Feasts, celebrations, and simple meals have connected people for thousands of years as a cause to revel, praise, and be joyful. Food is that catalyst that brings people together; it is a cause for social bonding in spheres as close as our own family and as far-reaching as a bridge between cultural differences. Meals are far more than simple sustenance; they conjure an image of hearth and home. It is a celebration, a reason to share and bridge gaps, quality time between friends, family, and partners, and another form of saying “I love you.”
The Connection Between Food, Culture & Society
The connection between food, culture, and society runs deep. An Italian family living in another country may keep the food traditions alive by making the same recipes recreated for generations. These recipes can be a connection back to a country of origin and a way to bring tradition to a new place to be shared with others. Think about the times you met someone from a culture different than yours. That memory sticks when a new friend invites us to dine with food from their heritage. It is often over the meal itself that we let down our guards while the sensory experience of the meal delights us into appreciation. We can hold curiosity to learn how someone from a different culture eats, and in that shared experience, connections can be born.
Sometimes food can act as the common ground between cultural differences. Many prominent American cities are dotted with Indian restaurants and food trucks. The smell of fragrant spices tempts the senses, a garlicky plate of lasuni gobi: breaded and spiced cauliflower can create an appreciation between two people of different cultures. The one not familiar with Indian customs or cuisine may have been hesitant to explore this rich culture, but one bite and, as mentioned, hesitation can melt into appreciation.
In the US, Mexican food is immensely popular; we share borders and enthusiasm for Mexican food, from riffs on original dishes like Tex-Mex spots, to chains, to the authentic mom-and-pop food trucks and brick-and-mortar locations. Some sections of American culture look down on Mexico. Thankfully others have realized the vibrancy in the food is also found in the people and the culture. Do not pass up this opportunity if you are lucky enough to try a home-cooked Mexican meal, Senegalese feast, or Turkish dinner. One bite is enough to find a sense of love. These are strong links to cultural identity and a rich gift to link two opposites into appreciating one another.
Understanding the Food-Family Relationship
Each family has a unique connection to food. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for that ham salad that grandma used to make, a bygone item on menus these days but something once popular in American cuisine. Or maybe it’s how every Thanksgiving dad smokes a turkey over hickory wood or how the family borscht recipe comes out in late summer in almost nauseating abundance, despite its alluring flavors. Food is the event that brings a family together on a consistent basis. It is a reason for everyone to gather together for sustenance and connect and talk.
Studies show that families who dine together tend to eat more well-balanced meals. The simple phrase “eat your veggies” can have a long-lasting impact on healthy eating. In addition, being told to “eat all of your food” has a practical application of ensuring nothing goes to waste, but it also can send unhealthy signals to overeat. Whereas a phrase such as “eat until you’re full” conveys listening to one’s body and practicing healthy portion control. It also teaches children and teens how to be social while learning to manage chores, like cleaning the dishes or chopping the vegetables.
Food is a non-verbal way of saying “I love you.” This sit-down family time can teach children everything from food to how to treat others to money management. It’s a time when everyone is gathered together, and the knowledge and questions can flow. Consistent family meal times also provide a healthy routine and sense of stability for teenagers and younger siblings who may need a sense of comfort and parenting.
Food as a Meaningful Part of Any Celebration
Celebrations across the globe often have food as the centerpiece of the gathering. The food may be delicious appetizers, entrees, and desserts, or they may symbolize a significant celebration aspect. For example, take the wedding cake; this is not an ordinary cake for anyone to slice. The cake is an integral part of the marriage after party.
Food is anticipation, a reason to sit together and share food and conversation. It is a way to honor an event or a person. It can unite people and strengthen new and existing bonds while sharing in the oo’s and ah’s of flavor. Another example is the birthday party, and this celebration would not be complete without a dessert like cake.
Food also plays a significant role in religious celebrations. The Jewish holiday of Passover, held in the spring, centers in part around a feast of specific Passover foods. Gefilte fish and matzo ball soup are two of six traditional dishes, with many foods at a Passover celebration holding particular symbolism. The fish symbolizes being fruitful and multiplying, and the matzo is a nod to religious history.
The Swedish celebration of Santa Lucia, which originated in Italy, is held during the dark winter month of December, a couple of weeks before Christmas. Though the festival is a reminder of light and commemoration of Saint Lucia, it is tradition to bring sweet rolls shaped like puffy s’s to share. The symbolism of the rolls stems back to a legend of Santa Lucia bringing food to the persecuted Christians in Rome to keep them from starving.
Benefits Of Eating Together With Friends
Sharing food is a wordless form of connection across the globe and there are benefits beyond the obvious to eating with friends. People are social creatures; we are wired to seek human connection. How often do we ask someone to get lunch or dinner with us, whether with a friend or on a date? Food is a necessity and enjoyment. Skip the loneliness and dine with a friend. If justification is needed, here is a fact: long-term loneliness has the same effect on the human being as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Both can shorten our longevity. Social connection isn’t a luxury, just like food isn’t either; it is a necessity.
Dining with those we care about has the potential to instill healthier eating habits. Often when we are socially sated, we eat less. If we see our friend going for a yummy salad, we may be more likely to order something body and mind-benefiting than another heavy meal. However, eating a meal with other people can also improve mental health and may lower the likelihood of substance abuse, according to research. In students, the social component of eating a meal or snack with friends has been linked to better academic performance. Perhaps this is because we need a balance of work and play. Once we have done something social, it can be easier to go inward and focus. Dining alone can be superb, and eating as part of a group of two or more offers a social outlet and something to look forward to for a day soon.
In terms of love language in any relationship, eating together is a form of quality time when both parties are fully engaged and free of distractions. It also boosts morale, particularly in a group setting like a workplace where there may be little time for socializing. A fun fact shows that a group of people eating the same thing builds trust. It may not be very relevant these days when we don’t have to question too intensely if our food source will immediately harm our health, and we are not royalty in olden times with a servant to take the first bite to ensure it wouldn’t kill the king or queen. But perhaps this trust goes back to the beginning of humankind when we were tribe-oriented and found trust in a shared meal at the end of the physically wearing day.
Social Eating Connects Communities
Social eating connects communities of every kind. Whether it’s a neighborhood get-together, a gathering of families, or anything in between, people who eat in a social setting note a better sense of well-being, especially mentally and emotionally. They report feeling happier with their lives, having greater trust in general, especially in others, and a larger social circle they can ask for support. It also keeps people engaged in group activities. These reasons are because eating is ideally a form of leisure and not something to be rushed. Eating with others makes us slow down, build relationships and enjoy life more. Yet 46% of people in the US eat meals and snacks alone. It has become more socially acceptable to eat alone. While eating alone can have time benefits, are we not depriving ourselves of much-needed social time and a more prosperous life experience?
For as long as time has existed, food has brought us together for survival and connection. Food nourishes our body’s life-long, from the beloved memories of family recipes to exotic dishes shared with recent strangers who are now new friends. While this modern world gravitates more and more towards solo dining styles, gathering together to eat as a social event will never die out. A shared meal is an experience that puts a smile on our faces; it’s a central part of celebrations, the connector between cultures, and a way to bring families closer together. These connections between food, people, and culture show us how shared meals are the light that offers love and hope.