One of the weekly chores that my wife and I most dislike is coming up with ideas for meals. How nice it would be for someone to plan the week’s menu for us and spare us this mental exertion. As it happens, my cousin was for a time employed by a wealthy family to do just that. She didn’t even have to cook the meals! Although I recognize that employing someone for this sole purpose is rather extravagant, I wish I could do it nonetheless. Alas, people of modest means that we are, my wife and I are resigned to enduring the drudgery of planning our own meals indefinitely.
I know that others share my sentiment. In his 2006 TED Talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz describes what he call the “paradox of choice”: A basic assumption in Western industrialized nations is that people will be happier the more freedom they have, freedom being equated here with choice. So in the United States we can go to the grocery store and choose from among 175 different salad dressings. However, Schwartz explains, this assumption has proven erroneous. Although people like the idea of having options, the reality is that too many options results in (a) paralysis when it comes time to actually make the decision and (b) dissatisfaction with the choice one ends up making. Because we have so many options, we end up second guessing ourselves and thinking about the other salad dressings we could have had. (As it turns out, people are most satisfied when choosing from among six to ten salad dressings.)
So it would seem that my dislike of menu planning derives from the fact that I have too many options. As an American with a steady source of income, my options for the week’s dining are virtually unlimited. And apparently, rather than experiencing exuberance at my good fortune, I find this frustrating. That’s kind of messed up.
The choice paradox offers yet another illustration of how crucial gratitude is for our happiness. It is never the object itself—in this case food—that determines my satisfaction. Much more important is my attitude toward the food. Although I personally am fortunate to have lived my whole life in a food-secure environment, I have had several experiences that persist in my memory as living proof of how much attitude matters. For the month that I was hiking el Camino de Santiago across Spain, I never knew where my food would come from one day to the next. One day I might end up drinking wine and sampling local delicacies in a big city like Pamplona or Leon. The next I might be begging a piece of bread from a fellow pilgrim. In these circumstances where I never knew what to expect and could take nothing for granted, a piece of bread, an apple, a drink of water never tasted so good.
Yet this was an anomalous experience in my life. I, like many others in the industrialized world, take food for granted most of the time because it is so rare that food is unavailable to me. Yet this is not the case for everyone. 795 million people in the world (that’s one in nine people) do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five worldwide. Right here in the United States 48.1 million people live in food insecure homes, accounting for 14 percent of all American households. It is troubling to think that so many go hungry while a few of us have so much food that it actually causes us frustration. The thought makes us feel ashamed, so we don’t think about it. But we fortunate few would likely appreciate what we have if we gave thought to those without more often.
Of course, we Christians have in the Eucharist another resource for fostering gratitude for food. Food is not only the source of life; it is also potentially a source of fellowship and joy. When we receive food as a gift, as we do in the Eucharist, it elicits these feelings of love, gratitude, and joy. The Eucharist, through its ritualized presentation and consumption of bread and wine, encourages us to pause and think about these gifts that we are receiving. Fasting beforehand also heightens our awareness of the value of the sacred meal in which we will soon participate.
The Eucharist thus suggests a pattern that can be applied to every day in order to cultivate greater gratitude for food: Occasionally fasting from my usual Starbucks or making a point to have one very simple meal a week can heighten my enjoyment of the food I would otherwise take for granted. Pausing to offer a heartfelt grace before meals can have a similar effect. Perhaps most importantly, the Eucharist teaches us not only to give thanks for the heavenly food God provides us but also to go out and be bread for the world. In so doing feed, we not only feed the needs of the world (physical and spiritual); we also amplify our appreciation for what we have.