Deconstructing Dinner: How Can We Better Connect With Our Food?

While the world’s poorest populations spend upwards to 70% of their income on food, North Americans shell out less than 10%. In our highly consumer-driven culture, how we choose to spend our money can stand as a pretty good indicator of how much attention we pay to our daily routines. With food representing only 10% of our income, it’s clear that not much attention is being paid to what we put into our bodies.

It does, however, appear that this trend is shifting direction. People are more often adopting customized diets in order to either increase or decrease the intake of certain foods. There is a growing interest in both organic and local foods. And because of the breadth and impacts of recent food safety concerns, there is a growing population of eaters who are far more skeptical of industrially-produced foods than ever before.

So what’s the optimal way to go about paying more attention to what we eat? Does it involve making better friends with farmers? Does it involve reading labels more intensely? Does it involve investing in a new library of books on dieting? Perhaps. However, Montreal artist Victoria Stanton has another strategy that involves paying more attention to the actual moment food enters into our bodies.

Seems pretty reasonable, but how does one go about forcing oneself to pay more attention to eating after we’ve become so conditioned to rush through our meals? While food is not always Stanton’s subject of focus, she launched her Essen project a few years ago as a way to explore our relationship to food and time. "The Essen project is a public performance in which I invite a group of people to gather at a fancy restaurant,” says Stanton. "The people who participate are sitting in pairs – either at separate tables or at a table together – and feeding each other over the duration of a meal,” she adds.

That’s right! Participants of Essen feed each other instead of themselves. You may also be asking how such actions constitute a ‘performance’. Stanton provides a good explanation. "I’m not just thinking about being in this incredibly upscale restaurant,” she explains. "What I’m thinking about is how I could really exploit that moment for anyone else who is around who happens to see us.

Perhaps our actions will provide that pause for someone else who might be there to witness it.” Another popular strategy that is often proposed to better connect people to their food, is the act of slowing down; ‘slow food’. In many respects, Essen is slow food in action, as it forces participants and anyone witnessing the activity to become more aware.

"If I’m paying more attention to what it is that I’m doing and in turn doing something that might cause someone else to pay attention, it’s somehow like a little glitch in time,” suggests Stanton. "It kind of reminds me of the way I feel when I go away, when I leave for a place that I’ve never been to before. Whether it’s vacation or for work, I often find that because I’m seeing everything for the first time, my senses are really alert and awake to everything.”

Essen is certainly not just a performance for whoever may be observing the group of people feeding each other. The act of feeding others and being fed can also encourage a ‘glitch in time’ for participants. "I’m paying so much attention to being there in the meal, because you need to think more when you’re feeding somebody and when someone’s feeding you, it’s not automatic,” explains Stanton. "It’s actually harder to focus on what’s going on around the table,” she adds. "It’s even difficult to have a conversation with someone sitting right next to you, which is something that we do automatically too; eat and not really think about it.

So it’s tricky to really pay attention to anything else besides paying attention to being there and eating.” Since first coming across Victoria Stanton’s work, I too have tried this at home with both friends and family. It’s become quite clear that through paying more attention to eating and thereby connecting more intimately with how the food is entering into my body, the act of Essen is a great first step towards becoming more aware of what I eat.

In the end, how can we really be concerned with what we ingest if we don’t first learn to experience how food enters into our bodies and how it feels once it’s in there! Try out Essen at home some time; perhaps at a dinner party, or better yet, next time you eat out!

Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. An interview with Victoria Stanton can be heard on-line at(