Food for Thought

Members article

By Jane Verity © Dementia Care International

Food is essential to life and its preparation and presentation often become part of our identity (cultural, religious, community), offering security both in the sense of belonging and in the sense of safety. Food provides far more than sustenance. It also brings comfort and sociability, meeting two very important needs of people with dementia and all those in aged care.

Social Aspects

Food forms the basis of many traditions. Different foods are offered and shared at different times and in different situations. For example, we offer soup to someone who is ill: chocolates and sweets as gifts of thanks: cakes and biscuits at times of disaster – after floods and fires, local communities rally to support those affected; we drink champagne to celebrate good fortune – the streets of Perth almost flowed with bubbly when Australia won the America’s Cup; we dine in restaurants or cook special meals to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries; we offer a drink when people visit; we share a meal as a gesture of friendship.

Religious Aspects

Various religions have special traditions involving food. Christianity celebrates Easter with unique food offerings, such as chocolate eggs, rabbits and bilbies, and Christmas with ham, turkey, pudding and mince pies. Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan with barbequed lamb, special rice, unleavened bread, hummus and salad. Buddhism has a celebration in May which includes celebratory foods.

Cultural Aspects

Cultural influences include:

Staple starches: Anglo-Celts eat bread and potatoes; Mediterranean people eat pasta; Asians and Middle Easterners eat rice.

Mealtimes: Australian breakfast 7 – 9 am, lunch 12 – 2 pm, dinner 6 – 8 pm, in the Middle East breakfast 10 am, lunch 2 – 4 pm, dinner 10 – 12 midnight.

Main meal: Australia evenings, Europe mid-day.

Eating customs: Westerners eat with a knife and fork, whilst Asians use chopsticks. In the Middle East only the right hand touches the food, and unleavened bread is used to “mop up” the plate; while in Sri Lanka the rice is balled with thumb and 3 fingers to convey the other food on the plate to the mouth.

Many traditions exist regarding setting the table, serving alcoholic beverages, snacks, and even how and when we pick our teeth.

Security Aspects

The giving and receiving of food is one of our main symbols of security and reassurance – we accept food more readily from someone we consider a friend or ally. Potentially difficult meetings are often moderated by the offering of food and beverages.

Sharing food during holidays or religious festivals or other celebrations creates a sense of belonging amongst those who have eaten together – how many group photos include food and/or beverages?

The dependency on someone-else regarding an aspect of eating can also create a special intimacy:

  • someone cutting up our food if we are unable to do so
  • being fed by someone else
  • the traditional act of seduction when a loved one is plied with individually chosen special foods.
Social Isolation

Food and its consumption often form the basis of social activities. Sadly, those requiring tube feeds are often not included in these activities. Typically the tube-fed person is not even asked if they would like to attend the activity – this results in the social isolation of a group of people who are already vulnerable. For, in losing their ability to eat, they have also lost many of the markers of their identity; markers closely linked to the food traditions of their culture.

Culture determines many aspects of life including food traditions. Changes in the food we offer and in how it is offered can impact on our sense of security and belonging and on our sense of being.