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Are We Ashamed of Lunch?

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Ed. Note: This article originally appeared on Anthropology in Practice on May 2, 2011.


Lunch is an often neglected meal of the day: sometimes skipped, many times hastily consumed, lunch is often over before it begins. It feels like an intrusion: we have to stop what we’re doing, pause our stream of thought or work, to feed our bodies? What a bother.

Reader Will Hawkins suggested a post by Joel Spolsky on the importance of eating as a team:

Where and with whom we eat lunch is a much bigger deal than most people care to admit. Obviously, psychologists will tell us, obviously it goes back to childhood, and especially school, particularly Junior High, where who you eat with is of monumental importance. Being in any clique, even if it’s just the nerds, is vastly preferable than eating alone. For loners and geeks, finding people to eat with in the cafeteria at school can be a huge source of stress.

Spolsky briefly discusses the ways in which technology enables loners to maintain clique distance today, and stresses the importance he places on eating with coworkers. And while it may be true that any number of us choose to eat at our desks, or conduct business over lunch, or even tend to virtual crops while we eat, eating alone can provide a moment to unwind, as well as a chance to eat without judgement of what we’re eating and with whom and why.

Thanks in part to the alarming rise in obesity among adults and children, we’ve increasingly become a culture that is hypersensitive to healthy behaviors. We’re told to make healthier mealtime choices, which means that old lunchtime staples may not always be the best choices. Calorie counts, posted in many NYC eateries to increase consumer awareness, can be damning even if they appear to be ignored. For example, if John and Jack head to the local deli for lunch, and Jack chooses to get a turkey sandwich and John chooses to get chicken parm, John comes across as the unhealthy eater. In group settings when the majority at the table are picking at salads, over time the hamburger eater gets labelled as an unhealthy eater.

A culture of shame is emerging around food that may contribute to solitary meal behavior. Making healthy food choices is important—obesity has been linked to a host of health problems—but just as in those cliques we encountered in middle- and high-school, the power of the group to pass judgement and award approval is immense. Eating lunch every day with a group may find you tailoring your lunch options to match that of the group—food preferences could easily be another element you share in common, after all. But is that always the most satisfying choice?

Food has become more than just a nutritional endeavor. It is a sensory experience—colors, smells, and textures combine to evoke and create memories and feelings. Comfort food is so named for a reason. Perhaps part of the reason we are rushed through lunch is because we are limited in the ways we can make this meal our own. Group lunches and lunch dates can be helpful in creating team bonds, but perhaps there are more reasons for eating alone, other than personality, than we’ve considered.


Image: Sakura/Creative Commons

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. kclancy 1:07 pm 08/9/2011

    I love how so many of your posts read like thought experiments, Krystal… nicely crafted, posing interesting questions, leaving lots of room for the reader to imagine his/her own take on what you observe.

    I tend to eat at my desk because I don’t feel I can afford to do anything else, time-wise. I will occasionally eat with my husband or a colleague as a way to build connections. Otherwise, I take my lunch (or a series of snacks) from home. Part of the reason, for me, has to do with being gluten intolerant. It is frustrating to go out to eat with someone who doesn’t believe that food intolerances are real, or to deal with waitstaff who feel that way.

    Also, maybe a year or so ago I read in some women’s health magazine (Fitness? Shape? Women’s Health?) that women who eat with heavier friends make less healthy food decisions when going out to eat. But I don’t remember the journal they cited or anything (and as you know, the name of the journal is about the most information you get out of those pieces, and maybe the PI or university).

    Link to this
  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 12:50 pm 08/11/2011

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Kate. I’m sorry you have such a hard time as someone who is gluten intolerant. Hopefully, as awareness about celiacs increases, we’ll see a shift. When I was in high school, vegetarians had a hard time with school lunches–there just weren’t many options. By the time I graduated, increased awareness and acceptance (and pressure from the PTA) had broadened options to make lunch a more enjoyable experience.

    The cost issue is an important one. In lower Manhattan, options for eating out for lunch are few and expensive.When a salad can run you in the range of $8.00, the food trucks start to look good–but there’s a certain stigma attached to the food truck industry, and if you’re with a group, it’s sometimes hard to convince them that eating lunch from a cart is a good idea.

    That is, of course, if you can take lunch. As many workers are asked to “do more with less,” they may feel its in bad form to leave their desk for 30 minutes or an hour, and lunch becomes something that gets mysteriously overlooked.

    We have such complicated relationships with our food!

    Link to this

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