We can eat better when we eat together

By Nick Saul

I’ve been working in the world of food for nearly 20 years but I still can’t tell a grain from a legume. This realization came home to me, quite literally, when my 12-year-old son was doing a Canada Food Guide project for school and asked me what category chickpeas fall into—grains, or meat and alternatives.

“Grains??” I offered, bracing myself for ridicule. I’m not particularly proud of this parenting fail, but I know I’m not alone. Approaching eating merely as an attempt to meet nutrient requirements or food groups rather than a source of satisfaction, pleasure and connection—in addition to fuel for our busy days—is foreign to many of us.

It’s one of the reasons the federal Ministry of Health is reviewing and revising the Canada Food Guide with the aim of making it easier to understand, and rooted in the most recent science (and, let’s hope, less influenced by closed-door influence from the food industry). I’m not the first to suggest Canada would be wise to take a page from Brazil, which produced an anti–food guide called “Ten Steps to Healthy Eating” in 2014. Faced with the challenge of educating and supporting a population that’s gone from experiencing an epidemic of malnourishment to an epidemic of obesity, Brazilian health authorities eschewed micronutrient calculations and food pyramids for a clear, simple list. The ten steps include choosing minimally processed foods and avoiding ultra-processed options, limiting salt, fat, sugar and oil, developing cooking skills, and eating with other people.

This holistic focus on cooking simple, good food and enjoying it together is something I see each time I visit Chef Judy Dempsey, who cooks a meal for 80 low-income community members three times a week at the The Table Community Food Centre in Perth, Ontario. A lightning rod for goodness in her community, Judy sees it as her job to not only provide nutritious meals but, perhaps most importantly, delicious ones. Former chef/owner of a beloved Perth restaurant, she also works hard to create a welcoming, dignified space where people can connect with others, learn cooking skills, and try new foods.

Of course, if my own family dinner table is any indication, trying new foods is hard for many of us. Chef Grant Mitchell from NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre in Winnipeg tells me that he negotiates this challenge by meeting his community where it’s at—offering healthier versions of comfort foods like mac and cheese—but also nudging people a little with say, cinnamon in the rice. It wouldn’t work, of course, without the relationships and trust he’s forged over the years. His natural warmth and humour don’t hurt either.

After all, nobody wants to be lectured to about what they should be eating. Besides, healthy food doesn’t have to be unpleasant or—I’m looking at you, Canada Food Guide— confusing. It’s actually pretty simple when you take the common-sense approach that emphasizes moderation and eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods.

That said, simple doesn’t equal easy. If you’re struggling to make ends meet on social assistance or a minimum-wage job, if you don’t have adequate cooking facilities or anyone to share a meal with, if you’re managing a chronic disease or trying to prevent one, eating well can often seem out of reach. Community meals and cooking programs targeted at people who are, say, living with type 2 diabetes, or are low-income parents with young kids, can reduce some of the barriers that stand in the way of making healthy changes.  

FoodFit, which is a program that combines hands-on cooking sessions with group exercise, group goal-setting, and shared meals. The 12-week course is being offered in communities across the country, and supports people to make good food choices while respecting the limits of their individual situations—whether they’re faced with illness, have limited income, or are working to change lifelong habits.

I may not have known that a chickpea belongs in the a “meat and alternatives” category, but one thing I have learned in my years working in the food movement is that a good meal is never an end in itself, but the beginning of a journey. I was reminded of this recently at NorWest Community Food Centre in Winnipeg. I was sitting down for lunch at a big shared table with community members. Chef Grant’s soup was a tasty broth with big chunks of chicken and vegetables garnished with fresh pea shoots. It looked like something from a TV cooking show. I glanced around at my tablemates and we all smiled. The soup was delicious and healthy, but sharing it with others made all the difference.