meal with some formal words of starting such as ‘bon Appetit’, ‘Shalom’ or a traditional greeting from another culture such as ‘wassail’, ‘Skol’ etc.
In Amish families, grace can be a much longer process than that outlined above and may include readings, prayers, silence or even hymn singing. As soon as grace is over, the food is eaten with the lack of further ceremony. It is simply a matter of finding out what works for your family.
“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here forever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”
― Virginia Woolf
Setting the Table
Simplicity is not necessarily minimalism. Sitting down to eat from matching pure white crockery on a white linen tablecloth may be minimalistic ~ but it’s not simple! The simple table top is spread with what is needed for the meal. If plates don’t match, then this shows that you simply buy replacement plates as and when needed; the effect is rustic, unpretentious and very simple.
Likewise with cutlery ~ no need for a matching set, just use what you have and make sure that children have equipment to eat with that matches the size of their hands. Always try to find a meaningful centerpiece of the meal ~ something seasonal is nice; flowers, budding twigs, stones, a small basket of pine cones or a candle (see chapter X). Where possible, dish up food at the table from serving dishes, this prevents food wastage and provides plenty of valuable leftovers (the true value of leftovers is discussed in chapter Y). Always have a jug of drinking water on the table and encourage younger people to fill glasses or tumblers themselves. It’s a useful skill!
MealsThe simple way is to have three meals a day served at pretty much the same time each day; breakfast, lunch and supper. This, of course, does not fit in with everyone’s life perfectly, but it should be the norm for most days. Eating between meals is fine if you have been using lots of energy and are too hungry to wait until the next mealtime, but eating between meals out of habit rather than out of hunger, probably results in overeating and subsequent weight gain. Meals have a way of evolving within families and that is the way it should be. It also means that rules develop about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate at the meal table. Younger members of the family should be expected to follow these rules and fit in with the general flow of mealtimes. Rules must be for everyone and adults cannot behave, in a way that they would find unacceptable in children when at the meal table.
Special MealsAll meals are special, but some are 'more special' than others. Later in chapter * we explore the reasons to celebrate and look more closely at birthdays, anniversaries and the like. Needless to say, special meals should take account of the likes and dislikes of individuals and families. Consider having one special meal each week in the style of the Jewish Shabbat. You might decide that the traditional Friday evening is a good time to do this, but there is no reason why you should not pick another evening if it suits your family. The point of a Shabbat meal, apart from the obvious religious one, is that the family itself is at the focus of the meal, it is a time of the week when everyone in the family makes every effort to be present, and not to bring the worries and conflicts of the week to the table. Food should be special and simple, with the dishes prepared in advance to allow a relaxed and slow approach to the meal. It becomes a family tradition and soon becomes an indispensable part of the week.
GuestsVisitors should be made welcome at the meal table and never put in the position of eating food they are not happy to, or be embarrassed by protocol. It is good if you want to invite others to eat with you, but do not get involved in the idea that they then have to invite you to eat with them. The whole concept of ‘dinner parties’ is a bad one as it often results in people eating what they don’t want to, with people they don’t want to be with, at a time when they would rather be getting on with something else. Why put yourself and your friends through the whole rigmarole? An invitation to eat should be just that with no strings attached and no expectations of reciprocal invitations. Above all, having guests for a meal should be a simple thing and not involve any degree of ‘showing off’ or trying to impress ~ make it relaxed and simple.
Drinking with Meals
The simple drink for any meal is water. If you drink alcohol with meals, then decide what amount you chose to drink each week and stick to it! If you refill glasses and lose track of how much alcohol you have drunk, then don’t bring the bottle to the meal table. If you want to drink less, then try smaller glasses; many wine glasses today (in Europe) are 250cm3 while not so many years ago 175cm3 glasses were the norm. Seek out these smaller glasses and use only them at the meal table. If you do serve wine, then always provide water as well. Drinking less is easily achieved by having one or two alcohol-free days each week. Non-alcoholic drinks served at the table should not be sugar loaded as this just adds calories to the meal without adding any nutrients. Children should drink water or diluted fruit juice, not carbonated drinks or ‘squash’.
Eating MeatMeat, historically, has been at the heart of the western diet for thousands of years. However, the demand for land and resources means that an alternative focus for the diet is ethically desirable. You can also consider your relationship to the food on your plate; if you are not happy with killing animals yourself, is it reasonable to expect somebody else to do it for you? With the large number of alternative products available, not eating meat would seem the simple and ‘greenest’ way forward. You might like to consider giving up meat except for one day a week, or only eating meat on one or two special occasions a year. Alternatively, you might like to try a vegetarian or vegan diet as outlined below.
Vegetarians do not eat meat or fish (those that do eat fish and call themselves vegetarians have a basic misunderstanding of the concept). Some vegetarians eat eggs and some also eat dairy produce, but if this includes cheese it must be made with a vegetarian alternative to rennet, which is produced from the stomachs of calves. It is essential in a vegetarian diet to ensure sufficient protein, vitamin B12 and iron; all components of meat that need alternative sources. Protein can be derived from beans and lentils, but (with the exception of the soya bean) you need to mix these with grain to get the correct supply of essential amino-acids, the ‘building blocks’ of muscle tissue and enzymes in the body. Other sources of protein include nuts, eggs, dairy products and ‘meat substitutes’ such as textured soya, QuornTM and the 'curd' of the soya bean, called tofu. You can soon get used to cooking with these substances and produce any number of good dishes. Vitamin B12 is not found easily outside the meat diet so vegetarians need to eat eggs or yeast extract regularly. Otherwise, take vitamin supplements (see Chapter Z ~Simple Health). Iron is found in a number of plant sources, but for those vulnerable to anaemia, pregnant women, menstruating women, the elderly etc. supplements may be a good idea. A word of warning; becoming vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean your diet is good, it is possible to be a vegetarian and eat very badly ~ you still need, like everyone else, to think carefully about what you eat each day.
