Why we share food

Exploring our tendency to combine friends and food

After returning to Grounds and seeing friends for the first time in months, I find myself frequently saying, “Want to get coffee?” or “We should grab lunch!” I’ve enjoyed the coffee dates I’ve had so far — and look forward to more in the future — but I’ve started to wonder why these encounters always involve some sort of food or beverage.

What does our need for food in social settings say about our relationships? I think it could mean several things.

It could mean we like to use food as a buffer in dealing with any uncomfortable silences or pauses in a conversation. If we run out of things to say, we can take long sips of coffee or spend some time chewing our sandwiches while we come up with what to say next.

Another possible motive in combining food and friends is the desire to optimize our use of time. We are all busy people and want to make sure catching up with someone can fit into our schedule in the most convenient way possible: by doing it in moments we’d already set aside to eat. You could argue our meals are probably longer with company, but maybe we should consider whether we value our relationships enough to make time outside a previously scheduled meal.

Or, perhaps the answer isn’t so cynical. Maybe it is just because we really love food and we want to share something we enjoy with others. After all, one of the first things we want to do when we hear about an exciting restaurant is find someone to go there with. There is something about food that makes us want to have company in the experience.

So, if we are using food as a buffer to alleviate awkwardness, at what point do we move beyond the food-sharing phase of friendship into the “just come over and hang out” phase of friendship? It’s understood we must have a lot of confidence in the friendship to move to that level, because going there means running the risk a friend will come over, find nothing to do, have nothing to talk about and be bored.

Do we ever fully make this transition? After all, most major holidays are celebrated through meals — Thanksgiving being the obvious example. Even other holidays, such as religious ones like Christmas, are usually celebrated by having a meal with extended family members or friends. For many families, dinner is the one time of the day where everyone gets together. If we are going on a special date, it will likely be at a nice restaurant, sharing a sophisticated meal. It’s possible food is not a safety net protecting us from uncomfortable lulls in conversation — perhaps it’s simply a tradition enjoyed between strangers, friends, partners and family alike.

Ultimately, even though I question the reasons behind it, I am grateful I always have food and people to share it with. I hope and pray that everyone may always have the opportunity to have lunch with a friend.

Kelly’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at k.seegers@cavalierdaily.com.

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