Food, family cultures and our (not so) hidden attitudes towards food

Family cultures and eating: our hidden attitudes towards food

Food, family cultures and our (not so) hidden attitudes towards food

Who do we eat for and how do we eat it?

I grew up in Ireland. Mealtimes were a little of a free for all with everyone grabbing their share and eating as quickly as possible – it was a serious time-bite race. We operated in a mindset that said if you don’t eat it then, and fast, who knows when your next plate’s coming. Old habits die hard, as even today I have to consciously work on slowing down when I eat.

One of the comments I often heard from both my parents, was that there was ‘not much money growing up, but they always had enough to eat’, and this percolated throughout my own childhood in our family’s approach to food; not clearing your plate was considered almost a sin; with regular reminders that people were starving in Africa! The idea of being fussy around food was considered indulgent and you were quickly reprimanded and reminded that you were lucky to have any.

In the 1840’s and 1850’s Ireland suffered a famine. The country lost 20 – 25% of their population. Over a million people died, with many more forced to emigrate, often dying on their way or when they got to their destination. (Kinealy, 1994)[i]

The interesting thing about this period is that Ireland was actually a net food exporter; so while all these people were dying or leaving, there was plenty of food in the country, but a combination of ‘laissez-faire’ politics, poor crop and land management and a lack of willingness to care about and address the problem allowed it to happen.

Indeed this pattern has been maintained worldwide today with many countries with large-scale mal-nourishment or recurrent famines often being net food exporters at the same time; so despite all our technological progress over the last 170 years, nothing much has changed, it would seem, in our approach to food and famine. (Sen, 1981)[ii]

Famines, even when they are long gone, have repercussions down the generations and my parents’ attitudes towards food (having enough to eat, eating what you’re presented with) are symptomatic of that - and their experience of the 20th century World Wars has only compounded these attitudes.

So where does this lead, and how do we, the later generations allow our culture, especially around food, to be coloured by our ancestors' experiences, such that our mentality and attitude towards food is driven by our reactions to their experiences, which we’ve not lived?

From experience this can play out in a number of ways, with food treated in a very perfunctory way. Growing up, food was approached as a fuel that our bodies needed, with little true care about the quality of that fuel, or how it was prepared, presented or eaten. It wasn’t quite thrown down on the table, but not far off! Food was approached as a ‘need to get this into me’ to fill up, so I can get on with other things – like a formula one race pit stop, necessary but not truly valued, and an interruption to other more important things.

As children, we were cultivated to be grateful to have food and we were often given too much food! In a way this was done to show there was enough food and once it was presented to you, you were ‘obliged’ to eat it – you definitely couldn’t be seen to be wasting food! And then it was eaten so quickly or even on the go, that there was little real time to savour and enjoy it, feel its impact on our bodies, or take the time to connect with ourselves and each other during the process. There was no connection to the food itself or to us.

There’s a custom in rural Ireland, (often joked about) that you should keep offering people something to eat when they visit at your house, until they are almost ‘forced’ to accept it (indeed in most cases they do, and bizarrely it’s considered rude not to, even if you’re not hungry). This is not to disparage rural Irish culture or other similar cultures worldwide - great hospitality is a treasure.

But a larger question here is how exactly this all fits in with our bodies and what we do around food and others?

  • Do we to eat to please someone else - Eating what or when others expect us to?
  • Or do we eat when we are hungry, or only when we need to?
  • And do we eat what our bodies require?

And how exactly does this play out when we meet with others and their expectations?

  • Do we change and how?
  • And do we compromise?

More often than not, we don’t honour the messages from our bodies with food and we allow ourselves to give into social pressure. We’d rather keep those around us happy, than be true to our own bodies! It takes keeping up with the Joneses to a whole new level.

Isn’t it absurd that the thing that’s most impacted by food – our body and by default us – is often at the bottom of the pile, when it comes to our considerations?

I know from experience through observation and developing awareness that this can change. I’ve changed my eating habits and even how I eat, so that it’s no longer a race to the finish, but feeling as I go what I need, what my body needs and appreciating that the odds of running out of food are pretty slim (pun not intended though relished) in this 24/7, flocked with food parlours world of ours – and not your Robinson Crusoe scenario where we are left on a desert island with the last remaining tin and no tin opener.

We have a choice in how we are and to always honour ourselves … and our bodies, while partaking of any culture as we feel to. No matter what, we can let our bodies be our true guide. Everyone, the Joneses included, will handle it!


  • [i]

    Kinealy, Christine (1994), This Great Calamity, Gill & Macmillan, p357

  • [ii]

    Sen, Amartya (1981), Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, </ul>

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