Day 76: Food As Cultural Practice

2014-03-10 18.58.25As I’ve mentioned before, food seems to have been the main site of struggle in relation to transition. Certainly it is a topic of constant discussion between the care home manager and myself; although there have been periods when the issues around Dylan’s diet have felt less pressing, they have never really been resolved. This week, the problem with food seems to have resurfaced.

Dylan has dumped some of his meals in the bin I am told. On these occasions he has, apparently, asked for the non-vegetarian meals he sees other residents eating. There have also been reports of Dylan having aggressive outbursts in the evenings, behaviours which may be linked to his frustration about meals. Whatever the explanation, it’s pretty clear that Dylan is not enjoying his food at the moment. Judging from his diary notes, the meals he is eating tend to be repetitive and don’t include the foods which used to be among his favourites. Meal times have always been a source of pleasure for Dylan and it troubles me that this is something we haven’t been able to get right so far in his transition to residential care.

Vegetarian Options

It’s that time of year when I have food lists on post-it notes in my diary. On 14th December a post-it reads: Grilled Goat’s Cheese; Festive Nut Roast; Christmas Pudding. On the 17th December, meanwhile: Artichoke; Christmas Veggie Tart; Truffled Mushroom Wellington; Festive Brownie Sundae.

These are my own menu choices for Christmas socials with friends and colleagues. The meal on the 17th is with a small group of women from the workplace. Last year we went to a swanky venue in the Peak District but their vegetarian menu this year is disappointing. What do you do if you happen not to like the vegetarian dish on offer or – as was the case in this instance – a vegetarian diner is served a pasta dish for the starter and for the main meal?Β  There isn’t a vegetarian ‘option’, I said to my friend as we were about to make a provisional booking : it’s only an option if you get to choose between more than one vegetarian dish. ‘You’re right’, she said. ‘Let’s go somewhere else this year’.

Vegetarian Home

Choice is such an important part of our relationship with food; having some control over what we eat is significant not just for the pleasure it brings us but as part of our physical well-being and sense of identity. Because Dylan lacks mental capacity, however, his food choices tend to be driven by his desire for pleasure and to be informed by familiarity, rather than by any cultural or health concerns. Dylan doesn’t know what ‘being vegetarian’ means, other than it is a diet which is familiar to him. Equally, a learning disabled adult who has been brought up on a non-vegetarian diet wouldn’t understand the meaning of ‘eating meat’. In both instances, the adults have been acculturated to a particular diet through the social practices of the home.

A recent edition of The Food Programme (on BBC Radio 4) explored the role of food in the maintenance and well-being of communities in exile. Continuing traditions of diet and food preparation, the programme noted, allows families and communities to preserve their history and maintain a positive link with their past, thus supporting their sense of identity, belonging and home. For Dylan, food is also a potentially powerful link with the past, offering him comfort and familiarity as well as nourishing his relationship with family and his participation in the cultural practices of home.

Vegetarian Health

A vegetarian diet is a healthy choice, particularly in the context of the dietary restrictions which autism can create. I have described elsewhere the importance of the senses in Dylan’s dietary preferences: generally speaking, food must lack colour, smell and flavour. This may sound unattractive but Dylan has sensory issues which mean he cannot tolerate certain foods. Dylan has therefore come to rely onΒ  products such as pasta, quorn and soya which suit his palate and which offer variety in so far as they are packaged in a variety of ways.

As these foods are also high in fibre and low in fat, they make a useful contribution to Dylan’s health. If these products were replaced with meat, Dylan would almost certainly increase his weight and cholesterol levels and, after a lifetime of eating vegetarian food, may also find animal products difficult to digest.

Dylan’s Options

Dylan would not, however, know the difference between a vegetarian and non-vegetarian sausage if they appeared similar and the meat version wasn’t spiced. This is important in so far as it relates to the issue of choice. If someone offers Dylan a vegetarian kiev which contains quinoa and sweet potato, there isn’t the remotest chance he will put even a morsel in his mouth. Dylan does not like the smell, the colour, the texture or anything at all about that kiev. He will, in fact, put it in the bin. Just because Dylan is vegetarian it does not mean that he will eat everything packaged as ‘vegetarian’. We wouldn’t expect a non-vegetarian autistic person to eat all foods that aren’t vegetarian so why expect a vegetarian autistic person to eat anything with a ‘vegetarian’ label?

I am not remotely surprised that in this situation Dylan asked for one of the chicken kievs being eaten by the other residents: the meat version will have looked more familiar to Dylan as quorn kievs (which he does like) are not dissimilar visually. Whereas in Dylan’s shoes I would opt not to eat, rather than have meat, this is not a reasonable expectation for Dylan. Of course he would ask for the chicken kiev rather than the nasty spicy thing he has just dumped in the bin. And of course he will have no idea whatsoever why he is not allowed to have it; from Dylan’s perspective, this is simply unfair. Dylan, I would argue, did not have a meaningful choice in the same way the Christmas menu at the swanky restaurant did not offer me a choice. What Dylan needed was not a chicken kiev but a meaningful vegetarian option.

Dylan’s Choice

There have been some positive developments since Dylan moved to the care home. A separate storage area for Dylan’s food has been created, for example, and staff are now aware that Dylan does not eat meat. Not all the changes have been positive however; currently, for example, Dylan eats his meal separately from the other residents as it is assumed he will want the non-vegetarian option if he sees it.Β  I don’t believe this is the case; providing Dylan is offered a choice of meals he likes, he should be perfectly happy with vegetarian food. Meal times have always been shared experiences at home so I dislike the thought of Dylan eating alone; he surely shouldn’t have to give up his lifetime diet in order to keep company?

