A Manifesto For Eating
I have followed countless food rules over the past 15 years of my life. No more than 1300 calories, counted carefully using an app. Less than 15 syns a day, and don’t dare drink a drop more milk than you’re allowed. No food at all on Mondays or Wednesdays, as I attempted the 5:2 diet. There was the short period when I cut out all dairy and gluten completely, and a time when I thought sugar was the devil. I have lived with these rules for so long that choosing what to eat can be a minefield. There have been times when I’ve wandered around an M&S Food for twenty minutes, umming and ahhing about what would make the “best” option. I have panicked before meals out with friends, wondering what I’d be able to eat that didn’t ruin my diet. I’m embarrassed to admit that during the times when my incessant dieting was at it’s worst, I went as far as turning down invites out of fear that I would have to go “off plan”.
And so, at the beginning of summer when I vowed to let go of the body guilt and start treating my body with more love and kindness, I was stumped. I knew I didn’t want to be on a diet anymore, but truthfully, I didn’t know how to eat without the rules of whatever diet plan I was following. More than a decade of adhering to food rules had rewired my brain, and I didn’t know how to listen to my body anymore. And perhaps even worse, I didn’t trust my own mind.
For the last few months I’ve had to go back to basics. To find peace with food again, to see it not as something that is simply good or bad. I’ve learned to listen to both my body and my mind, to choose the food that makes them both feel best at any given time. We rarely talk about the impact food can have on our mind, do we? We talk about food as fuel, but it’s not as simple as that. Food is so much more than just fuel.
It’s joy, community, comfort and peace. Food can be an act of kindness - an offering of nourishment for your body, or a tool with which to extend your love to somebody else. Cooking can be a meditation, an expression of creativity, a routine that brings contentment and calm after a chaotic day. And meal times are about so much more than just the food served - they’re about the stories told around the table, the act of digging in and sharing dishes with others, the bringing together of flavours as diverse as the personalities who enjoy them.
That’s something I’d lost during my many years of dieting. I’d forgotten that food means so much more than the nutritional content and calories - it can make you feel strong, energised, content, healthy, happy, satisfied. It can be a way to connect with somebody else, or a way to show yourself that you care. And the act of gathering that food, cooking it, serving it, can be a joy or a meditation, as opposed to the fraught experience of doing constant calorie maths to make your restricted allowance go further.
When I look back over my twenty eight years on planet earth, it isn’t the perfectly nutritionally balanced meals I remember, or the days when I ate well within my calorie restrictions. No, I remember sitting on the sofa with a bowl of my Mum’s soup when I was off school ill, feeling better with every spoonful. I remember digging into the gigantic porterhouse steak that Sam and I shared on the evening of our engagement, high on delicious food and champagne and love and excitement. I remember the huge pan of chicken and chorizo stew that was placed in the middle of the table on a terrible day two years ago, the flavour and warmth offering a temporary moment of relief from the intense grief and sadness.
And so, slowly and gently, I have been gathering my own food rules this summer. As I have re-learnt how to feed and nourish both body and mind I have been taking note - of the things that make me feel good, of the times when I could have felt better. I have noticed how when I am stressed and anxious I reach for processed foods, and how they never fail to make me feel worse. I have fought off the instinct to only eat drab, lifeless foods on a Monday, and noticed how nourishing my body instead has set me up for a great week. And I have taken time to pause and truly enjoy every part of food - from the gathering and preparation, to the ritual of digging in every evening.
I have been slowly rewiring the circuits in my brain, shedding old food rules and replacing them with new ones, which in turn has become somewhat of manifesto for eating. I wanted to share it with you all today - both to celebrate what a milestone this truly is for me, and to inspire you to examine the food rules you’re living by.
A Manifesto For Eating
Set yourself up each day with a good breakfast. Skipping it makes you grumpy, and you’ll be far more reliant on coffee and sugar without it. Instead, start the day with the very first act of self care - a breakfast made purposefully to nourish and sustain you. Porridge with banana and berries, avocado and chilli flakes on your favourite toasted bread, or, if it’s Sunday, a bacon sandwich greedily devoured in bed. Take time and care with breakfast, and you’ll be rewarded for the whole day.
Be mindful about where you buy your food and what you buy. Support your local producers if you can, but don’t beat yourself up if the best you can manage is a supermarket trip. Learn more about eating seasonally, and plan your meals around the ingredients that are best that month. There’s something truly lovely about waiting until June for the best strawberries, or returning to root vegetables after a summer of salads.
Never turn down a social engagement purely because you’re counting your calories or watching your weight. The conversation and connection will nourish your mind, just as the food will nourish your body. Relax. Sharing food and wine with interesting people is one of the greatest joys in life, and far more important than fitting into your old jeans again.
Use the recipe books that have been sitting on the kitchen shelves gathering dust for the past few years. Once a week, open them, find something that looks truly delicious and cook it. Learn new skills, try new flavours, find new favourites. Remember that food can be a way to express your creativity and have an adventure without even leaving the house.
When you’re feeling stressed and anxious, think about what it is that your body truly needs. Takeaways are delicious, but if you’re feeling exhausted and burnt out, a nice homemade stew with some crusty bread and butter will get you up and running far more quickly. Always make double the amount you need and pop some in the freezer for when you need something truly delicious that will nourish both mind and body.
The perfect antidote to a busy, fast paced life is slow food. Resist the 15 minute meals whenever you can and carve out time in your schedule to potter in the kitchen instead. Roasting a chicken and preparing all the trimmings will calm your mind, as will gently cooking the filling for a homemade pie. Put the radio on too and you’ll be in heaven.
Be generous with your food. Remember that a good dinner party relies just as much on the company as it does the food. Gather your favourite people around the dining table and cook for them with as much love as you can muster - it will undoubtedly make the food taste better, as will the clinking wine glasses and the laughter shared.
And finally, know that food can be a celebration, a therapy, an act of love, but that it should never be a punishment. Anybody who tries to convince you otherwise probably isn’t feeling quite so healthy themselves.