World's Fair

How Do You Choose Your Food?

*This post was written by intern Kate Lee.

There’s been a lot of discussion around the World’s Fair lately about food (Food Miles, Chinese Agriculture, Science and the Farm Bill, Subsidies and the Small Farm). Up until about a month ago, I was employed by the food industry, and that position opened my eyes to a number of patterns in human food consumption around Boston. I became very attentive (in and outside of work) to the way people approached their food choices, what they chose, how they asked for it, how they consumed it, and how they exited the experience. I couldn’t resist sharing with you folks some of the ideas that I’ve been developing ever since I started thinking about food all the time.

Choosing food products to put in your body is a difficult decision for many people. You might think that people would have strong intuitions about how to do this thing that we are all biologically required to participate in, but any such intuitions are clouded by the crazy world of food on Spaceship Earth. Many people live a lifestyle in which a huge number of potential foods are available for relatively little cost. (At the same time, a huge number of people have social and economic constraints that limit these choices. That’s an environmental justice issue that deserves more discussion here, but one I’ll hold off on in this post.) For me, this number of options, combined with the factors influencing an individual’s choices, creates many levels of complication to eating. Most of us are not experts on human nutrition, and the information in the public sphere is constantly changing. We work hard, we lead busy lives, and slick advertising often promotes sugary, processed foods. How are we supposed to know what to feed ourselves?

Everyone likes lists, so let’s start a list of all the factors that might go into making food choices every day. Imagine that you are a human that is feeling very hungry (This is a situation that most, if not all, World’s Fair readers should be able to relate to). What influences your decision whether to eat, what to eat, where to eat, how to eat, etc.?

How much money do you have, and what percentage of it are you willing to spend on food? Food that is organic or local tends to be a bit more expensive. Foraged food is cheapest but requires a big time commitment.

What foods do you enjoy eating? Taste is influenced by production, season, family, friends, presentation, branding, timing, mood, etc. This last point is studied well by advertisers working in the food industry, who devote their careers to directing large-scale taste shifts towards their product.

The purpose of eating is to nourish the body, and most people would rather benefit their body than harm it. But what does that mean for daily eating? We’re all familiar with nutrition fact labels, and we know that vegetables and fruits deliver vitamins and minerals, while animal-based products are often loaded with fats and cholesterols best taken in moderation. How does this flood of facts affect our ability to feed ourselves?

How long do you want to spend on the preparation and consumption of your meal? This is both an in-the-moment question and a longer-term lifestyle question. Are your meals the anchor points of your day, or is eating a distraction from what you want to be doing?

Where did this food come from? Who made it? How was it produced? These questions have been getting a lot of airplay recently, with the excitement over local foods and sustainable agriculture movements.

My goal with this list is to open up a discussion about food philosophies held by you – the World’s Fair reader. I want to know how you think food should be approached, what role it should take in your life, and how you try to make your food dreams a reality. I’ll start off the discussion with a summary of my personal food philosophy as it stands now, and maybe at the very least someone will tell me that I am wrong. I think that food is very important, and I worry that people forget about it in favor of making money and advancing their careers. I think that it is good to have a personal connection with what you eat, whether it’s by preparing your meals yourself, eating vegetables from your garden, or supporting a local dairy farmer. I think that researching and practicing organic and sustainable farming techniques is an important social issue, and that the consumer has a responsibility to support farmers who use such techniques. I think a lot of other things, but that’s a good start.

Comments encouraged here, though the second half of this post continues tomorrow. In the meantime, we also recommend Marion Nestle’s What to Eat (and here) as a superb work on the same topic. Also check out Talk of the Nation Science Friday, from August 10th, where Nestle, Michael Pollan, and Sandor Ellix Katz discussed food choices and the new farm bill with host Ira Flatow.


  1. #1 HP
    August 21, 2007

    There’s a strong social component to food philosophy that you’re leaving off your list. As a person who lives alone, I’m often made painfully aware of this. The selection, preparation, consumption, of food is traditionally a social activity. The family meal, the holiday dinner, the cafeteria or mess hall, the campfire, etc. are all places where people form social relationships centered around food.

    A big part of food choices are things like “This is grandma’s recipe from the old country,” or “Mom used to make this for me when I was sick,” or “Dad made a big breakfast every Sunday.” Food is also the central component of hospitality and celebrations.

    Also, the mere fact of having a social group (family, friends, etc.) makes it easier to prepare a healthy (or at least, healthier) variety of foods for a meal, because of division of labor and economy of scale.

    As someone who lives alone, I find food preparation and consumption outside of social situations an onerous and odious chore. Cooking and eating with friends is relaxing and enjoyable, but it’s not a day-to-day option for me. More and more, I find myself wishing I could buy Futurama-style Bachelor Chow — just basic, palatable nutrition for when I’m on my own.

  2. #2 Kate Lee
    August 21, 2007

    Great point, HP, and well put. I was in a similar situation until very recently, and you’re absolutely correct that when preparing and enjoying food is not a social activity, it gets burdensome.

    I think that the social aspects of eating were in the back of my mind while I was writing this, but they didn’t quite make it through my fingers. How do you think social factors interact with some of the factors I mentioned here, or factors that I haven’t even dreamed of?

  3. #3 Kate Lee
    August 21, 2007

    You actually did address my question before I asked it (that’s what I get for reading after doing a bunch of mindless tasks at my job!). It’s a good point that friends’ company makes it more fun to spend time on food, and division of labor. Also, your social group influences dietary decisions you might make (eat organic, eat local, eat vegan, kosher, etc). As always, the human influence looms large.

