Ask food experts like Michael Pollan or Alice Waters about what a meal really means besides nourishment, and you might hear some unexpected replies like "storytelling", "connection", or "community." The latter, in this case, may be an easier element for us to grasp. Most of us, at one point or another, have gathered around a table, sharing food with others. It's a rewarding experience, most of the time. For families, it can be the only chance during the day to sit down together and connect. For friends it can also be a way to share, laugh and catch up. It even has benefits between strangers, particularly when cultures are connecting through a shared meal. But now more than ever, many of us eat alone.
There are benefits to the solo meal as well as the communal one. If done with intention, a meal eaten alone can be a mindful experience; a meditation. In the quietude of the solo meal one can focus bite by bite on the totality of the experience of bringing food into the body, appreciating, or at least, observing, the relationship we have with the natural world. Of course, solo eating can also mean guzzling down greasy fast food while in traffic, plopped in front of the television, or at a desk.
According to recent research conducted by the Hartman Group, as many as 46 percent of all adult meals are now eaten alone. Credit single-parent households, technology (that can make it feel like you're not eating alone if scrolling through Facebook updates, but you are), shorter office lunch breaks, and the propulsion of our fast-food culture: we eat energy bars, sodas and junk as if they're just another daily chore rather than a potentially gratifying experience.
While many of us fear the solo dinner in a packed restaurant, we often choose instead to eat alone in more convenient multi-tasking fashion, focusing instead on the blaring television news or negotiating the slow moving traffic rather than being truly alone with our food. And that's just what many processed and fast food companies are banking on. You're more likely to keep a freezer full of Hot Pockets than you are to take yourself out for a decent meal, or even prepare one from scratch at home. Getting pizza delivery or drive-thru is often the solo diner's choice because much like sitting in front of a noisy television or scrolling through Facebook while you eat can make it feel like you're not alone, the interaction with the delivery or drive thru person—albeit brief—can satisfy some of our need for the communal experience. Which, of course, eating has been throughout most of our history. While fast food itself is certainly changing our genetic makeup, we're still connected to our ancestral food culture on some levels.
We eat together because we make food together. We hunted or gathered together. We shared resources. And although it doesn't seem like that's the case in today's world where food comes from sterile shelves, freezers, boxes and cans, it still takes a community to prepare those meals. We're still part of a food system that has many moving parts. Eating together bonds us to that system; it allows us to observe the pros and cons, and make changes where necessary. Eating alone can too, if we're present for the experience with our nourishment. Our food system will change when our personal connection to our food experiences change, and that can only ever happen one bite at a time.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
Image: Robert S. Donovan