Karen Kay on the relationship we have with our food

PUBLISHED: 10:52 21 March 2014 | UPDATED: 10:52 21 March 2014

Karen Kay, writer and broadcaster. Picture by Ian McIlgorm © IAN MCILGORM 2012..

Karen Kay, writer and broadcaster. Picture by Ian McIlgorm © IAN MCILGORM 2012..


How on earth can the food we need to thrive both physically and spiritually have become virtually a taboo subject in some circles?

On learning that this issue was to be packed with foodie treats, I jumped at the chance to consider my thoughts on such an evocative subject. I love food. It is one of life’s real pleasures to sit and relish wonderful flavours of a fabulous meal, shared with friends and family.

I am no connoisseur but take great joy from indulging in my favourite fare. Yet somehow, food is now so painfully associated with psychological trauma and angst and the constant battle with weight, body image and general wellbeing. We are bombarded with conflicting messages on a daily basis. Sugar is poison! Carbs are evil! This diet guarantees weight loss! Western diets give you cancer! No they don’t! And so it goes on. No wonder we’re so stressed about a trip to the supermarket and what to feed our families.

This is the fuel that feeds our bodies. We need certain nutritional elements to function: proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, fats, etc all play a vital role in our wellbeing.

According to the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who wrote the renowned 1943 paper ‘A theory of Human Motivation’, there are a number of physical requirements for survival, without which the human body will fail. Air, water and food are essential requirements for all mammals.

No shame, no panic

Yet, many of us have an unhealthy relationship with food. We panic. We crave. We binge. We deprive ourselves. We are ashamed of covert trips to the fridge. We daren’t discuss food in front of the children.

But let’s think for a minute about the way food plays a positive role in our lives. Food is about more than feeding our physical being: it is about nourishing the soul, an experience that has bound families and friendships over generations. From The Last Supper and royal banquets to a simple supper with the kids, the bond that is formed over our daily bread provides emotional wellbeing beyond almost any other regular ritual.

In the midst of winter, as the wind howls outside, I love a comforting roast beef lunch with crispy potatoes, light-as-a-snowflake Yorkshire puds and colourful vegetables glistening with gravy and a dollop of horseradish sauce. It is a meal to savour, every mouthful interspersed with debate, languishing at the table in lively conversation before tucking into apple crumble and custard.

As we herald the first shoots of spring, I salivate over leg of lamb, served with leeks and new potatoes, as the sun glints through the windows. Come summer, the prospect of sitting outdoors to share a bowl of freshly-tossed salad and a platter of barbecued meat is one of the things I look forward to most. A rolling feast of simple ingredients, cooked in the fresh air, enjoyed with a glass of rosé, as children skip off to bounce on a trampoline or dash through a sprinkler, is perhaps one of the most relaxing ways to spend a balmy afternoon.

Provenance matters

You may have gathered I am a happy carnivore. I make no bones about my delight in being presented with a rump steak or a tender cut of lamb. Roast chicken is a family favourite, with the ensuing risotto, curry or sandwiches a much-loved bonus.

I care about the provenance of my fare, and buy quality meat and poultry. The same goes for fish, and fruit and vegetables. It matters how they came to arrive in my kitchen, and from where. The ‘benefits’ of organic produce may not be scientifically proven, but I don’t want to risk putting more chemicals than necessary into our bodies.

I do look at the ingredients on breakfast cereals and find myself rejecting many because of the insane levels of sugar they contain. We don’t offer chocolate, biscuits or sweets as a matter of course when those hunger pangs hit between meals.

So here’s the rub. Caring is not the same as worrying and being overly anxious. I could worry about every morsel my six year old daughter eats. I could feed her a macrobiotic diet and ensure a Haribo never passes her lips. But that would, in turn, feed society’s unhealthy obsession with food that creates taboos and extreme patterns of behavior.

Enjoying food is healthy. So we don’t ‘hide’ vegetables in sauces, nor do we buy expensive products bearing the licensed form of cartoon characters. Meals should stimulate the taste buds and nourish not just our physical beings but our psyche too – whether it’s a school packed lunch that contains a hard boiled egg with a pasta salad, or a simple casserole supper. If we listened to previous generations’ motto of ‘everything in moderation’, we’d be a happier, healthier race.

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