Why Are We Taught To Finish Our Food?

norman-rockwell-thanksgiving

A few weeks back, my mother invited my dad’s maternal uncle over to our place for lunch. This was the first meal he’d had in our house for almost twenty years. After he had his fill, he sat in his favourite chair in our living room, raised his hand and said, Annadaata Sukhibhava (‘blessed is the food provider’). Mother went down on her knees and touched his feet.

Last weekend a bunch of us went out to dinner. While I was cleaning up the last morsels of food from my plate (as I was taught to since I was a child), a friend of mine sitting next to me said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ve already paid for it. No matter how much you leave now, the food is going into the trash bin.’ I asked him if he didn’t believe in what our parents taught us, that every morsel of food that we leave uneaten on our plates is a morsel we’ve snatched from those less fortunate. He scoffed and said, ‘That’s communist garbage.’

Two days ago I attended a wedding. I saw all the discarded plantain leaves and uneaten food being washed into the gutter. I did not wait to see if a wandering stray dog would come sniffing. I thought of what my friend said the other day. Maybe he did have a point.

Yesterday I was looking for paintings on food, and I stumbled upon an obscure blog post written by Anne Lammott. In it she talks about why we say grace.

I think we’re in it for the pause, the quiet thanks for love and for our blessings, before the shoveling begins. For a minute, our stations are tuned to a broader, richer radius. We’re acknowledging that this food didn’t just magically appear: Someone grew it, ground it, bought it, baked it; wow.

Today, in the midst of a conversation, my neighbour said there was intrinsic value in gold. Why? ‘Because to create an ounce of gold, someone had to expend blood and sweat to bring it out of the ground, purify it, and cast it into coins or bars.’ I asked him if the same did not apply to food. He gave me a blank look. After a period of silence, we began to discuss politics.

Now, as I write this, I’m still unsure of what to think about food. Is it just a commodity that we buy with money? Does it have God in it? Why are we taught not to get up from our tables without having eaten everything on our plates? Is the notion communist garbage? Or just a quiet way of saying thank you? If it is the latter, whom are we thanking?

I don’t know. Do you?

Image Courtesy: Parade

Comments

  1. Although I haven’t been told as much, my personal experiences and value system dictate that I thank God / Fate (based on the belief system of the people reading this comment) for putting the food on my plate when there are millions of others who struggle to eat one decent meal a day. In a way therefore, I am thanking my own luck for actually getting food to eat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment, Jai. I take your point. But the discrepancy is present in all kinds of resources: clothing, shelter and money to name a few. Do you thank fate/destiny/God every day for your house, and every time you buy a set of clothes for yourself, for instance?

      Or maybe we make the exception for food because it’s the most basic of the basic requirements. One can imagine being alive without shelter or clothing, but not without food. Maybe that’s why it gets so many thanks and the status of God in our value systems.

      Not sure. What’s your view?

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  2. Food wastage is something which I have been taught too. I generally feel its like using/utilizing resources, not depleting them. The World is facing hunger issue & we want to donate but can we just not misuse what we have got ? I saw few days back a very nice video where from Mumbai Dhabba walas have joined hands to provide leftover food from all Dhabas(who wants to be a part of it, by placing sticker on their lunch boxes) & they go & give it to homeless kids/people.Nice initiative. Likewise their are many restaurants who charged you more if you waste Food from your plate.
    I like flow of your thoughts in this post, ty for sharing it Sharath. Good Wishes 🙂

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    • Hi Ruchi,

      I was experimenting with a more narrative style in this post.

      The naturalist/capitalist’s argument against what you said in your comment is that I paid for my food. I will do with it whatever I want. After all, are we all not buying more clothes than we need (and putting them away in closets), more shoes than we need (I have three pairs, and I don’t wear any of them. My wife has many more), and are we all not living in houses that are too big for us?

      Compared to such ‘bigger wastes’ of resources, it appears wasting a bit of food is a very small offence. And then how much further can you take this argument? If we all kept only what we needed and gave away everything else, that is the recipe for communism, which comes with its own set of problems.

      That was what my friend meant when he said it’s communist garbage. So I see the other side of argument too. Right now I’m just undecided.

