There is commonplace and complex relationship, although largely unrecognized, between every person who offers food and those who accept and eat it. This relationship is centred around the idea of ‘incorporation’, a term used by food sociologist, Claude Fischler. ‘Incorporation’, in this case, means to put into one’s body (‘corp’ translates to ‘the body’ in French). That is, food is put into one’s body and it becomes one’s body. This is so whether the food is offered by a family member, restaurant worker, at a community event, or anywhere food is provided. ‘Incorporation’ occurs when food is eaten (put into one’s body), digested, and then metabolized to provide energy or to literally become a person’s cells.

For the person receiving food, there is trust that the food offered is safe, that the one offering was well intentioned, offering safe and enjoyable or comforting food that when eaten (incorporated), no harm will come to them. This relates to basic food safety and to food tampering/poisoning so that a person is trusts they will not become sick with they eat the food that is offered.  The relationship also includes knowing that the feeder acknowledges the person’s food preferences and what bring them joy to eat, an expression of love and caring.

From the perspective of the person offering food, there is trust that the person receiving the food will accept it, eat it, that they will appreciate the time and effort that the feeder has put into obtaining, preparing, and serving the food, and that to eat it is an expression of love and trust.

This relationship is complex when no one has any difficulties eating. When a person is unable to eat, this relationship becomes more complex and can be the source of pain, anger, bitterness, frustration, and more. It is important to recognize that the foundation of this relationship is love. There is love in caring for someone who needs to eat to heal and to optimize their well-being and quality of life. Offering food expresses, “I give this to you because I love you; I trust you will eat it (to ‘incorporate’ this/put it into your body) so that you will go on living, you will heal, and you will feel better”. On the receiving end, the recipient shows their love and expresses their appreciation of the relationship by eating the food. Note that this is an idealized situation; many people experience this relationship negatively. Nevertheless, when someone becomes ill, the feeding relationship shifts.

When a recipient’s appetite is poor owing to their condition, medication or treatment side effects, fatigue or pain, and they are unable to eat or to eat as much as they once did, the feeder may have a number of reactions. These can include worry that their loved one is not eating (enough), and frustration that the work they put into making food is not eaten. They might sometimes feel that their effort is not appreciated, or they may worry that they are not doing a good enough job. When this situation happens once or twice, that is hard enough. When it happens repeatedly over weeks or months or longer, the feeding relationship is shifts. Offering food and watching a loved one consume it is no longer a source of pleasure or satisfaction, it is a constant source of frustration, worry, possibly anger, and other emotions.

Of course, this relationship is not always one of pleasure or contentment. Many people in the feeder role can experience resentment owing to the expectation in their household that they will do all the feeding work. A friend expressed her frustration this way, “Just once I’d like to walk into the house after work to the aroma of garlic sautéing. That would mean that at least one other person living in this house put some thought into the fact that we will all need to eat an evening meal”. I have often wondered, in situations like this one, is the feeding relationship based on love or resentment or something else? It’s a complex phenomenon.

Another consideration when thinking about feeding relationships is the number of people who are involved. The more people involved, the more complex the relationships. When I share with people, professionally or socially, about the work I do, I often hear stories about their family’s feeding relationships or what had happened when a loved one was ill. Very often I hear about differences of opinion about ‘how to feed mom or dad or gran’. One such story was about two sisters who disagreed on what to feed their mom toward the end of  her life. One sister thought that providing spinach and kale salad would help fight cancer; the other sister wanted to provide their mom whatever she wanted which was liquid and semi-liquid foods. The sisters thought that the other was being cruel. They accused each other of not loving their mom. On one side, not forcing their mom  to eat ‘cancer fighting foods’ (the salad) meant that her sister was not willing to do whatever it took to keep their mom alive. The other sister thought that forcing their mom to eat salad was cruel and contrary to what their mom wanted. In this situation, the feeding relationship was a triad of the mother and two daughters. Both daughters believed they were offering love through what they made for their mother.

This situation is an illustration of power of values and beliefs about food and eating to influence feeding relationships. One sister placed value on what she believed were the healing powers of some foods. The other sister valued reducing eating-associated distress; giving their mom food that was comforting or providing no food if that was her wish. Values and beliefs related to food and eating will be covered in more depth in a future blog post.

Obviously, there is a lot to think through about the feeding relationship. For caregivers, by reflecting on this post you may develop insights into how feeding relationships are playing out in the situation you are in. This may lead to identifying points for conversation in your family group or with the loved one for whom you are caring to ensure everyone is ‘on the same page’. For health professionals, thinking through feeding relationships may help you identify how ‘optimal nutrition’ goes beyond what food or how much food a person eats to considering how the feeding relationships are affecting the family group.