If Food Is Love, How Do I Love Myself?

Woman eatingI was thinking about the phrase, “Food is love”; thinking about how this idea came to be. I often hear people say that food is a means by which their mothers or grandmothers expressed their love for family members. Sometimes their stories conjure images of warm kitchens filled with wonderful smells and family members connecting over delicious meals. But sometimes they’ll tell me things like, “She would keep putting food on my plate, even after I said I was full,” or, “It would hurt her feelings if someone didn’t eat everything she gave them.” When I hear things like this, I think not of love, but of boundary violations and invalidation of the eater’s feelings and needs.

To consider the notion of food as love, it’s important to clarify what love is. I like the definition M. Scott Peck offers in his book, The Road Less Traveled. Peck defines love not as a feeling, but as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” In other words, love is the willingness to go beyond our comfort zones in service of what is best for ourselves or another.

From this perspective, we see how a caregiver loving a child instills in that child the awareness of his or her own worth, value and lovableness. When we are young, we can’t feed ourselves. We are fed by our caregivers, and the act of being fed, of receiving physical nourishment from our caregivers, is entwined with receiving emotional nurturing. If, as infants, our signs of hunger are recognized and we are put to the breast or cuddled with a bottle, our caregiver gazing into our eyes, we learn from the beginnings of our lives that our needs matter, that they are being seen and heard and honored and that someone is looking out for us. The relationship between feeder and eater is tender and sweet. Our caregivers are feeding us, whether or not it’s convenient for them, because we need nourishment and our needs matter. Being fed is an act of being loved.

As we grow, we learn words for the experiences of hunger and fullness. The transaction between child and caregiver is a dance that shapes our awareness of being seen and heard. If we say we are hungry, and then we are fed or are gently told that dinner will be soon and we’re given a snack to tide us over, and if we say we are full and are validated in stopping eating, our trust in our perceptions is strengthened. If we are made to wait until mealtime regardless of how hungry we are, or if we are told to clean our plates even after we are full, we can construe that our internal experiences of hunger or fullness are wrong, unimportant, or even nonexistent.

If we are raised by someone who uses food to express her caring for us (and I say “her” because it’s usually a woman in this role) by feeding us without regard for how much food we actually need, it can become easy to confuse the overriding of our bodies’ signals that we are full with being loved. We might confuse focusing on the feelings of the person feeding us rather than our own needs, with love. We may find ourselves in relationships as adults in which we subjugate our own needs to the other person’s feelings.

As we get older and become more able to fend for ourselves, we learn to feed ourselves, perhaps first with snacks, and later with meals. We develop our own internal relationships between the “feeder” part of us and the “eater” part of us. If we see eating as a relationship between these parts of self, one in which we express to ourselves the importance of our health and well-being, then the “feeder” part will be attuned to the “eater” part, noticing our hunger and attending to our nutritional needs. If eating is about soothing ourselves emotionally or molding our bodies into a certain size or shape, then the “feeder” part is operating in response to cues other than our bodies’ needs, and the “eater” part can come to desire food for reasons other than physical sustenance.

Our relationships with food offer important clues to the nature of our relationships with ourselves, and changing our relationships with food can be instrumental in changing our relationships with ourselves. Feeding ourselves as a nurturing parent would a child, honoring our needs for nutrition with compassion, attending to both our emotional needs for comfort and soothing and our physical needs for nourishment, can communicate to ourselves that we deserve time, attention, and care, whether we believe it or not. And the more we do it—the more our “feeder” parts tend to our “eater” parts in this way—the more we’ll believe it.  If food is love, then eating is the most important thing we do.

© Copyright 2011 by Deborah Klinger. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Georgia

    September 21st, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    But food is not love, it is energy and that is it. That is how so many people become overeaters is by thinking that stuffing their bodies with food that they will be feeding their feelings too. But this is such an unhealthy point of view! Food does nothing more than nourish the body. It cannit be used as a substitute for nourishing the soul.

  • andre

    September 21st, 2011 at 10:33 PM

    A wrong notion of love or things like that,like a mother expressing her love by giving more food even when the child is full can go on to alter the meaning of love and care in the child and then it reflects when he or she is an adult.then the person could do the same to his or her child! The cycle continues.. It is therefore very important that we first understand what different feelings mean to us and see how practical and feasible they are. We will then not spread this negative idea about our feelings onto others.