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  3. It is tragic that in a country where millions go hungry every day, a few thousand people throw away food without a thought. It’s perhaps all right for them ’cause they earn so much they can throw a few thousands away and not feel the pinch. But this ‘communist garbage’ can make the difference between life and death for many people. Funny that it is particularly this group of have-too-much people who look condescendingly upon India and Indians.

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    • Hi Neelesh,

      Welcome to the blog. Thanks for the comment. I agree with you on an emotional level. But by the same token:

      1. In a country where millions are homeless, how fair is it that a tiny percentage live in houses and apartments much bigger than they need?

      2. In a country where millions struggle clothes and a daily bath, how fair is it that a tiny percentage buy more clothes than they can store, let alone wear?

      3. In a country where millions live on less than a thousand rupees a month, how fair is it that a tiny percentage spend so much in a few hours on a weekend afternoon in an air-conditioned movie hall?

      That is the point of view of people who call it ‘communist garbage’. Intellectually, I agree with that. Why don’t we extend the argument that we use with food to all other resources? I think it’s because it makes us uncomfortable to do so.

      What do you think?

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  4. In my family, when food used to be wasted, we were taught that a morsel from someone is lost and that we should not subject the poor soul to such a thing. Even now, if in any circumstance, I have to leave few scraps, I feel guilty. I think, in a broader perspective, we are to finish the food to understand that there are those who may not even get one morsel…these apply to many areas of life as well. To be thankful for what you have. Agree with Anne Lammott’s interpretation.

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    • *apply

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    • Thanks, MSM, for weighing in. Why do you think we don’t give the same thanks or practice the same thrift with other resources, though? I see a lot of people who live lavish (some would say wasteful) lives in terms of money and clothes who claim righteously that they never waste food.

      Is that a tad hypocritical in your view?

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      • I do agree that certain people (and I would say majority of us) do live in a wasteful manner. I think everything begins with a person trying to inculcate a change and unfortunately neither we have been brought up that way nor many teach their generations this way. Yes, we are hypocritical and we can being about a change only if we really try at our own personal level. 🙂 Great food for thought!

        ~ Pradeeta

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  5. Great question, Sharath. I have changed my stance on this subject. I used to think that it’s my food and I’ll do what I want – eat it, waste it, etc. I mean, if I can’t finish it, I can’t finish it, right? That’s the end of that. Struggling to the end of my meal isn’t going to fill the hungry stomachs of the poor.
    While on assignment in Singapore, I worked with quite a few westerners. They tended to throw any food they didn’t like often just after tasting a bite. One of them, a Britisher, said he bought a different flavour of a particular brand of chocolate that he regularly ate. But he didn’t like the new flavour and promptly threw the entire box in the dustbin!! My heart sank at the sight of it – that was probably my turning point 🙂

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    • Thanks for the comment, Gargi. We do have an emotional connection with food that we don’t seem to have with clothing and shelter. Not as many people agonize over clothes that they never wear lying in their closets, or about houses that are too big for them. But waste a plate of food and they get guilt pangs.

      We’re like this only 🙂

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      • Good point about the clothes and shelter, but it seems that food is the one causing most distress either because people see it as even more basic necessity than the other two, and also it is the least in cost. Shelter=property, so no-one wants to part with that. Clothes – I do see an increasing trend to give away old clothes to certified charities and/or to the maids who work in our homes.

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  6. I think we should get better at understanding ones own appetite. Knowing how much we want to have. That’s what we need to be good at. When it comes to wasting food and the repercussions of stuffing due to guilt, I say its better to waste than hogging it all. Think of all that health issues one put himself/herself through for consuming more food than he/she actually require. If one feels guilty, I think it should be before taking food than at the point of wasting it. May be few times you’ll waste and be guilt ridden, but that guilt should drive you to choose the right quantity of food. The more the guilt, the faster one will correct himself/herself. That I guess is a healthier way to deal with it. Just my 2 cents. Let me know your thoughts 🙂

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    • Hi Nanda! I agree with you. I think especially in India, the middle class and upper middle class tends to overeat as a habit. All of us have three-course meals three times a day, and many of us don’t exercise, so we all know where that food is going 🙂 And I agree with you that it’s better to waste than to overeat. Sorry for the late reply on this comment, I remembered it just today.

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