Today I want to share with you my thoughts about food and love. I want to encourage you to associate food with love, and to seek not just physical nourishment but also emotional nurturance from your meals. Even more boldly, I exhort you to make love a key ingredient in your diet — not just on February 14 but also on the other 364 days of the year!

For although there is no scientific data to back this up, I have a strong hunch that food prepared or consumed without love can nourish neither our body nor our soul. Conversely, when we lovingly prepare meals for ourselves and others and eat these with pleasure and thankfulness, I believe this opens the way to a greater sense of peace and wellbeing that can support our health at every level.

So move over chia seeds, goji berries and green coffee beans — there’s a new super-food in town: Love!

The taste of love

When my son was six and we lived in France, he attended a summer-vacation day camp. Every day the children were fed meals prepared at a central kitchen that carried delectable names such as poached fish in cream sauce, Moroccan chicken, Salade Niçoise and chocolate mousse.

So imagine my surprise when I asked him what he thought of the food, and he said: “I don’t like it. There’s nothing actually wrong with it, but something’s missing.” After thinking for a while, he realized what it was: “It doesn’t taste of love.”

Can you remember a meal that tasted of love? I can. There was my grandmother’s beef consommé — rich, meaty and deeply nourishing — and the home-made buttery-saffrony yeasted buns my mother served with a plum sauce lightly flavored with star anise. Only last week, my son got up early to scramble some divinely creamy eggs for my birthday breakfast before jumping on his bike to go to school. These simple meals were infused with love because they were prepared with the desire to nourish and delight their eaters — a precious quality that flowers, chocolates, perfume and jewels can’t match.

From the moment we are born, food is inextricably linked to love.

“When a baby is held by its mother, drinks her milk, feels her warm, soft body and her gentle touch, it quickly learns that being fed is the same as being loved,” says Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating and a teacher and consultant in nutritional psychology. “Researchers are very clear about the dramatic importance of infant-mother bonding from a neurological, psychological and physiological point of view.” The kind of infant bonding that happens where food and love are associated is “normal, natural and correct,” he says.

And yet, our culture is becoming increasingly divorced from this natural process. “Food is no longer being equated with love, but with fuel,” says David. The sort of infant-mother bond that that gives us a sense of security and wholeness has been replaced by a “lower form of bonding around food,” he says. “People bond over statements like “I am a low-carb dieter” or “I am a vegan,” and these identifications with certain ways of eating create bonds,” albeit more fragile ones.

Nowadays many of us eat pretty loveless meals. Much of our food is prepared in industrial processing plants or at anonymous eateries where cooks have no contact with customers. While we eat this food, many of us are busy with a multitude of other tasks: driving, walking, phoning or texting, watching TV or hammering away at keyboards. It’s not surprising, then, that we remain unfulfilled by our meals and crave more and more food to fill the void.

Not only do many of us not love — or feel loved by — our food, it actually fills us with fear and loathing. Some people worry about calories and weight-gain, others dread certain substances in food, like saturated fat, gluten, milk protein, soy, salt, caffeine, sugar, and countless other food components. This leaves many of us in a constant state of anxiety around food, making mealtimes anything but love-filled, and putting a damper on our digestion and our health.

Relearning to love our food

In this kind of environment, how can we re-learn to love our food? We could take our cues from other cultures — notably the Mediterraneans. There, mealtimes are often an opportunity for conviviality, relaxation and the guilt-free enjoyment of simple dishes.

In an international survey of people’s attitudes to food and eating, respondents were asked to describe what, to them, constituted a “healthy diet.” Whereas primary health concerns for Americans and Britons touched on notions such as “proteins,” “carbohydrates” and “fat,” Italian and French respondents overwhelmingly focused on the concept of pleasure. During focus-group discussions, French participants mentioned the words “pleasure” and “joy” 79 times, whereas these terms came up only 16 times in the American group.

There was also a great divergence in respondents’ attitudes to conviviality: when asked what constitutes a healthy diet, French and French-speaking Swiss participants spoke spontaneously of “family meals” or “eating with friends.” In the French-speaking focus group, the word “family” came up 39 times, “friends” 51 times, “convivial” 72 times and “sharing” 38 times.

This is in striking contrast with the Anglophone groups, where “family” was mentioned eight times, “friends” four times and “sharing” only three times. Lastly, while Anglophones valued “conviviality” on special occasions, the French, in particular, said they treasured conviviality as an ordinary, day-to-day event.

In addition to their attachment to conviviality, the French and Italian respondents also adhered most closely to a strict set of rules about meal times (three meals a day, at fixed hours), portion sizes (modest), table manners (no phones, no TV), snacking between meals (forbidden), second helpings (frowned upon), dietary variety (essential), eating environments (tables, real dishes and cutlery, not cars, sidewalks or desks).

Here, then, are a few suggestions for ways in which we can instill love into our daily meals:

  • Unless you have medically diagnosed allergies, don’t fret over every morsel of food that passes your lips. As long as you are enjoying a diet of fresh, unprocessed foods and eat normal portions (i.e. eating until you feel satisfied, but not stuffed), it is likely to provide your body with all the nutrients it needs and cause no adverse side-effects.
  • Share your food with others; Countless studies have shown that family meals improve the physical and mental health of children and teenagers in a variety of ways, and adults are probably not immune either to the benefits of conviviality.
  • Take time to eat: Perhaps not at every meal, but at least once a day, sit down at a table, switch off and really take the time to savor your meal. This may feel difficult at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. Start with 5-7 minutes and then extend this by a minute or two every day until you can manage a 20- to 30-minute sit-down meal.
  • Eat your food consciously, be aware of what you are eating and thankful to those who produced it. If you are eating meat or fish, you may wish to thank the animal that gave up its life for you.
  • Love your digestive system: Try to eat slowly, by moderate mouthfuls and chew your food thoroughly to lighten the load on your gut.
  • Prepare your own food: While this may feel like a super-human feat to many crazy-busy folk, you will soon come to enjoy the sense of generosity and love that comes from cooking. Even if you are rustling up a mushroom omelet just for yourself, take the time to enjoy the colors, smells and textures of the foods you are handling and the delicious aromas your dish emits when it is ready.
  • Plan your meals: Don’t just let food “happen” to you – inevitably when we do this, we get ravenous and then gobble down the first thing we see – usually something like a double cheeseburger and fries. When you plan and shop ahead for your meals, you are in charge of what you eat, and this is an act of love you offer yourself.
  • Be kind to yourself and don’t expect miracles: if you are new to cooking, start with simple recipes and don’t be too hard on yourself if they don’t come out as you had hoped.