Food, or feeding people, is often cited as a “love language”. Getting your loved ones together round a table to serve them a meal, nourish them, and enjoy food together is an act that resonates with a lot of people. Online declarations are frequently made that cooking for others is the ultimate expression of love. Whilst it may be somewhat corny to announce food to be your love language, it is clearly meaningful to many people, and the act of sharing food has even been shown to have a multitude of health benefits.
In 2019, I moved into a house I had found on SpareRoom. I got on well with the other tenants, and soon after, we began taking turns to cook for one another. We were all working full time, so it made sense that we’d each cook one night per week, ensuring that everyone had a good meal every evening. Eating together quickly became a major part of our weekly routine — four or five times a week we would lay the table and sit down to share food. Over time this habit became indispensable. We all agreed that we were eating better than we had previously and we looked forward to unwinding together after a long day of work. Cooking for an audience was a great motivator to experiment with new recipes and different types of food. As well as improving our diets and eating habits, we agreed that eating together generally improved our quality of life.
Studies into social eating have indicated that sharing meals has a number of health benefits, both emotional and physical. Regular social eating has been shown to result in greater satisfaction with life and closer ties to community, which is hardly surprising. With my housemates, evening meals were our time to catch up. Around the table was where our friendship was formed, and where we shared our successes, difficulties and supported one another. As the cliché goes, we were expressing the love and care in our friendship by feeding one another.
Now that I’ve moved into graduate halls in Oxford, I find myself guilty of taking shortcuts with my cooking and rushing my food when eating. These days, I’m only ever cooking for one and I don’t enjoy the process as much as I used to. When I do eat alone at home, I sit at the wood-effect linoleum bar in the kitchen, on a too-high barstool, towering over my food. I watch Netflix on my phone as I shovel rice into my mouth. Many of us are guilty of eating too quickly, and for me, this is never more true than when I eat alone. An hour of cooking concludes with a ten-minute meal that I don’t take time to enjoy. The habits I had with my former housemates are nowhere to be seen.
It has also been shown that social eating has physical health benefits, as it reduces the pace at which we eat. We are distracted by the company and as a result we are more likely to eat a little slower. Eating too quickly can cause increased blood sugar spikes, which are linked to problems with organs such as the heart and the kidneys. Therefore eating slowly, as we do when eating socially, can have a long-term positive impact on your physical health.
Additionally, there are studies linking social eating to better nutritional intake. Whilst this can’t be true in every circumstance, nutrition being dependent on what we put in our food, it makes sense that sharing the cooking in a household might result in more diverse meals and varied food types. In our house, sharing the responsibility for mealtimes gave us the time and space to cook more diverse meals. As each of us only needed to cook once or twice a week, we each made more effort to cook tastier and more varied meals. For us at least, we all noticed that we were eating far more healthily as a result.
Therefore, as well as being an ideal antidote to the “epidemic of loneliness” caused by highly individualised lifestyles, social eating appears to be good for your physical health. But, with very little time on their hands, is it really possible for busy Oxford students to reap the benefits of eating socially? There are a few possible solutions.
For those who usually eat alone at home, it may be better to eat in your college dining hall a few times a week. However, if you don’t enjoy the food in your hall, or if you live too far away for it to be convenient, then lunch breaks with friends are a better option. Maybe sitting on the grass outside the Rad Cam or in University Parks in the summer with a sandwich and coffee, or in one of the food stalls in the Covered Market when it’s cold or raining. And, whilst it isn’t ideal, sharing meals digitally over FaceTime or Zoom has been shown to have some of the benefits of physically eating together. Coordinating meals with faraway partners and friends could make for a cute long-distance date. Lastly… perhaps occasionally, we can find the time to cook a meal for our friends. Come back for part 2 where I find out if it is really possible to cook for and feed my friends in my small graduate accommodation kitchen!