Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Food Fills The Heart As Well As The Stomach

November 25, 1996

Food is a sensory experience - almost as good as sex. Just like sex, it helps form and maintain powerful bonds in marriage. In family life, food brings members together under pleasurable circumstances. What is the connection between food and bonding?

The attachment bond. A baby forms an attachment bond when its mother soothes, calms or comforts it when the baby is distressed by hunger. The consistency of a parent noticing cues and attending to a baby's needs helps a child build an attitude of trust and control and knowing that the world is predictably good.

Parental responsiveness around feeding is a powerful way to develop bonding. Breast feeding is a direct and comforting way for the attachment bond to grow between mother and infant.

Food and courtship. In "hunting and gathering" economies, cooperation around food helped form and keep families together. The division of labor was more pronounced. Women, especially during vulnerable times of pregnancy and nursing, had greater nutritional requirements. Families needed a mixed diet of different foods and nutrients, especially to aid in protein metabolism. Husband and wife combined their efforts in provisioning food for themselves and their offspring.

In courtship, a woman judged her prospective mate by his generosity, kindness and ability to share food and other necessities. The provider role was, and often still is, a basis for a man's commitment to family life. A man bringing home food was bringing home life - valuable nutrients such as fruit, mixed vegetables and meat to his family. His willingness to share it with her was a powerful emotional message of love.

In courtship, meals together in a home or eating out together develop bonds of intimacy. It triggers memories of being nurtured in childhood by loving parents who provided food. There is truth to the adage, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."

The tragedy of males worldwide is that men are being displaced from this provider role and consequently family bonds aren't as strong. Bringing home food is more than symbolic - it keeps families together.

Family meals. This connection between food and love continue throughout childhood. The pleasure of eating is associated with good feelings toward the provider of the food and with the events at mealtime. A woman - usually it is a woman - in her culinary efforts of preparing and presenting food to her husband and family, develops bonds between her and them.

Families come together for the common purpose of eating and share in a mutually nourishing experience. We connect the good feelings of food to conversation, getting in touch with each other's lives and just being together regularly. It is one of the few times when the entire family comes together.

When a meal goes awry because of mishaps, criticism and arguments, what should be a positive time together is ruined. The harshness of conflict destroys the calmness and serenity that food provides. The potential for bonding is also harmed when a family watches television during mealtime. The emphasis is taken away from food and each other.

One casualty of modern living is that families are losing the habit of having sit-down meals together.

Food and holidays. We celebrate holidays and special days such as graduations, birthdays and anniversaries with family meals or by eating out. The effort that goes into making these meals special binds a family together and creates memories.

When children form their own families, they take with them the legacy of food and family bonds. Traditional and favorite foods make a celebration complete.

Men in the kitchen. In marriage, a man fixing meals, grilling, cooking and carving the roast or turkey, or whatever else men can do in a kitchen is symbolic of a man directly feeding a woman. A man who takes pleasure in cooking and takes his turn in a kitchen reciprocates to some extent this sensuous transaction by giving her food. Strong bonds form when a man cooks the bacon as well as brings it home. Heaven to a woman would be a husband who has developed gourmet cooking as a hobby.

When men help with cutting up vegetables, cutting meat, fixing juice etc., they can make meal preparation a shared pleasurable experience. Of course, conversation is also helpful. Shopping together for food can be pleasurable. Growing food together in a garden, harvesting, and eating it together is a bonding experience. Food unites.

There are other ways of nurturing besides cooking meals. A husband can suggest going to a restaurant and, in a sense, feed his wife in that way. Instead of cooking, he can build things, fix things and otherwise contribute to family life by taking care of other responsibilities. Meeting needs, in whatever form, keeps bonds strong.

Food and community. When people share food communally - potluck dinners, celebrations, banquets - relationships and connections grow. Having friends over for a meal is exquisite hospitality. Food is a social glue that strengthens ties to community life.

Food brought to a grieving family is a way of nourishing them and showing that people care for them. People touch, hug, share thoughts and feed the grieving. Again, food is a part of the bonding that takes place during sad as well as joyous times.

Here is one solution to the problems of the world. Food. Glorious food. No wonder I like it so much.