Vegan EatingVegans will point out that animal cruelty and exploitation is involved in the production of both meat and dairy. In particular, the dairy industry could not run without the killing of young male calves. A vegan diet is an attempt to live within an ethical system which aims to eliminate the farming of animals altogether. As you can see from the information above, this is possible and all you need to do is to make sure that you get sufficient protein, vitamin B12 and iron, possibly from supplements. A vegan diet is perfectly healthy and, just as meat eaters might like to ‘phase in’ a vegetarian diet, likewise vegetarians might like to consider phasing in a vegan diet.
“To be a vegetarian is to disagree - to disagree with the course of things today... starvation, cruelty - we must make a statement against these things. Vegetarianism is my statement. And I think it's a strong one.”
~ Isaac Bashevis Singer
The plain and simple way to feed babies is on breast milk. Unless there is a sound medical reason why this cannot happen, then no excuse exists. Breast milk is the best food available for babies and it is far cheaper than buying an inferior product to make up bottled feed. Mothers may need some professional help to get this right, but remember it’s what breasts are for! If breast feeding is proving a problem for you, don't feel a failure just get some advice and, if it really doesn't work out then at least you have given it a good try!
As babies grow, they will need to be weaned onto solid food. Again, you may want to take advice on when is the right time to start this, but there is no need to buy manufactured baby food at all. As a father of five, I can think of only one occasion when an emergency jar of prepared baby food had to be purchased for one of my children. Food carefully prepared in your own kitchen will be the ideal way to wean your baby; best for baby, best for parents and best to get a head start on a life of good, simple, home produced food. Obviously, all food for babies needs to be of the appropriate consistency and some ingredients such as salt and some other seasonings need to be left out altogether.
As soon as they are fully weaned, children need to eat food that is available for all the family. You may need to hold some foods for when the children are older, but generally speaking, the sooner children eat a wide range of different and well prepared foods, the better. Fussy eaters are a problem and it is best to offer food from serving dishes on the table so that children can be tempted to try new foods regularly. If children are food rejecters, be careful not to alienate them from ever trying again by anything approaching forced feeding; better maintain the peace of the meal table and try again another day. Many children eat slowly and many ‘fill up’ with what might seem to you a small amount of food. Get used to your child’s appetite and meal size limits and accommodate them the best you can around the meal table. As stated in the chapter ‘simple cooking’, do try and involve children as much as possible in the process of food preparation.
For very picky eaters, always provide some bread and butter/spread on the table, so if they reject the meal being served they do not leave the table hungry.
One good way to avoid the problems associated with fussy eaters and members of the family with special requirements (either medical of optional) is the idea of a 'free eating meal'. The table is set with empty plates for all and all the dishes are arranged for people to help themselves. In these circumstances don't worry at all if the dishes don't conventionally go together, nor if individuals pick a strange array of foods. A good mixture of hot and cold dishes can be on offer and all the usual components of protein sources, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates should be present. If pasta, turnips, green salad and chili all turn up on the same plate, why not?! It might be that two different people sitting at the same table will be enjoying different meals.
Free eating encourages all to be more adventurous in what they eat, makes good use of leftovers and is a good way to introduce new dishes to the family. For picky eaters it might just encourage them to try 'just a little' of something they have never tried before, and they might even like it and come back for more! The important points are that all the food is good in quality and preparation, and that everyone eats what they want.
"We easily fall a prey to the temptations of the palate, and therefore when a thing tastes delicious we do not mind taking a morsel or two more. But you cannot keep health under those circumstances. Therefore I discovered that in order to keep health, no matter what you ate, it was necessary to cut down the quantity of your food, and reduce the number of meals. Become moderate; err on the side of less, rather than on the side of more. When I invite friends to share their meals with me I never press them to take a thing if they do not want it."
~Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
“There is nothing more luxurious than eating while you read—unless it be reading while you eat. " ~ E. Nesbit,
You may like to read
MaryJ. Renfrew, Chloe Fisher, Suzanne Arms ~ Breastfeeding:How to Breastfeed Your Baby Random House 2004 edition
The latest edition of the book that covers every aspect of breastfeeding, very well illustrated.
Gill Rapley, Tracey Murkett ~ Baby-ledWeaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food Random House 2009
A child led approach to weaning on home produced food.
Sharon K. Yntema , Christine H. Beard ~ New Vegetarian Baby McBooks Press 2003
The classic guide to rearing vegetarian children.
BrendaDavis, Vesanto Melina ~ BecomingVegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-based Diet Book Publishing Company 200
Everything you need to know for a healthy transition.
N.B. ~ Family grace may be silent, or one member of the family says a short prayer either way these following books will provide inspiration. Of course you will also want to include readings from religious texts of your own family traditions.
This book is excellent for finding a short reading relating to everyday and seasonal events. Suitable for even very young children.
Short daily prayers in the Celtic tradition.
Britain Yearly Meeting Advicesand Queries ~ The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of friends (Quakers) in Britain 1995
Invaluable wisdom from British Quakers (an indispensable booklet in our house).
(C) Ray Lovegrove (aka 'Hay Quaker') 2014
(C) Ray Lovegrove (aka 'Hay Quaker') 2014