Compassionate Eating: Love, Pray, Eat
In 2007, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, which was made into a movie in 2010 starring Julia Roberts. After a divorce and a bout of depression, Gilbert searched for pleasure and devotion through travel and experiencing the food and culture of Italy, India, and Indonesia.
Even if we cannot relate to her specific suffering or her year-long travel journey, we can relate to the idea of food as path towards restoration. It is common to provide meals for new parents, those recovering from surgery, and the grieving. As a dietitian, I would argue that every meal has the potential to bring restoration to our bodies and minds.
Yet, hasn’t our culture given us a different message? “Diet culture,” beliefs that value appearance above well-being,and “fat talk,” negative messages about weight and food choices, are now normalized in our society. Even nutrition and health professionals suggest a “food as fuel” message, which can make us feel as though we should do more. However, we all know that doing more will not restore us.
The Bible offers a better way. Scripture instructs us to love, pray, eat—the reverse of “eat, pray, love,” for our good and his glory. Rather than food leading to prayer and love, God’s love, with prayer, enables us to eat restoratively, day after day, meal after meal.
Love, pray, eat has been God’s family recipe throughout Scripture. In Exodus, we see God’s love—despite Israel’s complaining, Moses and Aaron interceding in prayer, and the Israelites eating the manna God sends from heaven. In the Gospels, Jesus loves, prays for, and feeds his disciples. Revelation tells us that one day God will eat with us at a heavenly banquet. From beginning to end, the steadfast love of God is made physical through food and eating.
The Bible tells us that God is love. Not a romantic comedy love, but a born-of-God, sent-his Son-for-us, casting-out-fear, abiding love (1 John 4:7-21). God’s love is a costly love, from Old Testament sacrifices to the death of his Son on the cross.
Food is also costly. From the labor of the grower, to the death of the plant or animal, to the price we pay at market. The cost of both time and money to feed a family can be overwhelming for parents. When I am cranky about planning, shopping for, and preparing a meal, remembering the cost of God’s love restores me in those moments.
Where prayer and thanksgiving to God grows, anxiety wilts (Phil. 4:6). Prayer can uproot a teen’s shame or guilt about disordered eating or a parent’s frustration about a child’s refusal to eat vegetables. Out of an overflow of God’s love, joined with prayer, we eat. We eat with praise to him “who gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:25). Food related messages in the Bible always bring us back to this steadfast love that endures forever.
When I was a young adult, I hosted a dinner party. I served lasagna on paper plates and the heat from the food seared the plates onto my friend’s grandmother’s dining room table. No amount of toothpaste, baking soda, salt, olive oil, mayonnaise, or vinegar could remove the white stains from the wood. It was a horrible feeling to realize I had ruined a valuable piece of family furniture. Had I just used placemats, I could have avoided the damage. Placemats vary in size, shape, material, and design, but they serve one purpose—to protect the table.
Likewise, we protect God’s gift and creation when we become compassionate eaters, feasting with the mindset of love, pray, eat. “Compassionate eating serves as a collective term for various intentional approaches to eating that seek to be mindful of the flourishing of the whole of creation when raising, purchasing, and consuming food” (Halteman, 2008).
Like placemats, compassionate eating will vary among individuals, families, and communities, but it will always protect God’s gifts of people, land, animals, and water. Compassionate eating converts “diet culture,” “fat talk,” and “food as fuel” into God’s steadfast, enduring love, offering practical applications for our shopping and eating that can knead health and hospitality into our lives.
Our bodies and food systems are God’s good design (Gen 1:31). Compassionate eating considers passages in the Bible like: “all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” and “the body is…for the Lord and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:12-13). Application of these biblical principles might lead a Christian to practice mindful eating, which pays attention to the foods being chosen with the goal of promoting a more enjoyable meal experience and understanding of the eating environment (Harvard). Compassionate eating related to our food systems might reflect the biblical mandate in Genesis 1:28, as well as lead to efforts to reduce or eliminate meat consumption, processed foods, and food waste (Wright, 2021).
Hospitality is also God’s good idea, for families, churches, and youth groups. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Inviting a new kid from school or an elderly neighbor for dinner; donating money to a local food bank or volunteering for a meal delivery service for cancer patients; tipping a server well or learning about the wages and working conditions within the companies that we support with our spending are all practices that communicate “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mat. 6:10).
Christian author Elisabeth Elliott once said: “the fact that I’m a woman doesn’t make me a different kind of Christian, but the fact that I’m a Christian does make me a different kind of woman.” The fact that I am a Christian makes me a different kind of eater. By remembering God’s costly love in Christ and the Spirit’s power through prayer, we can eat with compassion, health, and hospitality.
Hanging in our dining room is an artist friend’s rendition of a passage we read at my father’s funeral, the heavenly banquet depicted in Isaiah 25:6. It reminds me that Christ’s love did not end on the cross. Jesus ascended into heaven and is compassionately preparing a feast for those like my father, whose health has failed. Jesus is doing the same for those like me, who long to enjoy the full presence of my hospitable heavenly Father at that same feast.
Halteman, M. C. (2008). Compassionate eating as care of creation. Washington, DC: Humane Society of the United States.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Mindful Eating. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/
Wright, KC, MS, RDN (October 2021). Sustainability and Planetary Health. Today’s Dietitian, Vol. 23, No. 8, P. 32. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/1021p32.shtml