The following is an edited excerpt from “Eat & Flourish: How Food Supports Emotional Well-Being,” by Mary Beth Albright (Countryman Press, 2023).
Sometimes I want to put a dollop of whole-grain mustard inside a piece of soppressata and eat it like a taco. That combination of pop from the tiny mustard seeds; the unctuous, melty fat of the salami; and the peppery hot flavors is, for 30 seconds, my idea of heaven. Sometimes I spoon the salty nut crumbs from the bottom of a cashew jar and pop them right into my mouth.
And even while I write this, I’m concerned that you’re judging me. But worrying about food shaming brings some level of social anxiety to every meal with others, which is the opposite of beneficial. So is confusing fantasy with reality, expecting the social media simulacra of our friends and families and famous people to show up to dinner when it’s really actual people with histories and feelings and quirks and moles that you can’t Photoshop out in real life.
Preparing meals can be a charged subject because, even in the twenty-first-century, the expectations of home cooking disproportionately affect women. Regardless of gender, after caring for children, being a spouse, holding down a household and/or a job, the idea that we have to impress people in our off-hours is enough to drive us to boxed macaroni and cheese eaten while staring blankly at a screen. When we eat alone, there are no external expectations. But when we eat alone, we lose the connection to others that can enrich our lives that can feel so depleted by expectations.
In psychology, the term “generous authority” means using your position of authority as a host to protect and serve the group (including yourself). This is one of the best benefits of having people over, and to me, it’s always the top goal. Generous authority is concerned with how people connect over a shared purpose, including sharing food (whether spaghetti or a five-course meal).
As Priya Parker wrote in her book, “The Art of Gathering,” at some point gathering got tangled up with hosting because the domestic sphere was for a long time one of the only places where women could exert any power. So all the brainpower and intelligence of all the smartest women you know was poured almost exclusively into the domestic sphere.
I love the domestic sphere; it’s a valuable place to be. But insisting that it was women’s only place wasn’t good for anyone. Entertaining became mixed up with showing perfection and impressing others rather than the relief of just being your authentic self with friends.
Some of this domestic performance anxiety stems from a change in the reigning dining tradition. About 125 years ago, the prevailing way of serving food went from French service, which is essentially everyone eating off a big platter, to Russian service, which is each individual getting their own plated dinner, with little regard for what specific piece of meat they wanted or how large a portion. This was due in part to the rise of restaurants and the hotel industry, pioneered by the partnership of Chef Auguste Escoffier and hotelier César Ritz. But it also meant that expectations changed from big platters to exquisitely designed individual plates of food.
Because we eat alone so much, a lot of processed-food production is now geared toward solo diners; the market is making products to support doing the thing you want to do but isn’t good for you. Single-portion meals in grocery stores have risen every year for the past several decades. But commercials for single-serve meals still often show people eating together.
We blame our 24/7 culture for our bad habits: constant snacking to stay alert, eating lunch at our desks and breakfasts in our cars, dinner grabbed while dashing between commitments. But perhaps our 24/7 culture is both a cause and an effect of us choosing to eat alone more in recent decades. Maybe the trend toward companies marketing snack food was created by our demand and desire to eat alone or on the go, in addition to the other way around. Maybe our own discomfort around owning our food pleasures prevents us from the longer-lasting pleasure of being around people.
We eat quickly and lament a world in which things seem cheap and quick rather than satisfying. There’s a cognitive dissonance between the kind of eating that we know leads to better emotional wellness and how we actually do eat.
Eating alone as a pattern is a health risk. People who eat most of their meals alone are at increased risk for heart disease. Men who dine alone twice a day are at greater risk for metabolic syndrome, regardless of weight or diet.
In Britain, there is an ongoing national effort called The Big Lunch, encouraging eating together and performing research about the benefits of communal eating, showing that the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to be happy and satisfied with their lives – to come to that Japanese sense of ikigai.
The Big Lunch research, performed with the University of Oxford and published in a paper titled “Breaking Bread: The Functions of Social Eating,” shows that communal eating increases well-being, whether it’s a feast or a snack.
The research looked at the association between eating together and happiness, community connection, and life satisfaction. Responses from the survey showed a strong connection between social eating and social bonding, to the point that “communal eating may have been evolved as a mechanism for humans to do just that.”
The mood elevation we get from eating with people is ancient, based in our primal human nature to sit around a fire pit, share food, and tell stories to make sense of our lives.
Over millennia, eating together has been imprinted onto our DNA, according to anthropologist Richard Wrangham in his book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.” There is something distinctly human about the food rituals that spontaneously happen among humans around food. “No one knows how deeply the effects of cooking … have been burned into our DNA.”
Archaeologist Martin Jones agrees. He wrote in a 2007 study, “The unique ability of the modern human brain brought us to a most unusual behavior pattern, the gathering around a hearth in a conversational circle to share food.”
People who eat together are more likely to have a ritual before, such as giving thanks. And food rituals can help us eat better. One study mentioned in the introduction showed that having an eating ritual over five days drove participants to choose healthier food. There was some evidence that the increased feeling of discipline that comes with a ritual made for better choices.
Food is a window into our priorities; a commitment to eating with others more often means rearranging priorities – eating together at lunch instead of working more, or taking a break to snack with someone rather than grabbing something in the car. It’s about making it a priority to come home in time for dinner. There is nothing more human than sitting down at a table and eating with others while discussing how we feel about the society we’ve created.
Not to pathologize being alone; I love it and often prefer it. Restaurateur Danny Meyer once told me that people eating alone in his restaurants is the highest compliment they can pay because it shows that the patron loves the place so much, they go there for self-care. A quiet, solitary meal can be a great act of self-care. And sometimes I choose to eat alone because it’s too complicated (logistically and emotionally) to eat with others.
I’m also not going to tell you every meal with others is a transcendent experience. I’m reminded of the family dinner scene in the film “Little Miss Sunshine,” when the mom throws a box of Popsicles on the table and shouts, “Dessert!” while nervously biting off a huge chunk of Popsicle and gnawing on it. My teeth hurt just thinking about it.
As with all relationships in life, it depends on whom you’re with. For Thanksgiving 2016, the big joke in America was that you couldn’t use knives to cut your food at the dinner table because the conversation about politics was so heated. But eating to support emotional well-being is about patterns, not perfection. You don’t have to eat every single meal with someone else; try one extra communal meal one week and see how it feels.
There is little research on whether we can get the same effects of eating together with someone on a digital device while on Skype (skeating), Zoom, or FaceTime. Are these any better than the dine-n-scroll that so many of us engage in now?
Andy Warhol once said, “I want to start a chain of restaurants for other people who are like me. … You get your food and then you take your tray into a booth and watch television.” With home and curbside delivery of Michelin-starred meals and streaming media, I think we’ve effectively achieved Warhol’s dream if we want it. But there is a better way to live when long-term emotional wellness is our priority.