ASK FATHER: How can eating desserts during Lent be fasting? Would Jesus eat desserts?

From a reader…


Dear Father Z in the tradition of the Church could one have two small meals and for your full meal have a full meal including dessert?

Should we not have a spirit of penance? How can fasting include dessert.? My husband talked to a lay Franciscan and read the Catechism and insists desser for example a bowl of chocolate ice cream topped with strawberries is still fasting! How can this be? Don’t we try to model ourselves after Jesus? The way He fasted? [Other than the time that He ate nothing for 40 days, and other than the time that He delayed drinking the final cup of wine until He was on the Cross, do you know how He fasted?  Moreover, in Matthew 12:1 He and the disciples were hungry, so they ate grain plucked from wheat fields as they walked along… on the sabbath, yet!] Aren’t we supposed to have penance an mortification as part if the fast? Isn’t full just refering to size not number of courses? I feel confused and disappointed. My husband says if I can find in writing that as part of tradition of the church or somewhere in the Catechism it says than fasting does not include dessert that he will stop doing it and teaching our children this way. I looked and hve not found anything! How can this be? Can you teach me and / ir help me!! Please I NEED THIS

One thing that people can surely give up for Lent, and this will be a major sacrifice for some, is looking down their noses at what others choose to do.

I am not convinced that you “need” this from me: common sense does the heavy lifting here.

Let us all stipulate that Lent should be taken seriously.   Can we do that?

Fathers of the Church were convinced that the discipline of a season of fasting was of apostolic origin.  Hence, we cannot ignore Lent.   For example, Caesarius of Arles (+542) teaches:

Aliis diebus ieiunare aut remedium aut premium est, in quadragesima non ieiunare peccatum est. Alio tempore qui ieiunat accipiet indulgentiam, in his diebus qui potest, et non ieiunat, sentiet poenam…. On other days fasting is a remedy or a distinction, but in Lent not to fast is a sin. In another season one who fasts receives an indulgence, but in these days, whoever can fast but doesn’t, will experience punishment. (s. 199)

The reference here is, of course, to fasting.

Fasting means the reduction of food.

Fasting does not mean the reduction of the goodness of the food.

Fasting could include eating simpler food.

Fasting certainly means eating less food.

Fasting doesn’t mean that we must eat bad food, insipid food, or revolting food.

NB:  While”fasting” is a technical term, it is also used loosely.  Some people say “fasting” and they mean all manner of mortifications, as if they “fast” from, say, watching TV.   That’s a penance or a mortification, but it is not, technically, fasting.  Fasting really concerns the quantity of food.   Don’t confuse fasting with mortifications.   Just as a square is a rectangle, not all rectangles are squares.   Fasting is a mortification, but not all mortifications are fasts.  So, we want to know how we are using our words.

Food can taste good during Lent.  Just eat less of it.  It could be a help for someone to cut back on the quantity of the food he eats (= fast) if the food he has is a) good and, at the end of a meal, he can b) have something that pleases (= dessert).

Lent doesn’t automatically mean rejection of desserts, or other foods that taste good, or foods that are sweet.  Someone might freely choose to give up desserts.  That’s fine.

What is it with some people and their war on good food?   I post something about cooking and I get hate mail.   All I have to do is make something extremely simple and inexpensive look good and the hate mail comes.   Put a chive across something and it must be extravagant.  Frankly, I find those notes equally pathetic and amusing.  If anyone doubts that there are Jansenists around….  But I digress.

Not everyone is a slave to sweets.   GOOD GRIEF!  How many people for Lent choose to give up chocolate (and that’s it)?   It’s a bit trivial.  However, we also must recognize that some people in this modern materialistic age of comforts and instant gratifications are spiritually behind the curve: chocolate is about all they can handle.  It’s a start. As Paul describes the conflicted Corinthians, some people are spiritual adults and some are still spiritual infants: “I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.” We all understand that some people are at different stages of their development. However, if people choose to remain spiritual infants rather than grow up… that’s a problem. I also think this applies to the form of the Roman Rite that they attend by choice… but I must close that rabbit hole now.

Giving up certain foods can be a good mortification, a good chosen penance.  It is praiseworthy when mortifications offered for the right reasons.  Cutting back on the quantity of food during Lent is certainly in the spirit of Lent, especially in places of abundance and for those who are able to do so.   Taking on other mortifications during Lent (avoiding certain foods, activities, adding hours of prayer, even performance of works of mercy which involve unpleasantness) are praiseworthy.

On an amusing note, back in the day when I was living with quite a few priests, one guy who didn’t especially like sweets and never ate desserts started eating them during Lent to help everyone else do more penance.  A final digression just to sweeten the sharper edge of this response.

Let us all take Lent seriously.  It could be a good thing for some of the readers here to start slowly in Lent and then add some mortifications along the way, perhaps week by week.

