You Are What You Eat

Living Simply by Eating Simply

By Katie Mulembe, Catholic Volunteer Network Coordinator of Recruitment and Alumni Relations

The harvest season is upon us – it’s the time of year for decadent meals of fresh, seasonal dishes. This season of harvest is not historically about overindulgence, it is about celebrating your blessings by sharing your table with others. In many ways, this is similar to the concept of simple living. In our volunteer communities, we have the opportunity to extend the spirit of this season throughout the year by adhering to simple living concepts, in particular being mindful about what you eat.

A topic trending in the media today is food choices. Many people have different ideas about what is the best way to eat – some say we should eat organic food and avoid the harmful chemicals found in many of our processed foods; others say it is better to eat locally to reduce our carbon footprint and support small farmers in our area. Every week the media seems to promote a new superfood that boosts our immune system, reduces cholesterol, or burns calories. Our global village has made unique flavors from all over the world more accessible than ever before. In volunteer communities, where grocery budgets tend to be tight, the conversations often turn to saving money, while also satisfying everyone’s diverse taste buds. It seems the saying “you are what you eat” has never been more relevant.

It may be impossible to follow all of these guidelines and create meals that are at the same time diverse, organic, local, healthy, and inexpensive – but we can become more attentive to these factors and mindful of the importance of our own food choices. We should not turn a blind eye to the social and environmental impact of our choices. Monsignor Charles Murphy writes in his article titled “The Good Life from a Catholic Perspective: The Challenge of Consumption,” “What and how much we consume manifests our conception of who we are and why we exist.”

By taking a more thoughtful approach, you will be able to eat more simply and responsibly. Here are  four suggestions that you and your community can take into consideration: 

Select Fresh Whole Foods - Whole foods (defined simply as foods in their natural state) provide the most nutritional value, while also leaving out many of the chemicals used in creating processed foods. Another benefit from cooking with whole foods is that you are more often able to cook meals from scratch and tailor them to the tastes your community prefers. Cooking from scratch may not seem like a benefit for those who don’t particularly enjoy spending time in the kitchen, but if one considers the ways that prepping a meal with your own hands is an act of love and service to your community, the task may become a little easier to swallow. The Mennonite Church has provided an example for us through their commitment to healthy, whole foods as well as a strong commitment to social justice and care for the poor worldwide. Their cookbooks More-With-Less, Simply in Season, and Extending the Table offer many helpful recipes that your community may enjoy. Click here to find out more about these resources. You can also find one of the recipes from More-With-Less here.

Plan Ahead – A weekly meal plan can dramatically improve the quality of your meals, while also stretching your budget. By browsing through grocery store circulators before you shop, you will be able to learn which items will be on sale that week and plan your meals around the sales. Many local farmers send out email updates to let their loyal customers know which farmers markets they will be at and what produce they will have for sale. If you plan to prepare a meal that uses small amounts of unique ingredients, research additional meals that use those same ingredients to ensure that nothing goes to waste. Additionally, schedule meals that will make for easy leftovers earlier in the week so that you can carry them to work for lunch. Meals that rarely leave many leftovers (like pizza) work well for Thursday or Friday dinners.

Eat Less Meat – Most people around the world do not eat nearly as much meat as the average North American. In fact those living in developing countries, while their amounts of meat consumption are rising, still consume only one-third to one-half the amount of meat as people living in industrialized nations consume. Eating less meat is one way to be in solidarity with the global community. There are also many environmental reasons to cut back on meat consumption. The Environmental Working Group tells us that if a community of four goes without meat or cheese for one day each week for one year, the energy savings will be equivalent to taking a car off the road for five weeks or shortening everyone’s daily shower by three minutes. (Source: This is a simple change that can have a significant impact.

Welcome Others to Your Table – Cooking for large communities can be a bit of a challenge at times, but when you are already preparing meals for a large group, it will not be too much different to cook for just a few more.  If you have made responsible food decisions, you will find it easier to find room in your community food budget to provide for guests at your table. Sharing your meals with your neighbors and friends allows you to strengthen relationships with your larger community, while also ministering to those who may be in need. This is a universal display of love and compassion – extending through nearly every culture on the planet. It is a way to bridge gaps, make amends, and extend a hand of peace. Sharing your table may be especially helpful for volunteers serving internationally. Food can be a wonderful way to cross cultural divides and develop a stronger connection to the community you serve. We have a great example of this ministry in Jesus, who frequently shared a table not only with His friends, but also those outcast from society. Sharing your bread is a simple way to adhere to the teachings of Christ.

For many volunteer communities, shared meals are central to the development of this support system, as well as an exercise in simplicity. How you decide to share the meal preparation responsibilities and the culture you create at your dinner table may strengthen the community or cause much tension. Good communication can make your shared meals not only a way to stretch your food budget, but also a way to build stronger bonds as a community. Now that you’ve had the opportunity to live as a community for a couple months, you have probably figured out a system for grocery shopping and food preparation. This may be a helpful time to evaluate your routine and see if there are any tweaks that can be made to strengthen your commitment to simple living.

Do not worry too much about making all these changes at once. Simple living in a journey, not an instant transformation. As you continue along this path, you will find your life opening up to a new experience of abundance. This will enable you to enjoy more deeply the richness and diversity of your community.