How My Father's Death Taught Me To Eat Without Guilt

Written by Katie Haines

It was a few weeks before Thanksgiving, the biggest (and best) food holiday, and my dad was dying. He lay in his borrowed hospice bed, with a nurse by his side and the family room TV playing Matlock reruns. His wife fed him plain tomato soup with leftover rice from the previous night’s Chinese takeout, and my dad was having none of it, twisting his head away from the spoon. Through his garbled protest, I finally understood that he only wanted to eat that tomato and rice soup in the red and white can. I drove to the store as fast as possible and bought probably ten of them, excited that he had a taste for something, anything.

My father died of cancer at the too-young age of 64. It was gut-wrenching to watch him waste away and lose his taste for life — and for food. My dad loved to eat. I remember him preparing Sunday morning grits for the family, enjoying black-eyed peas and anything sweet; we had a shared love for peppermint ice cream. I fed him the tomato and rice soup that night; he smiled and looked at me approvingly and finished after just two bites.

As I watched him struggle to eat, I realized I rarely gave myself permission to enjoy and savor food. I had always been one of those people who felt guilty after dessert. Or bread. Or pasta. As a ballet dancer, I held myself to impossibly high standards, my diet included — for years I strived to eat “perfectly.”

I cried as I drove to my apartment that night, but when I got home I understood what had to change. In the following years, I came to embrace these three lessons:

1. Eat with pleasure.

Rarely do we take the opportunity to savor each and every meal. Whether it’s a healthy dish prepared by your favorite cook, a Lara bar in your car after yoga or a slice of pumpkin pie around the table with family, pause for a moment and feel grateful. Shift your perspective to one of joy and gratitude for that wonderful taste. Drop the guilt — it just gets in the way.

2. Honor your body with every meal.

Life is precious. Eat so that you feel the best you can, every day. Fill your beautiful vessel with the absolute best quality ingredients every time you eat. Shop at the farmer’s market, because fresh produce tastes the best. Buy the best dark chocolate and make the most delicious green juice, because your gorgeous toosh deserves it. When you’re really honoring your body, you’ll choose the foods that help you thrive. And when you choose the other foods, you’ll stop before the binge, you’ll eat without guilt and just enjoy the moment.

3. Remember that food is a gift.

My father’s wife broke her ankle about three months before his decline. While she never did much of the cooking, she stopped completely, and fast food dinners became the norm. Once I heard this, I got over to their house more often to cook for them (even though I was still figuring out the whole “cooking thing”). In doing so, I realized how important it is for us to share the gift of healthy food. You can probably think of a few people right now who could benefit from some of your homemade soup or a bag of groceries. Give them the gift of good health.

Today, one of the ways I honor my father’s life is by enjoying each meal. Many of the gifts I give to family and friends are food related, and I coach people to eat well, not perfectly. Many of us get caught in the trap of trying to eat impeccably clean. Somewhere in the counting of carbs and studying the glycemic index, we traded pleasure for the pursuit of perfection. As the holiday season approaches, I hope you’ll join me in honoring the spirit of your loved ones with an appreciation for the power of good food and the celebration that is eating with pure pleasure.

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