Joyful Connection Is Part of Healthy Eating Too

Judith J. Mercado

As a registered dietitian who moonlights as a writer and podcast host, I constantly come across people’s ideas of what healthy eating is and is not. These “definitions” are usually rigid and don’t leave much room for exploring the complexities of food. Never have pasta. Be a kale-eating machine. Always […]

As a registered dietitian who moonlights as a writer and podcast host, I constantly come across people’s ideas of what healthy eating is and is not. These “definitions” are usually rigid and don’t leave much room for exploring the complexities of food. Never have pasta. Be a kale-eating machine. Always drink the same amount of water every day (make sure it’s a ton, or else). And so on. Such strict interpretations of healthy eating don’t take into account individual circumstances and preferences. They oversimplify food as something that’s purely nutritional. And they neglect how important pure joy can be when it comes to the way we eat.

Food can be an incredible way to not only create joy, but also cultivate joyful connections with other people. What are some of your greatest memories while enjoying a good meal? Who did you share these moments with? As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about a special meal I had with a close friend a few years back while exploring this tiny cobblestone street in Madrid in the wee hours of the night. We started off with olives and goat cheese, local wine, and then progressed into a truffle cheese ravioli, the best arugula salad (ever), and grilled whole fish. I can still remember our table at the very front of the narrow restaurant, right across from the bar; the dim lights; my friend’s face filled with laughter as we cracked jokes about how incredibly romantic this entire setup was, and how lucky we were to be sharing it with one another. At one point, the chef came out to check on us, and that added another sprinkle of special to the whole night. These are the moments I live for and that bring me the most joy. And although it may seem counterintuitive, these moments are also part of healthy eating. Joy and connection to others are both great for our health.

Unfortunately, so many things can sap joy from how we experience food. Through counseling hundreds of people, I’ve seen firsthand the way food-related stress can rob us of the excitement, gratitude, fulfillment, and spirit of curiosity the act of eating can otherwise provide. I’ve worked with families that place an enormous amount of pressure on children during mealtimes in the form of “eat this,” “eat more,” “eat less,” or “eat now,” all of which can create a pattern of disordered eating that can take years to work through. I’ve seen a lot of adults, especially adults with larger bodies or who have recently gained weight, receive constant food policing and questioning from others and often from themselves. These types of dynamics are such a shame because tapping into joy during mealtime can help us feed not just our bodies, but our hearts as well.

You may be thinking, Okay, this sounds good, but what does joyful connection actually look like during mealtimes? Great question. Here are some practical examples:

Prepare for a special meal alone just as you would for a special meal with a loved one. 

Many of us save the good plates, tableware, and elaborate recipes for eating with other people, but you can do all of this for yourself too. It can even be as simple as enjoying your meal at the table versus on the couch, putting your phone away, and playing a good tune while eating—really focusing on the experience of your meal the way you might be more likely to when someone else is involved. I know it may be unrealistic to do this for every meal. Living alone, I try to do this for at least one meal out of the day. I’ll plate the food nicely and eat in silence or listen to a good podcast episode. I have found that this helps me cultivate more gratitude and connection as I eat—gratitude for a quiet moment and my access to tasty, nutritious food; connection to how my food makes me feel both physically and mentally.

Conserve and prepare family recipes. 

There’s so much recipe inspiration online that it can be easy to overlook the resources we may have among family members who know how to make delicious meals. But if food has been a foundational source of family connection for you, lean into that in ways you find enjoyable. What were some of your favorite dishes growing up? Who in the family is a great cook? Call them up and have them guide you through a recipe as you make it. I especially love doing this with older family members because they’re the best storytellers of family food traditions. Archiving family recipes can also be a meaningful project to take on during quarantine and may bring you closer to loved ones even if you have to be apart.

Get creative about sharing meals with friends from afar. 

FaceTiming as you eat a virtual meal together is a great place to start. But if you or your friends aren’t into that for any reason—including because video calls can be complex to navigate when it comes to body image, especially when eating—maybe it means something like starting a supper club where you make the same recipe, share photos of the final product, and compare notes about how it went. If you’re looking for recipe inspiration (beyond the SELF recipe archives), I love the following blogs: Diala’s Kitchen, Fit Men Cook, Supper With Michelle, Pinch of Yum, Half Baked Harvest, Grandbaby Cakes, and A Cozy Kitchen.

Make some meals a celebration of everyday accomplishments. 

Again, I want to keep this practical because every meal isn’t going to be a celebration, and sometimes you need to eat something on-the-go or on the couch. However, once in a while or maybe even once a week, think about something to celebrate and center the meal around that. Lately, celebrations for me have been about meeting a deadline, cleaning the house, or decluttering the fridge. Nothing out of this world. Still, turning a meal into a tiny celebration helps me savor the food a bit more and acknowledge the work I’m doing to take care of myself, no matter how small the win may seem.

Buy food from restaurants and shops that share your cultural background, social justice values, or more. 

Eating foods or snacks from your culture can evoke so many memories and is a great way to support the restaurant and food industry, especially during this time. I feel particularly good about supporting food businesses owned by people of color because I know that they’re often at a financial disadvantage, and placing an order may help them keep their business alive. And eating food prepared by people who share your values in some way, like buying groceries from a local grocery store that supports small farms, can help you deepen the sense of connection you feel to your community too. 

All of these are examples of healthy eating that go beyond surface-level recommendations like “eat more fiber.” Those kinds of nutritional directives can have their place, but they’re nowhere near the be-all, end-all of healthy eating. Sadly, I’ve seen people stay away from recommendations like those above because they perceive them as unhealthy in some way. It may be a hesitation to order from a restaurant because you can’t control how the food is made; staying away from cultural recipes if they don’t align with the mainstream Eurocentric approach to healthy eating, or shying away from sharing meals with loved ones for fear of judgment. One of my greatest missions as a dietitian is to help people better understand that healthy eating is different for each person, and moments of joy—and joyful connection—deserve a seat at the table.

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