The Secret of Meals: The Importance of Atmosphere

meal atmosphere

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I had a conversation with Michael Broffman, a well-known practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Michael is a fluent speaker of Chinese and has been a practitioner of this form of medicine for decades.

Some of the best medical schools in the country have been working on integrative medicine, combining the best of Western medicine with Chinese medicine, which has a clinical history of several thousand years. This is a real East-West collaboration, to the benefit of the patient. Western medical schools have also been investigating other traditional forms of medicine from Asia, among them the Ayurvedic tradition from India.

According to Michael, TCM recognizes three equally important categories in relation to food. These are: the science of nutrition, meaning what is in the food should be good for you.

The preparation of food, which includes cooking, plating and serving.

Finally, TCM includes the context in which the meal is eaten. This is the most unusual from a standpoint of the Western tradition.

Michael said, “One of the teachers I have known and respected for a long time, the Taiwan food specialist Ma Lao-fe, emphasizes the importance of context, from a standpoint of health benefits in a meal.This teacher often stated that context is as important or more important than food.

“The idea of connecting with family and friends, of having conversation, of the environment and surroundings of the meal is as important or sometimes even more important because these elements of a meal are nourishing too.”

This does not mean that one should be a food snob. Michael quoted the great master of French cuisine, Julia Childs, as saying, “On the road, the atmosphere might be MacDonald’s, because it is road food.”

Michael also recounted his teacher inviting Michael to eat in a variety of locations just to amp up the factor of atmosphere. To a park. To somewhere outdoors. For a couple trying to conceive, to a playground filled with children.

Think of it. The meal is not only what is on the plate. It is the surroundings. We take it in. We eat with our minds and hearts.

This is especially important for the patient with swallowing difficulties. Dysphagia patients really benefit from the practice of creating an environment of health and healing. It does not take much. It is an approach, an attitude.

My mom really appreciated it when I brought in roses from the garden in her favorite color, red, and let her smell the roses before she ate her meal.