Since I was a child I’ve had a great love for food. Not just a love for eating but a curiosity for trying new things, being in the garden, helping out with the cooking or sourcing and foraging for wild delicacies. Both my mum and dad were passionate about raising us healthily and most of our food came from our own garden, the nearby forest or local food producers like the lovely old man that kept his own chickens in his back garden in the next village, our old neighbour who reared a couple dozen rabbits or the nearby farm selling their own free range chickens. We were a very normal family and when we were children lunch or dinner in a restaurant was for very special occasions only, Italian, Chinese or Indian restaurants had not yet filtered into rural communities and food was healthy and traditional with many recipes carried forward from my grandparents.
My yearly highlight was visiting my godmother for a couple of weeks in my summer holidays, who not only had a treasure chest of a garden, growing an exotic bounty like peaches, apricots, asparagus or figs, but herself and her husband have always loved the finer things in life. They live on the French border and her cooking and taste in food really reflects this. She introduced me to “fancy” delicacies such as mussels, scampi, avocadoes, mango etc. which at that time were certainly rare and exotic and I always got such a thrill out of experiencing new flavours.
Food was always so much more than just fuel though. I am very lucky that my mum has a great knowledge of and interest in the healing properties of different foods, herbs and spices and from a young age I have used food to consciously nourish my body or even as medicine to support my health. Through the years I fed, pardon the pun, my near obsession with food by studying and reading about different traditions, recipes from all over the world, gardening, nutrition and specialised diets, herbalism and other healing properties in food and we can’t in my opinion underestimate the effects a good or bad diet can have on our overall health and well-being.
Even before I became a mum myself from my experience as a teacher, I noticed that healthy eating was not a big priority in many households, which was reflected in children’s lunchboxes. Children seem to have a limited knowledge about food items and especially where their food comes from. Even though in theory schools have healthy eating policies in place, there seems to be a misconception that just the absence of sugary treats is the equivalent of a healthy snack or lunch. I truly believe that among other things our modern lifestyle, the availability of processed convenience foods and what advertisers profess to be healthy is the cause for much confusion and the loss of important knowledge about nutrition. Just because a yoghurt is fat free and sugar free doesn’t make it healthy.
There needs to be more education for both adults and children about nutrition and food labels, what is healthy and what isn’t. Parents are trying their best to do the right thing for their children and they are often not even aware of the ingredients in many foods, being swayed by slogans such as “low fat”, “wholegrain”, “high in calcium” or “sugar free” for example.
Children love to learn through direct experiences and being actively involved. Let them help with the cooking, bring them along to farmer’s markets or local food producers, let them see first-hand where their food comes from. We don’t need a big garden to grow our own food. Children are fascinated even to see some seeds sprout in a container on the windowsill or some flower pots on the balcony.
What has struck me most though throughout the years is the worrying tendency in our Western World to lose the social importance of food. When I watch documentaries from many other, often poorer parts of the world, it always strikes me how food and eating together is the glue that binds families and communities together. Even though there
mightn’t be an abundance of food available, people are brought together and mealtimes are the most important social event of the day. People meet up, sit around a table and share their news, discuss recent events or just enjoy each other’s company.
Through modern life circumstances this important social ritual is becoming more and more absent from daily family interactions and I believe this is causing a significant disruption in family relationships. Family is our first experience of social connection and communication, it’s our blueprint of how we will interact with others in the future. Even if it might not be possible to eat together as a family every day, it is important to make time for this precious opportunity to share food and experiences, to re-connect the family unit in whatever form that may be.
On another level food memories and traditions are deeply ingrained into our human make-up:
THE MADELEINE EFFECT
Food is obviously a necessity for human survival, but it is so much more when we really think about it. Food is pleasure; food connects to family; food is tradition; food is connection to nature and the people who produce it. Food creates and evokes memories, connects people socially and is the key ingredient for celebration. Food expresses love and friendship. We all have our favourite meals and foods that have the ability to transport us straight into our childhood, to a memorable holiday, to a treasured memory of a celebration.
When I close my eyes I can instantly recall the delicious scent of our favourite Sunday dinner: roast chicken in a spice-and-herb marinade with home-made chips. Especially around Christmas time, the scents of cinnamon, star anise and oranges bring back precious memories of Advent in Germany and the bounty of delicious treats in our Christmas markets. I could list countless examples of my personal memories connected to certain tastes, smells and foods. There is actually a name for the effect food has on our minds and memories – it is called the “Madeleine Effect” after a passage in Marcel Proust’s 1913 novel, In Search of Lost Time, in which he describes the experience of the character, who every time after eating the sweet treats (madeleines) is overcome by a warm and comforting feeling and eventually remembers his aunt who had always given him these treats every time he visited her.
This effect has since been studied by many scientists, and it was discovered that it is actually our sense of smell, which goes hand in hand with our sense of taste, that is responsible for connecting food and emotional memories from the past. The reason for this most probably lies in the structure of our brains, as (in simple terms) our noses transport scents straight into the areas of our brain responsible for our emotions, namely the amygdala and the hippocampus. Also it is often found that olfactory memories go back further into our early childhood than many other memories, as we tend to connect scents and experiences, especially in our early childhood years, as researched by Stockholm University psychologist Maria Larsson.
In recent years this phenomenon has been proven to be very beneficial in therapeutic circumstances when working with senior citizens. Joerg Reuter, author of Wir haben einfach gekocht (translated: We simply cooked), started an initiative to improve nutrition in nursing homes and collected old recipes and traditions in the process. It transpired that many older people who had become quite withdrawn and quiet suddenly became very animated when the conversation surrounded their food memories. The positive effect didn’t stop there but became an all-encompassing “perking up”. People who hadn’t used their hands much for a while were chopping and peeling while exchanging recipes, memories and stories from their childhood. Food doesn’t just nourish our bodies, but our minds, hearts and souls. This is why it is so important to create positive and memorable relationships to food for our children and also for ourselves. (From “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution” (Alex Koster))
For more information on mindful parenting and education and a practical everyday approach that can be applied by anybody and tailored to your individual circumstances take a look at my new book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution”, a handbook for parents and educators to promote positive change based on the principles of mindfulness.
Thanks so much for your interest and support! 😉 Alex
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