When Dylan first moved to residential care there was a suggestion that my request he follow a vegetarian diet should go to a ‘Best Interest’ panel. Although this didn’t happen, there is a continued perception that vegetarianism involves a ‘loss of choice’ for Dylan and that it is ‘hard’ to follow the diet. Given that Dylan had a positive relationship with food while he lived at home, however, and enjoyed (within his beige limits) a range of vegetarian meals, I would argue that it is the residential setting, rather than Dylan, for whom this is challenging.

Clearly, the important thing is that Dylan starts to enjoy his meals again. What I don’t yet accept, however, is the suggestion that Dylan is making a proactive choice to eat meat (or ‘not to be vegetarian’). This could only really be considered a possibility once Dylan had rejected the vegetarian options he was previously happy to eat. As I’m not convinced this is where we are yet, I went food shopping for Dylan today; there should be more things which he likes available for him to eat next week.

It will be interesting to see whether this helps the situation. I hope so: I cannot believe that a move to residential care should require such radical change to a person’s diet, particularly given the cultural weight of food.


The photograph is of a ‘macaroni cheese flower’ I made for Dylan a while ago, when he was still living at home. It meets all his key requirements in terms of colour, flavour and smell πŸ™‚

9 thoughts on “Day 76: Food As Cultural Practice

  1. My wife was vegetarian and brought up our children on a diet which didn’t include ‘anything which started life with a face’. They seemed to share her feelings. However both of them started to eat meat after she died – my daughter at the age of 32 and my son later, when he was 38. Neither of them experienced any problems with digesting meat, fish, or poultry. Both of them made the transition on health grounds.
    I have always eaten organic or bio-dynamic whenever possible and if I do have to buy non-organic vegetables then I feel powerfully that I am eating something tainted. However my children don’t share my feelings. My daughter does not think of buying organic food, she goes for what she judges to be the best value within the non-organic range. My son will now travel 20 miles to get a special beef burger!
    I know another family, a single mother who is very aware of the importance of what one eats. When her son left home to go to university he immediately started eating meat and fish and now will try anything. His mother is now following his eating habits when they are together and her own preferences in her own home.
    Food is a major way of showing love for ones children. To nourish them well and hopefully give them good health. But I have found they have their own ideas about that.


    • Thank you Tom. How interesting. The shift in your children’s diet, and the other family you mention, is quite radical πŸ™‚ It’s useful for me to hear that they experienced no digestive trouble – occasionally when Dylan has indicated he has stomach ache I’ve wondered if it was from eating meat but perhaps not. I’ve been trying to get my head round the implications for someone who ‘lacks mental capacity’ of this. It’s not that I don’t think Dylan is capable of making such a decision – I think he is – but I don’t want others to make it for him, i.e. it shouldn’t be in order to fit in with established practice at a residential setting. So I really want Dylan to be offered the vegetarian things he likes. If he still chooses the meat, fair enough – but he has to have real choice which I don’t think he is always getting at the moment. Yes, food is how we show our love to others πŸ™‚ I ADORE your wife’s maxim of nothing which started life with a face πŸ™‚ I can live with that. Thank you!


  2. Out of the home, when Zach was near to peers he has been able and wishes to eat what they are eating. However once home he will not, even if it is a thing that food allergies allows ME to cook for him. Again that generalization thing. I consider that one would be over joyed that he would allow and TRY anything new and different. Sensory integration therapy helped Z to overcome his ‘beige’ issue, besides i didn’t ALLOW it. Giving him a variety and textures, scents, colors and flavors helps him not to expect choc chip cookie taste incoming when he eats a piece of melba toast.

    Change can be amazing, as is his communicating his wish to belong and to try other things. Perhaps, like with a little one, to be certain he has no adverse issues which he has no words to communicate, one might keep his diet ‘controlled’ allowing one new thing a week?

    As the average college student you wouldn’t be attempting to force him to eat your diet, he would have the right if he wished to eat as he wished.


    • Elisa, there are some critical differences in Dylan’s situation. Previously I have taken the same stance as you on Dylan’s diet; ours is a vegetarian home but outside the home Dylan would sometimes eat meat if there was nothing vegetarian available which he liked. But his residential setting is Dylan’s home now so they need to support Dylan to choose a vegetarian diet in the home if he wishes. My concern is that he is only able to do this if he is provided with vegetarian options which are meaningful to him (i.e. things which he likes). Of course I am not going to stop Dylan from having a choice. I don’t think there is anything in my post which suggests I am ‘attempting to force him to eat my diet.’? (Actually my diet bears no resemblance to Dylan’s diet except in that it doesn’t include meat). The point of my piece was to raise the need to actively support dietary choice in young adults with learning disabilities and to provide individualised care; I am arguing for Dylan to be offered the option of the vegetarian food which he is familiar with and enjoys, so that he can continue choosing vegetarian food if he wishes. It’s interesting to me that you advocate permissiveness in relation to food except for sensory-based choices which you ‘didn’t allow’. By contrast, I am happy to support Dylan’s sensory-related food choices πŸ™‚


      • i don’t advocate it personally however my son is an adult and if one is not feeding him a thing that is actively killing him , if he will eat it go for it


  3. Pingback: Day 78: A Meditation On Beige | Living with(out) Autism

  4. Pingback: Day 85: The Library | Living with(out) Autism

  5. Pingback: Day 86: Food Shopping | Living with(out) Autism

  6. Pingback: Three Years and Three Months: A Mother Adjusting | Living with Autism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.