Monday, May 2, 2011

Shame and The Endangered Lunch Hour

How are you spending lunch?

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 recently 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.

Photo: Ryan Ozawa


  1. i was just thinking about this today and yesterday as a matter of fact, after i read an email newsletter talking about "guilt free peanut butter OMG YAY!!!!" i paused after reading that and thought, "Wait, i'm supposed to feel guilty about peanut butter?" A food that, for years, has been the epitome of love and comfort ("Choosy moms choose JIF!"), not to mention fairly healthy for its price, is suddenly evil and something to be ashamed of eating... all because another manufacturer came out with a version that is lower-fat.

    This shame-based eating culture we have found ourselves in over the last five years is almost more unhealthy than the food we're obsessing over. A life with stress on all fronts, with little enjoyment, is not a life.

  2. I skipped lunch and sat at my desk and flipped through meaningless pictures on facebook of people i dont really know... what a looser huh?...mmmm that burger looks good :)

  3. Christine, it's a collaborative effort, right? And it seems almost cyclic. The manufacturer comes out with the low-fat product. We buy it. Our friends buy it. We promote it to each other (e.g., "Oh, we only eat low-fat peanut butter now." or "My dad makes my sandwiches with Brand X peanut butter." "Mom! Can we buy Brand X peanut butter? Cory gets it.") Marketers use this: "Buy Brand X peanut butter if you love your child and your heart." And suddenly we're all eating Brand X and wincing at folks who eat regular peanut butter. Then a new type of peanut butter comes out and we're off and running again.

    I think we've moved away from the message of moderation to one of shame, and we're talking in absolutes, which can be dangerous. It's not that X is bad for you, but if all you eat is X, then it could have some serious effects.

    In any case, well said: "A life with stress on all fronts, with little enjoyment, is not a life." If that means PB&J, then please enjoy it!

  4. Steve, Krystal never implied that this was loserish behavior! Come on ... unless you were kidding, in which case, yeah, that burger looks good.


  5. Great post, as usual. I was thinking about something similar when I was at an all day meeting. They brought in boxed lunches. There was really no way for people to choose something as opposite as hamburger vs salad, but I found myself taking note of who choose regular soda vs diet. People were searching through the bags to find the diet cokes and when those were exhausted most people went for the water over regular pop. Other obvious differentiators were who ate the cookies and who gave them to a neighbor or just tossed them aside.

    As much as I want to participate in the social aspect of food, I have a very difficult time eating in the presence of others. It seems almost inevitable that, since everyone is either on a diet or says they are, that the conversation will turn to food at some point. For this reason, among others, as someone who struggles with an eating disorder, eating socially is almost impossible.

  6. Over the years, I've gotten much more used to eating alone in a restaurant. I still can't say I like it - after all, it's very much against the norm. Or perhaps it's just against the norm where I live; in very large cities, are there more people eating alone? Is it more ok to eat alone? Most often, when I'm eating lunch alone in a restaurant (sit-down, not your standard take-out affair), it's when I'm at a conference, and part of my reason for doing it is to get away from the craziness of networking for an hour, read the program, and jot down thoughts from the day.

    Interestingly (well, to me, anyway), I noticed when living in Italy that people who eat alone in restaurants are not social pariahs. And they're not always reading books, playing with their cell phones, or otherwise keeping themselves occupied. They just as often people-watch, chat with others at the next table, or talk to the waitstaff or chef. There's much less stigma against eating alone, perhaps because mealtime in Italy (and food in general) is a hugely social affair. So you can't deny someone social interaction because he doesn't have a lunch date.

    It seemed to me that both in Italy and here, you can't dine alone - but whereas in Italy that's seen as an invitation to socialize with the lone diner, here it's taken as a social stigma (i.e., no one wants to eat with this person).

  7. I just recently came across a (slightly) related article about a study on how food relates to cultural perception:

    I'm kind of intrigued. We just had a Chinese family move in next door, and while they take great pains to be "American", including going by American names rather than their given names, food is one way they definitely assert their ethnic identity.

  8. Thanks for posting this, Hasufin. Food is a huge part of ethnic identity! For example, see Culture as Commodity: Investigations at an Ethnic Supermarket and Chicken Tikka With a Side of Culture. It is one of the easiest elements of identity for immigrants to import, and as noted, is a means of assimilation. If I have some time, I'll see if I can write up the significance of meals for groups ... I know I have the research somewhere ...

  9. I'll have to write up my impressions of how food has been relevant in my interactions with my neighbors. I think that unlike those described in the study my neighbors are secure in their cultural identity.