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