Food, Food Everywhere

And not a bite to eat.

We’ve been attending a new church lately, and we’re really feeling like we’ve finally found a home. One thing I’ve found about Christians is that they’re pretty lovable, so it’s not too hard to jump right in and get to know them. There is a little bit of awkwardness because of the differences in how we live out our faith as compared to the vast majority of Christians. Nobody condemns us, of course. Quite the contrary: while they don’t join us in our convictions, they often (claim to) admire them. I feel like if they really admired the differences, they’d adopt them. But at least they’re willing to step inside our worldview long enough to relate to it. I can content myself with that.

But explanations must occasionally be made. Where many are content, or feel they are forced by circumstance, to send their children to public schools, we think that Christians are called to protect their children from Godless indoctrination, whatever the cost. While I cover my head in worship (but never my face), most regard that act as outdated and legalistic. Unlike practically every evangelical Christian in the South, we don’t believe that it is a sin, or even unwise, to drink wine at appropriate times. These last few years, I’ve had to add one more thing to the ever-growing pile of differences to be navigated in a group setting: food.

Y’all know what church food is like. It’s the Standard American Diet, but with more of everything that is wrong with it. More sugar, more flour, more seed oil, more “love” in every bite. Also, more heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in every body. I know this can’t please God, and I can’t get comfortable with it.

Of course, most churches don’t meet for a meal every single day, or even every week, so excepting my own very restricted diet and a few serious allergens that must be avoided, a meal once in a while that includes a lot of refined carbohydrates or seed oils should be something the kids can just skate past with little difficulty. But I don’t want them to learn to take poor nutrition as a fact of religious life. It just rubs me the wrong way to make egregious exceptions for the sake of fellowship. I try my best to guide the children in eating what is advantageous to their bodies, and politely declining the rest, while hopefully managing not to take ourselves too far outside the group’s comfort zone. We often don’t even have to mention it, but can just pick and choose from the available items.

But sometimes we do appear extreme. We have a gluten problem for one of my children that makes any amount of wheat beyond that found in a communion cracker a health and behavioral nightmare. I trust that eating that will not harm the child because of the nature of the Sacrament. I don’t honestly think any human digests wheat or any other grain as well as they think they do, so I keep it out of all of our diets. I very much appreciate when there are gluten-free options at the table for our family. This church has gone above and beyond to try to make our family comfortable in this and other ways.

Our family’s food culture is so different that we can’t impose our needs on the whole group. It’s funny to me. The way we eat is much simpler, from buying, to cooking, to clean-up. It’s basically a lot of meat and some fruit, with a few of what I think of as the gentler vegetables for variety. Plain fare like this should be less of a logistical problem than all of these complicated casseroles and desserts, but people just don’t want to eat that way. They want bread. They want the kinds of hyper-palatable messes I used to make in the kitchen. I can’t blame them for wanting to eat what they’ve always eaten. That stuff tastes like love, doesn’t it? But it’s not love. It’s not even food, half the time.

I can’t blame them. Nor can I join them in it on anything like a regular basis. To keep our food healthful, while still enjoying the fellowship of others, here’s what we’ve become accustomed to doing for any church or family function that includes a meal:

Eat before you go. How much you eat beforehand depends very much on the menu where you’re going. I can eat the main things at a cookout, but there’s never an acceptable dish at a covered-dish dinner. I don’t want to eat more than my expected share of the real food, either, so I still need to be not-too-hungry even when there are meat-only options. Real food does cost more. That’s part of why is it so hard to make inroads into the way people think about food. Most of the Christians I know, including myself, don’t have a lot of money to throw around. The best way around this discomfort is to be no hungrier when you go than you need to be to enjoy a little bit of the repast. I often make these protein shakes for the kids before we go so they don’t feel deprived with a lighter plate later.

Bring a dish to share. Even if it’s fully catered, nobody is going to mind if you plop down a dish or two of whatever you’re having.

Bring your own snack stuff. If I’m not able to make a dish for everyone to share, I will as discretely as possible pull my stash of meat sticks and cheese out of my purse to dole out to the kids when they find their plates a little light.

Fast and enjoy the company. You don’t have to eat, you know. Just grab a cup of coffee or water and sit down to chat. People will notice you’re not eating and ask if you want to get a plate. Practically nothing embarrasses me, so I’m taking other people’s word for it that this is uncomfortable. I just say “No thanks, I already ate.” or something like that. You don’t have to explain your crazy diet to everybody, and they’d probably rather not hear about it anyway.

Here’s what’s hard about all this, and it causes me to compromise occasionally: it makes people feel inadequate when they can’t feed you. They want to share, and you won’t let them. It’s alienating. I don’t ever want people to feel that way! So I do sometimes bend the rules and allow the kids to eat gluten-free breads and pastas where I wouldn’t dream of doing so in our home. They sometimes get to eat some candy I wouldn’t allow as a rule. As we get to know people better, they do get more comfortable with our weirdness, so the compromises aren’t habitual or permanent. Sometimes we just have to take the hit for the sake of fellowship.

We don’t eat this way to be separate or to keep ourselves above the cultural milieu, but because I truly believe it results in the very best health a person can achieve in this sick world. Ultimately, I’d like our family’s healthy way of eating to rub off on the community around us. I’d like to see everybody in my community as vigorously healthy as possible, so that they may serve the Lord even more effectively than they already do. I can’t help them with that while indulging in cake and spaghetti, so I do believe that any compromises should be strategic and short-term.

Thus far, people seem happy to allow for our quirks, but hardly anyone ever joins us in them. I’m not by nature a patient person, but I know it’s a long game we’re playing. You can’t change a culture before it’s ready to change. All you can really do is be a light to those can be made to see, while trying not to mind that the darkness doesn’t comprehend. This is as true of nutrition as it is of any other aspect of culture.

How about you? Do you have any tips for navigating a dangerous dietary landscape without making a fuss?

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2 thoughts on “Food, Food Everywhere

  1. Might be extremely helpful for you to host things. Then you have full ingredient control and you can demonstrate to the guests that it is in fact possible to have fellowship without a side order of cancer.
    Great post! I’ll share it on SG

  2. I have found that as I integrate into the church fellowship I have more opportunities to volunteer.

    I am in your shoes right now, so at the moment I am just doing set up and clean up and trying to be a willing pair of hands. Later, I can help plan meals and snacks

    Small steps

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