Have you ever heard someone say a prayer before a meal, and they forgot to ask a blessing on the food? Some people will pray again to make sure the foods blessed, good and proper. Many religious traditions include a short prayer or thankful phrase that people say before or after eating. Christians often call it grace (from gratiarum actio which is Latin for act of thanks). Some traditions, like that in Latter-Day Saint culture, also include blessing the food. While some Latter-Day Saints call this act grace, most call it blessing the food.
Grace in the Children’s Songbook
After one of our children attended a Christian kindergarten, we often sang grace using songs they learned there. In the Children’s Song Book (first published in 1989) there are a few songs that seem like they might function as grace. Since discovering some of them as parents, we sometimes sing them with our children before meals, even though they don’t include anything to do with blessing food. Here are some examples if you want to check them out:
We ask thee to bless the fish and chips that they may nourish and strengthen our bodies
I grew up in a home where we practiced food blessing at pretty much every meal. When we share meals at church activities, we also bless the food. It was important to us that we both thanked God for the food and asked Him to bless it. That was what we did. But what do we mean when we just ask God to “bless the food”? Do we want him to transform the food? Does it make the food healthier? Does it take the poison or germs out of it (if there is any)? Does it make the food holy or sacred? Does the food give us special abilities? Why not simply ask God to bless us with health/strength/stamina/nourishment directly?
In New Zealand, fish and chips are an economic take-away food, but not really healthy. I remember hearing stifled laughter a few times at youth activities when someone asked God to “bless the food that it may nourish and strengthen our bodies” when we were about to eat fish and chips. There might have been the odd joke about vain repetitions too. I don’t think many of us really thought that blessing something like fish and chips, deep-fried and salty, would make it more nutritious or healthier. Few of us really had nourishment or health on our minds. If we had, we probably wouldn’t have gone for fish and chips.
What do the scriptures say?
In the Old Testament, we find directions to bless God, not the food, after a satisfying meal, not before. This kind of blessing seems like what we might call praise.
When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee. Deuteronomy 8:10
In the New Testament, it says Jesus gave thanks and blessed at a couple of mealtimes. Some biblical scholars think this blessing was actually praising God too, not the food, as directed in Deuteronomy.
“And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.” Matthew 14:19
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.” Matthew 26:26
Jesus was performing miracles and administering the sacrament, so it doesn’t obviously apply to every meal. Nothing in these stories suggests that the food Jesus blessed was poison before but not afterwards, that the foods nutritional value or hygiene increased, or that the people who ate it had increased physical health or abilities. Nowhere in the scriptures does it explain what blessing food might actually do in a normal meal.
Modern Church Teachings
There doesn’t appear to have been much taught of food blessing. A New Era article from 1977 and the Family Guidebook (first published in 1992) represent about as much as I can find from ‘recent’ times. Neither of these presents strong reasons to teach food blessing as a scriptural practice or a practice that is more than tradition.
New Era – 1977
In the article in the New Era, Carol Dunn Newman (served on two general boards: Young Women and Sunday School), gives several loose reasons and explanations for food blessing.
- Giving thanks and blessing food follows the example of Jesus Christ (as discussed above).
- Asking for a blessing on the food lets shows that we know God’s power, the power that takes food “beyond its regular nutritive power to bless us even more and give us added stamina to meet our required assignments and serve diligently in the kingdom.” She also says that we should not ignore common sense or eat what we know is unhealthy.
- Obeying direction in the Book of Mormon: “Ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.” [2 Ne. 32:9].
In principle, consecrating our food to the Lord is a beautiful idea. Acting it out would make even the most mundane parts of our lives sacred, imbued with purpose and meaning. You could do this with fish and chips, even. I don’t think these represent an official church doctrine as much as a faithful opinion and explanation of practice. While these are faithful approaches to food blessing, I’m not convinced that they are something we teach people they should all do, for every meal.
The Family Guidebook – 1992
‘Parents should see that family members learn to thank God for their food and ask Him to bless it before they eat. Each person, including young children, should take a turn offering the blessing. Offering a prayer for a blessing on the food helps parents and children learn to be thankful to our Heavenly Father.‘
The stated purpose for both giving thanks and blessing the food is to help us to be thankful. It doesn’t say anything about actually changing the food or increasing the abilities of the eaters, just about making us more grateful. A few years ago, I started a Facebook discussion on food blessing, and several people opined that the purpose of asking God to bless the food was gratitude. To them, the thanking and blessing were a package deal, I guess.
Gratitude is something I can get behind. Even hearing another’s prayer of sincere gratitude can be a deeply spiritual experience for me. There is something transcendent about gratitude. Sincere gratitude is something I want in my life. I want to “live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which [God] doth bestow upon [me]” (Alma 34:38). It helps me feel satisfied and happy.
Vain Repetitions or Sincere Prayer
People are very good are learning repetitive tasks and completing them with little to no conscious thought. The other day I drove to get something from the grocery store. When ‘auto-pilot’ engaged and I drove right past the shops and half-way to my daughter’s school. I drive to and from my daughter’s school almost daily, and there are parts of the trip that take little conscious thought. Sometimes our prayers can become like this; the blessing or the thanking.
I don’t think it makes me anymore thankful to ask God to bless the food than just to thank Him for it. But if ‘blessing the food’ is more meaningful to you than grace without it, then bless away. If you could ‘bless the food’ in your sleep, though, try changing the wording of your prayers occasionally. This disrupts the flow of the prayer, and helps you think more about what you mean. If you are concerned about nutrition, you might couple efforts to eat nutritious foods with prayers that God blesses you with adequate nutrition. If you really need energy to get through work today, eat a good meal and pray for energy. If you want to consecrate your food to God, think of what you are going to do with the food/energy/health God has blessed you with and include it in your prayer.
Sometimes at mealtime prayers, it’s just as easy for the thanks to be a vain repetition as the blessing, but at least I know what I’m meant to mean when I say thanks. Sometimes I thank God for the fish and chips, or pasta or [insert specific food] instead of just food. This can be another way of helping me to focus and be present. Offering grace for our food is meaningful to me, and reminds me to be grateful. Other than blessing the sacrament, it’s been quite a while since I asked God to bless any food, but I frequently say grace. I reckon it’s the gratitude that counts, and I really am grateful for food.
Is food blessing meaningful to you? Does it make you more grateful? Do you praise God in your mealtime prayers? Does anyone pray after their meal? Comment below.