  4. #4 llewelly
    August 21, 2007


    More and more, I find myself wishing I could buy Futurama-style Bachelor Chow — just basic, palatable nutrition for when I’m on my own.

    You can .

    Joking aside, the bulk foods section of your local grocery will have a few cheaper-than-ramen (no really!) cereals which require only the addition of hot water, fresh fruit, a glass of beer, and a dollop of ice cream. Perfect nutrition and trivial to prepare.

  5. #5 Jennifer Ouellette
    August 21, 2007

    Hey, someone’s read THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA. 🙂 Great book, with a great “message.” But while food is indeed an important social aspect, I disagree with your assertion that we don’t pay sufficient attention to it. Most Americans are utterly obsessed with food, to the point where it’s actually an UN-healthy relationship. (There’s a reason Pollan’s book was a bestseller.) This doesn’t mean they make wise choices, but flip through almost any magazine, morning news show, etc., and there will be a food-related component somewhere, whether it’s a new diet, eating plan, new restaurant, new trend in cuisine, or the latest story on anorexia/bulimia or the obesity epidemic.

    I admire Pollan’s book because he puts his finger on the source of our gargantuan National Eating Disorder: we’ve become too inured to processed foodstuff and too distanced from “real” food, from “real” sources. Plus, he’s realistic about the possibility of change: our food infrastructure — based almost entirely on corn — is so entrenched, and we are so scattered, and so accustomed to eating what we want, when we want it, regardless of what’s in season, that it’s extremely difficult to adhere to a “local” model. Eg, Whole Foods ain’t perfect, but it’s an acceptable compromise.

  6. #6 Kate Lee
    August 21, 2007

    I actually haven’t read it, but I’m sure these sorts of questions are in the air in part because of it, so in that sense I’m sure Pollan’s indirectly affecting me.

    I see there being different levels of attention that can be paid, and you’re right that every possible media outlet is constantly name-dropping food. People do think about food all the time, in a sort of shiny “Look at this recipe!” or “You gotta try this miracle food!” sort of way. But what people don’t do is really consider the role that they want food to play in their lives, or work to change their lifestyles to reflect that role. That’s the kind of attention I mean. Does that make sense?

    I have a lot to say about eating in and out of season, but my thoughts are disorganized right now. I’d like to see what other people have to say about it!

  7. #7 Jacqui Monaghan
    August 21, 2007

    I get what you mean, Kate, about people thinking about the role that food plays in their lives. However much people enjoy eating food (and we do, and it shows, as Jennifer points out), it is treated for the most part as just that: food. I think what you are hoping for is that people consider the steps that were taken before that living creature became commodified into a meal.

  8. #8 Thomas Robey
    August 22, 2007

    There is another consideration that could be added to your list, but it overlaps some of your other categories – particularly nutrition and source. I call it the body as a temple hypothesis. I’ll get back to my use of religious language, but the concept as I envision it is subscribed to in large number by decidedly secular communities. (Particularly among the co-op rich, collective-friendly, granola mentality of the Pacific Northwest.) The body as a temple is a reverence or awareness of self that connects what you eat with who you are. (Really though, it’s just a highfalutin way of saying, “You are what you eat.”)

    Joking aside, I think that the philosophy of consumption, whether it ranges from puritanical teetotaling to vegan/organic to conscious indulgence is governed by more than just social or economic factors. Food consumption can provide a window into the self.

    As far as the religious connection is concerned, I think that there is room for this topic to be framed for religious communities in a similar way that climate change/global warming has. For example, a good number of Christians (even fundamentalists) have adopted global climate change as an important issue of creation stewardship. Some of these people might not ‘believe’ in evolution and cast askance looks at Science, but none-the-less have adopted many of the same strategies to forestall global warming as the most outspoken environmentalist groups. If, as I believe is a goal at the World’s Fair, we are to elevate the conversation about food choice, consumption and calorie origin, it might be worth the while to identify ways to involve the body as a temple as a tap into the organization and energy that certain Christian movements have.

    Finally, I probably do not need to remind you that the body as a temple is not a new idea. Blessed food has a thousands of year history in Abrahamic traditions, and is so ubiquitous it is not given a second look in markets and pantries. Many Eastern traditions have similar prescriptions. I think this could be a very useful idea for discussions on the topic of food.

  9. #9 JL
    August 22, 2007

    It is also apparent that food choices are increasingly becoming a means of realizing ones moral and ethical virtues at the expense of being outright discriminatory against those who do not share their same ideals about what type of food should or should not be eaten. Regardless of the justification behind why one chooses to eat or not to eat certain foods – be they vegan animal rightists or those concerned with the environmental costs of imported/non local foods – there is the tendency to view all those who do not eat the same foods through a moral/ethical lense.

    Using food choices as a means of judging others or as a means of establishing ones identity is nothing new. The word ‘culture’ frequently conjures up the smells and tastes of exotic foods and what we eat truly becomes who we are. However, unlike culture, where food is rarely associated with a moral act, food choices bourne of religious or ethical ideas tend to be most uncompromising to outsiders with different habits. I don’t mean to suggest this is the rule to all who choose foods because of their beliefs but rather that the tendency to be fanatical and somehow demonize or view others as inferior is greater in these people compared to those who just eat out of taste, traditional or sentimental preferences.

    I think also, that the reason there are exceptions to this rule has to how one would view food to begin with, whether it is merely for nourishment, or whether one imbues the act of eating and the actual thing ingested with some metaphysical quality, where the process of eating the right foods is akin to an act of self actualization. I think this might explain why there are people who easily suspend their moral approach to eating in the presence of others while there are those who do not…

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