Nourish Your Body—Playing With Food

I love playing with food. I know that play and creativity are demonstrably linked. Children discover themselves, strengthening their imagination muscles when they play, often setting the foundations for who they become and what interests them as they age.

My food play relies on a deep understanding of ingredients and flavors, a clear sense of what my own taste palette is, and a willingness to let go of results. For me, the whole world of food taps into my creativity. To get this understanding took experimentation and I encourage you to do the same. It’s fun and satisfying to wake up senses with new tastes and smells. Novelty is good for our brains, too.

My favorite maxim for how I operate in general, and with food in particular, comes from Angeles Arrien in her book, The Fourfold Way. It is the “Way of the Teacher—Open to Outcome, Not Attached to Outcome.” The first time I read this, I knew it described me—helping me be more effective in all I do.

Aging has given me permission to be honest with guests when they want to contribute to a meal. I always find out what they can’t or don’t eat, and make sure I honor their wishes. Then I encourage them to bring a dish they like or something new they want to try making. I no longer decide ahead what I will serve, instead finalizing what I want to make the day of the meal, having first checked my pantry and refrigerator, and then based on what looks fresh and inviting when I shop. I might look through my cookbooks or scan online recipes.

I stopped paying attention long ago to the maxim about never serving guests something you haven’t made first. My snarky inner voice—in case the experiment fails unexpectedly—is to remind myself that my friends will have another meal sometime soon and can always feed themselves when they get home!

I don’t strive for perfection when it comes to food. I personally think it would be better for all of us to abandon that word forever! I am pleased when I make something that is a hit. I might even write down the recipes or approaches that work so I can play with them again.

For me, creativity always starts with considering what tastes appeal to me. Fall’s bounty teases my tastebuds toward deep tastes with bright highlights. They apply to meals I make and gifts I offer. Spices from the Middle East and North Africa are among my go-to combinations. Here are some good ones to play with:

  • Sumac, a tangy ground spice that is a good substitute for salt, helping reduce dependance on the saltshaker.

  • Za’atar, a mixture commonly made from dried thyme, oregano, sumac, and sesame seeds.

  • Freshly ground toasted cumin and coriander seeds. Combine whole seeds and toast in a dry frying pan over medium heat until fragrant and beginning to color. Take off the heat and whir in a spice grinder or spice-dedicated coffee grinder.

  • Lemon Omani or ground dried lime, which add a deep citrus tone to whatever you use it with.

Playing with food: Spicey Gifting

In November, start checking the shelves of places like Trader Joes and other specialty grocery stores to score some of the gift packages with spice samples. Pair them with a bottle of interestingly flavored olive oil and package them prettily for an easy gift for food-loving friends.

Middle Eastern roast chicken with apricots and olives


  • 4–6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • 1 red onion, cut into 8 pieces
  • 3 T mixed spices (equal amounts Sumac, Za’atar, Lemon Omani)
  • Juice of 2 lemons or mixture of lemon and lime
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ cup dried apricots, halved
  • 1 cup seeded green olives


Make a marinade with Za’atar, Sumac, oregano and salt and pepper with fresh squeezed lemons and limes.

Place chicken in a plastic bag with marinade and chopped onion and let marinate for as many hours as possible, preferably overnight.

When ready to cook, heat oven to 400 degrees.

Cover a large sheet pan in foil and roast chicken skin side up for 20 minutes. Rotate pan and roast another 20 minutes.

Arrange apricots and olives among the chicken pieces and roast another 20 minutes until chicken is tender.

Serve with couscous or rice. Serves 4

Rebecca Crichton is executive director of Northwest Center for Creative Aging and presents programs on that topic in the Seattle area. She worked at Boeing for 21 years as a writer, curriculum designer, and leadership development coach. She has master’s degrees in child development and organizational development, and is a certified coach.

Click here for more of Rebecca’s recipes!

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