The Meaning of Food

Challah bread baked at home during special traditions.

Food is powerfully symbolic and really complex. Through food we express love. We bring comfort and hope. We forge new relationships and strengthen old bonds. Food reaffirms not only our humanity but the joy of being alive. –Marcus Samuelsson

What does food mean to you? 

Many of us have experienced the healing power of foods by optimizing our nutrition. There is no question that food is our greatest medicine and has a tremendous effect on our physical health. But when we look at the meaning of food, there is a power that goes much deeper than the physical level. The meaning of food, unique to each of us, is rooted deeply in the mental, emotional, and spiritual realms.

We create emotional memories around food. Holiday dinners, first dates, anniversaries, birthdays, nightly family suppers, the delicious smells from baking with our grandmothers and preparing meals with friends and family members have all left indelible marks on us. Food gives us the opportunity to spend time with the people who mean the most to us and in that way it becomes a very powerful identity marker.

Food and Culture

The meaning of food is incredibly important in many religious and customary practices as well. People identify themselves and their customary and religious beliefs with specific foods. In fact, some of my strongest impressions of food come from observing the Jewish holidays. The memories are actually symbols of celebration, belonging, tradition, family unity, love, and a connection to community, knowing that thousands of other Jewish families around the world are creating the same memories. I imagine that is the same for anyone celebrating Easter, Christmas, and other religious holidays.

When people move to a different country or are away from home, they often bring food with them or ask for care packages as a reminder of home. The connection to those specific and unique foods reminds them of what they love. The foods bring back emotions, memories, feelings, and a sense of who they are. Often, all it takes is a taste of a familiar food or meal to bring back a flood of memories. It is quite profound when one bite of food can bring you back home.

Woman looking through recipe book.

Food Symbolism

Consider this powerful story of survival that was shared with me by a survivor of the Holocaust. During the Holocaust as Nazis were attempting to erase identities, women kept their identities alive by sharing recipes. They referred to it as, “cooking with the mouth.” In the depths of despair, women sustained their spirits by telling each other about their favorite family recipes and what they loved to cook. They embodied themselves in the recipes and carried the memories of food with them. These recipes were their connection to their lives, their families and a symbol of love and hope. Though the women were physically malnourished in the concentration camps, the memories and the power of what those recipes meant to them nourished their spirits.

The Last Meal is another example of how powerful the meaning of food can be. People on death row who are about to be executed make a request for one last meal. That one perfect meal can bring comfort, freedom, a reminder of home, a connection to a significant memory or family member, pleasure, power of choice, comfort, satisfaction, redemption, surrender, and a connection to the soul. It is quite possible that there is a communion of body, mind, and soul when that Last Meal is consumed.

Food is a symbol of love. Passing down recipes from generation to generation powerfully honors the people and memories we love. Cooking with family members often leaves lasting impressions and memories of love. Food also has the power to bring families together. Sharing food also speaks a profound message. When we cook with love we share a piece of ourselves with others. When we receive food in a high-quality restaurant we are receiving an art and a passion from a chef who has a love and respect for food. Providing food for people affected by poverty or natural disasters means providing security, hope, and care — true symbols of love.

Grandmother making a traditional recipe at home.

Food means so much more than just nourishment at the physical level. Food is home, love, hope, vitality, redemption, and life itself.

Our attitudes, practices, and rituals surrounding food are a window into our most basic beliefs about our world and ourselves. Each memory we create around food will leave lasting impressions. What we eat connects us to who we are.

Last updated: May 3, 2024

Amy Bondar is a leading Nutrition expert and Certified Eating Psychology Coach who is passionate about helping her clients achieve maximum health and vitality through personalized nutrition and lifestyle coaching.

Amy Bondar’s comprehensive skill-set, two decades of experience and compassionate approach have allowed hundreds of people to achieve the vitality we all desire, and deserve.

The days of generic meal plans, fad diets, yo-yo dieting and simple advice about calories and carbs are long gone. When you work with Amy you will have strategies and learn nutrition principles that are nourishing, doable, sustainable, personalized and that yield results.

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