Why Eating is Morally Neutral
Have you ever felt judged for what you eat? My guess is yes. I think those of us who’ve struggled with food and eating have all felt this.
Or how about judging yourself for what you eat (or how or when you eat)? A big yes on that from me. Even now, when I know better, I still feel a reflexive judgment if I eat at “odd” times. Though really, why does eating need to happen only at certain times?
Although I’ve known for a long time that eating shouldn’t be about judgment, I didn’t have a good term to express it until after watching this wonderful TED Talk from KC Davis.
Now, I can say that eating is morally neutral.
That means what you eat (or when or how or where) doesn’t make you a good or bad person. Eating is about functionality – and hopefully enjoyment and connection – but not morality.
Davis talks about this with all care tasks, not just eating. She defines care tasks as “any task, chore, or errand that is required to care for self and keep life going. Typically, these tasks are recurring, never-ending, and are required to be completed to ‘get on with living.’”
This applies to several types of activities, including grocery shopping, cooking, and eating. These are all morally neutral.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like grocery shopping should be a controversial activity or one that invites judgment. But you don’t have to dig very deep to find the judgment.
I’ve certainly experienced moments where I’ve wanted to justify my purchases to the cashier, to explain that I’m having a lot of people over or it’s someone’s birthday and that’s why I’m buying so much food, or maybe certain foods.
It's also all too likely that a heavy person buying snacks or sweets may feel some silent judgment, while a thin person buying the same things won’t necessarily experience that.
But no one should have to justify their food purchases. Someone else may purchase foods you wouldn’t want, but does that matter? No. None of us knows what a stranger’s life is like – or even that of an acquaintance – and since getting food to eat is a requirement for living, it doesn’t deserve anyone else’s scrutiny or judgment.
Cooking and food preparation
In these days of celebrity chefs, it can be easy to fall into some moral judgment around cooking. For example, you might think that someone who’s a good cook or chef is a good person, or maybe someone who’s a bad cook or doesn’t put much effort into cooking is a bad person.
(me at a cooking class in Florence, Italy, 2014)
But it doesn’t work that way.
A lot of good chefs can be very difficult people, and some of those who are terrible cooks and can burn soup are very kind people (I knew someone like this).
And much as people like Martha Stewart have promoted the idea that all of us can have beautiful, neat homes and serve amazing food all the time, we can’t all do that. I’d even argue that most of us can’t do that, or at least not without a cost to other things. And that’s okay.
Finally, eating itself has a lot of baggage for many of us, even though we all need to eat to live. People can be judgmental about you if you eat meat or are vegan, eat sugar or don’t, eat produce from the Farmers’ Market or a can or don’t eat veggies at all, eat at fast food restaurants or avoid them, and more.
It’s exhausting to even think about, which is why it’s so important to think of eating as morally neutral. After all, it’s literally impossible to eat in a way that would make everyone else happy, so it’s best not to try.
Instead, focus on what works for you. This applies not only to what you eat but how and when and where you eat. Yes, it’s good to eat mindfully when you can, but that’s not always possible, especially if you’re dealing with a particularly difficult situation or loss.
So, maybe you eat ice cream out of the container while watching your favorite movie, or eat chips in bed. Or maybe you heat up a frozen dinner or have toast for dinner on a paper plate because that’s all you can manage. Maybe you get whatever produce is on sale because you can’t afford organic.
Just focus on what works for you, knowing that some days you’ll have more time and energy to put into it than others.
Making food and eating morally neutral helps us all
Food is one of those universal things that connects us all, and that makes it so important to think of eating as morally neutral. Otherwise, you’re missing chances of connections with others and misjudging people all the time simply because of their food choices and habits.
Plus, if you think of eating as morally neutral, that helps you get away from judging yourself for your own eating habits. And that will make you feel better all around and have a much healthier relationship with food.