Why We Care About the Meals We Share

Sharing meals has been a central part of our social, economic and political life. It is fascinating how every culture has some special importance given to this simple act: may it be Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year, the holy month of Ramadan, Diwali or any other festival. I remember my grandmother saying, “When you share, the food tastes sweeter;” the sweetness could be interpreted as benefits of sharing. Having meals together, helps children develop healthy patterns of eating; they are less likely to develop obesity or eating disorders, as shown by a study on nutrition and emotional health.

Mothers often tell their toddlers “Sharing is caring”, to encourage sharing behavior.  A study shows that sharing meals as a child would most likely develop traits of altruism as an adult. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that the association of sharing meals and prosocial behaviors like altruism and cooperation is not a 21st century phenomenon. During the Paleolithic age, the success at hunting was not very consistent. A hunter who was successful one day may not have been successful for the next few weeks; therefore sharing the bounty with other members assured supply of food even on days of unsuccessful hunts.

Sharing of food plays an important role in creating social bonds; people enact culture-specific rituals with certain social motives like in-group—out-group understanding, and status preservation. As suggested in a cultural psychology paper, food is an inherent part of all cultures.  It also plays a significant role in the everyday life of Indians. India has a diverse food culture with a varied range of food practices and preferences. We learn the values of friendships, cooperation, cohesiveness, culture, diverse culinary and taste preferences from a very young age, at home, and during school lunch breaks with classmates. These values get reflected in the Bollywood movies like ‘ Stanley Ka Dabba ‘ (2011) and ‘The Lunch Box’ (2013). We, through sharing, learn the essence of our collectivistic culture, and that not sharing is frowned upon, as the individual is perceived to be selfish.

The gentle art of gastronomy is a friendly one. It hurdles the language barrier, makes friends among civilized people, and warms the heart.”Samuel Chamberlain

Sharing meals can increase interpersonal closeness. Neuroscientific research on the underlying mechanisms of Empathetic Emotion Regulation (EER) of sharing, suggests that an empathetic sharing of food decreases the negative affect of the receiver and at the same time increases positive affect of the provider, and hence has a two-way interaction.  This could be one of the reasons why we don’t feel the pinch when we spend on treating our friends even if we are frittering our resources.

An ethnographic food transfer study indicated that sharing food signified a positive/ friendly relationship, while feeding indicated a stronger relationship, romantic or intimate in nature. Dating involves food too and it may well be that the way to one’s heart is through the stomach.

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” – Cesar Chavez

A study on firefighters shows that eating together is an efficient team-building exercise, helps boost team performance and productivity,. Sharing a meal with co-workers also helps increase job satisfaction. Well, sounds like a good reason to not miss the next team dinner! Studies indicate that when people eat similar foods, they are more likely to trust each other. Further, consumers trusted advertisers selling non-food items who ate similar food as them, as compared to those who ate dissimilar foods. Research has also shown that food consumptions help resolve conflicts often seen in labor negotiations.

Humans are not the only specie who share, interestingly food sharing behaviors have been observed frequently in the nature. But what about sharing food with strangers? A series of studies by Duke University illustrate that bonobos too share food with strangers for social interaction. They donated food and helped strangers acquire out-of-reach food even when there was no apparent benefit for doing so. Not just Bonobos humans too share meals with strangers.

What fascinates me mostis that we not only share meals with those who we live and work with but also those with whom there may be no reciprocal altruism possible. If your childhood was frequented with train travel, you may remember those journeys where your fellow passengers who were strangers shared their packed meals with each other. It was interesting to watch strangers talk like long lost friends over meals. Today, many travelers prefer plugging into earphones to cut themselves off from others, so will this sharing soon be a lost practice? May not be! We have apps and websites like mealsharing, dining with strangers, eatwith and many others that are platforms for bringing this kind of experience along with all the benefits of sharing.

So, happy sharing!

We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.” – Epicurus


Akshata Kulkarni