A dear friend and I were sitting around the kitchen table as our two children were slowly getting to know one another. These two toddlers, both not even two yet, have already shown certain preferences when it comes to their food. Squeals of joy abounded when the pomegranate seeds emerged as my daughter shouted, “Maan!” and hastily made her way to the center of the table, leaving her half eaten clementine behind. I wondered, and still continue to do so, about the amount of variety I offer my child. I wonder if the variety is spoiling her and whether or not she’ll expect only the best foods whenever her desires demand them. I quickly rationalize it away by thinking these offerings contribute to a well-balanced diet, even though I do see signs of those demands. I see it in the way she moves her head away when the food is not to her liking. Knowing that she cannot yet comprehend the immense blessings our family has, I wait patiently for the day I can relay a story about her grandfather when he was a kid.
My father came from a well to-do family in Egypt. Then his mother died when he was five, may Allah have mercy on her soul. After she died, his family faced difficult times, both emotionally and financially. He would tell me, “Marwa, there were days when I was given one hard boiled egg, and I was told, “you can either eat this for breakfast or dinner.”‘ This story has resonated with me so deeply and I often think about it while I feed my daughter, or while deciding what to make for dinner. Sometimes I think about it without food triggering the thought at all. The mental image of a five year old boy looking at his egg and contemplating the best time to finish off his only meal of the day sometimes makes me want to erase the image from my mind altogether. However, I can’t not think about it while others go without food for what seems to be many more days. At the very least, sitting with that discomfort allows my heart to soften as I try to fight the ossifying effects this world has on me.
Alhamdulillah, Allah has never put me in a situation where I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. It truly is such a blessing that we are commanded to fast and feel the pangs of hunger and eventually the empowerment of not needing so much. However, I know for my family, we tend to slip into old habits quickly. Sometimes we eat out of boredom, or in order to keep certain hands and mouths busy (especially wandering, trouble-making hands), and well, many times we eat because it just so happens to be a certain meal time even if we are not necessarily hungry.
I know that the responsibility of finding joy in simple, intentional, eating rests on my shoulders. After watching the documentary, Forks over Knives, my husband and I have committed to eating less meat and incorporating more vegetables, beans, and grains into our diet. It does mean that we are stewing lentils about twice a week, but thus far, no one has complained. The days we do eat meat, we make sure to cut the portion size in half or add a little bit of ground beef as opposed to stew meat in the famous Egyptian sauce based vegetable meals (okra, peas, green beans, etc.). Even though we have only been doing this for about a month, what I have noticed is a deeper sense of appreciation the days we do eat meat. I enjoy it, and I try to savor what’s on my plate. I also don’t feel as guilty spending more money on organic, grass fed meat since we are buying much less of it. Growing up in a household where the highlight of the meal centered around the poultry, meat, or fish component, can make this endeavor seem like something is missing from the dinner table. After awhile however, we are getting used to eating what was once perceived as a side dish as our main meal- we just eat more of it. What we have found to be particularly satiating are cooked lentils with cumin, garlic, and crushed tomatoes as well as stuffed bell peppers and zucchini. Vegetarian chili is something we have yet to explore, but are looking forward to it, insha’Allah.
As we start incorporating these changes into our lifestyle in order to live closer to the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (sas), it is my hope that this endeavor will feed into other positive commitments as well. Ultimately, living a sustainable lifestyle that leaves a small carbon footprint will require much more than reducing our meat intake. Composting, farm shares, reducing paper towel usage, are also on the agenda. As for this winter? It’s shaping up to be a bit more than a pot of lentil-stew goodness.
Marwa Aly currently serves as a Muslim chaplain and is a mother to one wonderful daughter.