Now, since it is Sunday, I think I’ll have some raspberries after I eat whatever it is that I’m going to eat for supper.  Maybe I’ll put some cream on them.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Joe in Canada says:

    and then there’s the idea that fasting could mean eating nothing. The Eastern Church, including our Catholic brethren, don’t mind including that in the instructions.

  2. Lurker 59 says:

    Thank you Father for this, really really appreciate it.

    Just because one is fasting doesn’t mean that one cannot have a well-prepared meal. It is almost a sign of disrespect towards both God, who has provided foodstuffs and skill, as well as to the poor, who have not much nor access to variety, to think such. Where possible, and to one’s ability, meals should always be well prepared, even if they are simple meals. Cook with charity and thanksgiving, always.

    Truly I am sorry to hear that you receive hate mail for when you post about food and food preparation. Though my skills are far lacking to tackle such things, nor is there access most of the time to such things, those postings are always an indicator of God’s own love to have provided such things that can give rise to His glorification.

    We should strive to be excellent in all things, especially charity. And the preparation of meals and the sharing of that meal (even if in digital form) is a primordial act of charity. It is the giving of oneself and the fruit of one’s labors that others might partake in the joy that one has from God.

    I chalk much of the yearly issues over fasting and mortification over the slipshod way that it has been taught to many. People don’t know what to do because everything has been left practically to personal choice in practice. Thus the gamut of people thinking that fasting is about choosing miserable foods over quality foods or think that fasting is about giving up sinful things.

    Also, if your fast/mortification is resulting in food that makes you so miserable that you cannot give glory to God, you are probably doing it wrong.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    St. John the Baptist ate honey as well as locusts.

  4. Fr. Z is exactly right on the current rules as to fasting. I write only to clarify what was the pre-Reformation rules on Lenten fasting.

    The ancient rule on fasting was the nothing (including water) was to be taken on fasting days before None (3 pm). That is why in the old rite Mass was not celebrated on “penitential” days until after None, which ended up being read in the morning so that Mass could be celebrated before noon.

    Fasting included abstinence from meat, eggs, and dairy. And even more importantly, from sexual relations between married couples. And that was for all of Lent, not just weekdays. Some dioceses allowed eggs and dairy if a donation was made to cathedral construction.

    On the other hand, the medieval canon law included a passage from Gregory the Great that said: 1. fish may be eaten but “not to excess” and wine may be take “but not to drunkenness” on fast days of Lent.

  5. Gab says:

    You get hate mail for posting your fabulous yet simple dishes, Fr Z? I want to say something about these hate mail enthusiasts but I won’t as a tiny penance for Lent.

  6. KateD says:

    Pray for him quietly and let God and your good example inspire him to greater sacrifice,.

  7. JustaSinner says:

    I intermittent fast 18 hours regularly. Extra fasting? Or is this sufficient? Never gets ‘easy’ or normal…but results are spectacular!

  8. BrionyB says:

    It is hard to know what we’re supposed to do, and how to adapt the rules to our circumstances. The guideline I was brought up with of “one full meal, two small meals” doesn’t seem like fasting at all to me, as it’s what I would eat on a normal day (possibly more). Also, abstinence is a bit meaningless as I never eat meat. So I’ve started fasting from all food on Fridays and, for Lent, having only one small meal of soup and bread in the evening on Wednesdays. Just because it takes away the anxiety over what to eat and when.

    (Though also because I secretly quite like fasting – or my former-anorexic younger self does – and maybe it’s a convenient excuse to do so without having to admit to vanity or neurosis. So I’m not sure it counts as a mortification.)

    Still, I don’t tell anyone in real life that I’m doing this, and wouldn’t dream of insisting on anyone else doing the same. So my answer to the dessert question would be that the questioner should probably stop bothering her husband and let him eat as he sees fit (children are not required to fast at all, as I understand it, so that shouldn’t be an issue).

  9. Diana says:

    Raspberries and cream is the best. Nice choice!

  10. DeGaulle says:

    Father, with respect to those who criticise you for preparing appetising meals, David Warren recently wrote a related article in the Catholic Thing in which he pointed out the difference between Puritanism and Catholicism. The former, he explained is a subjective conflation of sin with pleasure, while Catholicism objectively identifies what is truly sinful. Some pleasures are sinful; some sins are not pleasurable; some pleasures are not sinful. The negative reaction of Judas to Mary’s attendance to Our Lord with expensive oil, while Martha toiled in the kitchen, is probably an extreme example of the kind of puritanism that, in different circumstances, manages to subjectively find something bad in a well-prepared meal, while the objective view of Catholicism is that it is a good in itself.

  11. Imrahil says:

    The traditional fast is: one meal, two collations. Other than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, it is not obligatory any-more… but does fall into the category of “a good idea”.

    If you do that, and every day (which in particular means, more than one day in a row) (as I try to… “flexibly”, as it were, other than for Ash W, Good F and the Ember Days), you might find out that including a dessert with the full meal is a good means to keep both the thing penitential and yourself functional. Especially if the one meal is in a canteen where you can have a dessert but not a second helping.

