Something wasn’t quite right, Donna Roberts thought. She tasted the stew again. Something was definitely missing – the rosemary, the sage or maybe the salt? Puzzled, she exchanged a glance with her friend Jane, who sat cross-legged on the grass beside her. “This isn’t like Celeste,” Roberts whispered to Jane. “She’s an excellent cook, especially with this stew.” She kept her voice down so as not to appear ungrateful for the food Celeste had prepared for their community.

Moments later, Celeste spoke from her position in the circle and shared a distressing phone call she had received moments before she began dinner preparations. Her family was suffering a crisis centering on a younger brother whom Celeste loved very much.

Hearing this, Roberts and Jane understood. The stew contained all the same ingredients – the fresh fish and the potatoes, onions, carrots, chiles and herbs picked from their organic garden. What they tasted was the bitter flavor of Celeste’s sadness and fear.

In the alternative living environment Roberts shared with friends, the group’s cooks thrived on the opportunity to nourish their neighbors through the foods they prepared and the atmosphere they created. Food preparation was a ritual in itself. Cooks arrived early to ready themselves to create a meal that would nourish body and soul. “We set out the ingredients and then took time to center ourselves,” Roberts explains. Sharing mealtime responsibilities, Roberts experienced the nourishing effect that the ritual surrounding eating can have.

For Roberts and her neighbors ritual meant eating together, either sitting outside experiencing the beauty of nature or inside before a great wall of windows. It meant gathering around a centerpiece with meaning of its own – fresh flowers, a fire or special objects. It meant paying respect through a moment of silence, a poem, a song or even a dance. Whatever the ritual, its effect was the same. It generated a feeling of cohesiveness that extended to the rest of their daily lives.

This experience helped to shape Roberts’ vision of the Nourishment Education Foundation (NEF), which she created in 1995 with Esther Cohen, M.S., R.D. The NEF provides services and an environment in which people of all ages, cultural groups and socio-economic classes can learn to better nourish themselves – body, mind and spirit. Cohen and Roberts teach others to recognize and feed their bodies’ hungers, developing a healthier relationship with themselves and with others. They do this by combining the art, science and spirituality of food and nourishment in a way that merges the wisdom of Eastern philosophy – of performing every act consciously – with the technology and knowledge of the West, Roberts says.

Wholistic Eating

“Our goal is to help people get in touch with who they are and what truly nourishes them,” says Cohen, stressing that the first step is awareness of all kinds of hunger: the hunger for food, to be held, to be loved, to give love, for favorite activities, for peace and quiet, for knowledge and new experience. In our fast-paced world, where restriction and self-control have come to signify strength of character, these hungers are often ignored. Sadly, the hunger for food and the cultural traditions that surround it are often the first to be denied. Reliance on processed foods and emphasis placed on physical beauty have caused Americans to develop an unhealthy relationship with food – labeling some foods as “good” and others as “bad.”

Rather than teach any one diet or philosophy, though, Roberts and Cohen promote the simple act of conscious eating. Cohen recommends: “Take a moment to remember what you’re eating and where it came from – how it was grown, harvested and prepared. This way you can understand your place in the whole spectrum.”

The diet itself isn’t the focal point in conscious eating. Food choices are individual matters. The focus lies in how you eat, in making the act a ritual in itself. “No matter what or when you eat, it’s whether you feel connected to God or the universe or the self that matters,” Roberts explains.

“You can see how important tradition is to family by examining the customs of other ethnic groups,” Cohen says, pointing out how the fast-paced American way of life has led to the disintegration of cultural traditions and the dismantling of the family structure. Rather than quality time spent together, Americans focus on convenience. “We’re the culture that created fast food,” Cohen comments.

Fortunately, the intermixed American culture provides the opportunity to create your own traditions, whether it’s baking your great-grandmother’s recipe for Norwegian Christmas cookies, observing Passover or always sitting at the same place at the dinner table. Of European ancestry, Roberts felt a lack of tradition growing up. As an adult, she’s created her own rituals, adopting customs she’s read about, her favorite being the Persian New Year, which celebrates the rebirth of nature on the first day of spring.

Building traditions from childhood contributes to conscious eating and overall nourishment later in life. “Food is children’s first connection to their mothers, to caring, to love and to being alive,” Cohen explains. “How kids experience food influences how they feel about it and themselves as adults.”

Whatever the tradition and whenever it starts, conscious eating leads to a healthy relationship with food. Taking time to stop and think when you eat reduces the chance you’ll overindulge or deny yourself a food your body hungers for. It also helps you recognize when your body wants something other than food. “Each part of our being needs to be fed,” Cohen stresses. “When we feel hunger it’s not always for food.” Sometimes taking a walk or sharing a hug is as nourishing as eating.

In 1997 Roberts and Cohen will begin work on a series of documentary films about conscious eating. They’re also planning a Nourishment Education Week in Boulder, Colo., and a quarterly newsletter. In the future, they hope to open a holistic healing center and educational facility to house seminars, support groups and classes.