  • Ida

    September 22nd, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    Some of my fondest memories of time spent with my grandma revolves around the times that she and I spent together in her kitchen cooking and baking. It was a way for the two of us to enjoy together something that we both loved, and for us it became our own little time to talk and get to know each other. So for us food is love, and it is a bond between us that can’t be broken. It does not necessarily have anything to do with eating, just the love that we shared over the act of creating beautiful meals.

  • Jeremy s

    September 23rd, 2011 at 2:41 AM

    Loved the article! The way it explores things like the over-showering of love and how something like food is associated with love and just everything here. Great article and great blog!

  • Leah D.

    September 23rd, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    My mother certainly equates food with love. If you don’t eat every scrap on the plate, she’s hurt. It’s easier to force down every last bite than face the interrogation that follows when you don’t. “What’s wrong with it? Is it too salty? Didn’t you like the gravy? Were the vegetables too soft/too hard?” and so on. Just saying I’m not that hungry or I’m full isn’t a valid excuse. I love my mom to death but that side of her drives me insane.

  • Rene Payne

    September 23rd, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    I love to cook for my family. It’s my way of saying I love you. Nothing makes me feel more contented than seeing them all gathered round the dinner table and eating heartily. Isn’t that why festivities like Thanksgiving and Christmas revolve around a multi-course, robust meal with all the trimmings? Sumptuous meals are a celebration of family togetherness.

    With all due respect, you’re spoiling that way of demonstrating a mother’s love by over-analyzing it.

  • dave j albereta

    September 23rd, 2011 at 6:35 PM

    This part, “It would hurt her feelings if someone didn’t eat everything she gave them.” really hit home for me. This is exactly how I feel, even though I know I shouldn’t. Food is more than a necessity, it is can be a social event, a boredom suppressant, an athletic tool and as talked about in this article, LOVE.

    I see where you’re coming from, I really do. But LOVE shouldn’t be forfeited in order to avoid overeating. Quite honestly, overeating is nonexistent. By promoting another important form of love called play, we can avoid issues that arise from over consumption of food. So keep the love, add the play and you’re child will be healthy in exercise and nutrition. Thats my 2 cents.

  • Rona Finch

    September 24th, 2011 at 8:14 PM

    @Rene Payne: Hear, hear Rene! It’s ludicrous to think that showering your children with good food is somehow going to damage them in the future. My twin boys can’t wait to get home from college to get fed properly and they even call me days ahead telling me what they want to eat so I can have their favorites all ready for them while they are home.

    Seeing them clean their plates and then ask for seconds makes me very happy indeed.

  • LeslieWeston

    September 24th, 2011 at 8:22 PM

    This makes no sense to me, honestly. How many times are we told how important mealtimes are for families to keep connected and in touch with each other’s lives? The families that eat together, stay together, correct? And if you don’t feed them right, they will drift away.

    I’ve not had one complaint from my sons or husband about my cooking and they are all over six feet tall and strong, healthy men.

    If you don’t feed them, you’re neglecting them.That’s what we’ve always been told-and that makes sense. But now if you do, that’s hurting them too? Nonsense.

  • S.O.

    September 24th, 2011 at 8:28 PM

    Heck, I would have loved to have grown up in a home where my complaint was I had too much food on my plate. Many a night my sisters and I went to our beds both hungry and cold because our parents drank away every penny they had before they thought about buying food. Sorry folks, I can’t sympathize with your “predicament”. That sounds so ungrateful!

    To be all grown up now and whining about how well-fed you were, when there were likely other kids in your class that didn’t know if they would eat that day that you were oblivious to? Well…you didn’t know how lucky you were, put it that way.

  • Julie

    September 25th, 2011 at 8:32 AM

    S.O.- Wow, what a horrible comment to make. It wouldn’t surprise me that you can’t sympathize with others enduring ANY type of emotional problem. I can imagine that not having enough food would be a awful way to grow up, but that doesn’t decrease the severity of anyone else’s struggles, no matter what they may be. While you were going hungry, what about those kids who were beaten, abused, or homeless that YOU were oblivious to? I can tell you, as one who grew up with the type of problem discussed in this article, it has caused me years of emotional pain, depression, anxiety and guilt. But I can still sympathize with you.

  • liion

    June 4th, 2012 at 5:54 AM

    My husband is an evryadey-hero to us. He has weathered the storms of life with us. He is also a hard working farmer and we love him very much. With the strain of being a working father and husband, and with all the manual labor a farmer does, Francis, is a great candidate to win a prize!

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.