    (As an aside: at least as far as the Church official terminology is concerned, it still is fasting imho if the one-meal-two-collations is followed but the overall quantity of food-intake does not decrease. Also, in that case it still would feel like a penance; not an as big one, of course, but I think the estimation “that’s cheating, you don’t do penance at all that way” comes from people who have not tried.)

  12. Keep posting about food. The devil wants to rob us of our enjoyment of the good things in life.

    “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
    There’s always laughter and good red wine.
    At least I’ve always found it so.
    Benedicamus Domino!”

    — Hillaire Belloc

  13. Mariana2 says:

    What Anita Moore says.

    And, in the same spirit, though this is getting OT, the hobbits at bath time:

    Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
    That washes the weary mud away!
    A loon is he that will not sing:
    O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

    O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,
    and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
    but better than rain or rippling streams
    is Water Hot that smokes and steams.

    O! Water cold we may pour at need
    down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
    but better is Beer, if drink we lack,
    and Water Hot poured down the back.

    O! Water is fair that leaps on high
    in a fountain white beneath the sky;
    but never did fountain sound so sweet
    as splashing Hot Water with my feet!

    In my Lutheran days I would have thought cold water much more virtuous. Re-reading The Lord of The Rings as a Catholic I particularly liked this bit of verse. And the Hobbits like to eat – and can also do without these good things at need.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  14. Dominicanes says:

    St. Catherine di Ricci’s monastery made sweets to sell during Lent! They didn’t have eggs or dairy in them and are called Quaresimali biscotti. The ancient monastic constitutions for the Dominicans nuns actually said that the full meal included a dessert!

  15. Hidden One says:

    I figure it’s better for me to eat dessert (or enjoy whatever other authentic temporal good) than for interacting/living with me to be a penance for others, or at least more than it already was before Lent. Likewise, any voluntary penance that would hinder me in fulfilling the principal duties of my state in life, duties which challenge me plenty already… not happening. When I have my stuff in order, then I can try for something higher. In the meantime, I’ll try not to complain so much about the (well-meaning) more radical ascetics who reliably leave the communal kitchen a mess.

  16. The Masked Chicken says:

    There is an old joke:
    A doctor fell into a well and broke his arm. The doctor should have been tending the sick and left the well alone.

    Likewise, mortification should be a desert experience, not a dessert experience.

    The Chicken

  17. Semper Gumby says:

    Masked Chicken: Good one.

    Perhaps the Four Final Things are about getting our Just Desserts.

    Then there were the monks who had a beer-only fast:

  18. TonyO says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for showing us good balance.

    For the requirements of Ash W. and Good Friday, I use a simple rule of thumb, which works because my supper is almost always significantly larger than either prior meals: I eat less than half of what I usually would eat at breakfast, and do the same at lunch. This ensures that cumulatively they are not even close to the size of the third, and that they do not satisfy like a meal would at those times. As an OPTION, (i.e. over and above the requirement) I would like to work toward making it more penitential than that, by skipping one of them, but I have digestion issues and when I tried some years ago I ended up quite ill, so I have to be a bit cautious. (Which is probably the reason for the rule expressed as it is to begin with, now that I think about it.)

    We are always free to be more penitential, and to engage in more mortifications of the flesh, than is required, UP TO the limits of prudence, that is. Thus one may, in addition to restricting the amount of food, also take note of the tastiness of it, or the time spent on it, and try to
    “cut back” in either way. But these are, of course, only optional, not the obligatory observance. Thus a person may decide to do only simple meals for a day, and free up more time for other worthy things like prayer or for works of mercy. Or a person may choose to not add herbs and spices and such in order to make the meal less of a “treat” to the senses, thus mortifying the flesh for the sake of the spirit – but it is always important to be on watch so that it IS in fact for the spirit and not for vanity or other reasons. A simple example: instead of getting a cold glass of water, try drinking a glass of lukewarm water (or better yet, water that is at body temp – I guarantee you that if you haven’t run across this tiny mortification it will surprise you). But a person who is responsible for making meals for others (such as a mother) may not want to impose HER choice (to give up added spices for good flavor) on the rest of her family, as if doing without is somehow presumed the proper penitential practice.

    But again, prudence rules over all, and the more mortifications you take on, the more difficult it is to direct them all toward a proper whole, so it is always wise to take on only a few at a time. Simplicity is indeed a good goal of life (taking into account particular circumstances), but the process of getting rid of one complicating facet of life after another is, itself, complicated, not simple. Anything that breaks you out of what had been up to that point your habitual practice takes thought, and you can’t take on that kind of conscious attention to EVERY facet of your prior habits.

  19. Jacob says:

    Fasting is not being able to eat anything, just over 12 years and counting.

    Penance is Father’s posts on his delicious looking meals.

    Mom needs to count her blessings that all her family can enjoy a meal, dessert included.

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