Food connects us…
…to each other, to nature, and to life. Sharing food is an expression of love and friendship or a way to mark the significant moments in life: the wedding ‘breakfast’, the birthday cake, the cup-of-tea-in-a-crisis. Food connects us strongly to the past and our history, through handed-down recipes and traditions. The sensual aspect of food fills our memory: I can still remember the taste of my Nana’s profiteroles and the shockingly bitter first taste of olives; can still smell school dinners; can still feel the slimy mushrooms I used to hate in my mouth! Preparing food reminds us on a deep level of our natural world: scrubbing mud off potatoes; cutting around bones; slicing away roots.
As food affects us deeply on this sensual level, preparing and sharing meals has a remarkable power to connect us. Research from the University of Oxford shows that the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives. That speaks to the primal urge we have to sit and eat together, sharing dishes and stories as building blocks to relationships and communities. The sense of belonging forged around the table runs deep.
Despite the link between eating together and social bonding, we eat alone more than ever
76% of respondents to a UK-wide survey said that they thought sharing a meal was a good way to bring people closer together, however, the average UK adult eats 10 meals out of 21 alone every week. Think about it. How often do you work through lunch? If you manage to have a chat at lunchtime, well done! One in eight of those asked said it had been more than six months since they’d shared a lunch with friends or family. The number of families eating dinner together is also on the decline. Estimates vary, but in the US only 30% of families eat together regularly, with the frequency of family dinners having declined by 33% over the last 20 years. Our disconnection from each other and from our natural world increases, as demonstrated by the worsening crises in mental health and environmental health.
A truly sustainable life incorporates health, community and nature
I run the Sustainable Food Society, a project helping you to make more sustainable food choices. My philosophy is that for something to be truly sustainable, it needs to be good for your health, good for your community (and society in general), and good for nature. Without all three pillars, things fall apart.
Female Founders Breakfast in Lisbon prepared by Emily from the Sustainable Food Society
So, how can sharing food make your life more sustainable?
Let’s consider the three pillars. Firstly, your health. Research shows that families who eat together at home are more likely to be healthier and struggle less with obesity, as well as being more likely to eat a higher proportion of fruit and vegetables. Sharing food means you’re more likely to create a balanced meal: unlike the temptation to eat toast and crisps alone in front of the TV! You can inspire others and be inspired, and it’s the perfect opportunity to share your sustainable food choices. For example, cooking a delicious vegetarian or vegan meal for friends who may not usually try that kind of food can go a long way to helping them discover new recipes or tastes.
Aside from physical health, let’s not forget mental health. Eating together can reduce stress by boosting endorphins through human connection, as well as reducing workload: if I cook for you today, you cook for me next week.
Secondly, sharing food contributes hugely to community building. As we’ve discussed, sharing food is a primary way that humans connect. As well as the positive benefits of a good laugh with your mates, relaxing around a full table can also facilitate a comfortable space to discuss more important issues, resolve conflicts, and build understanding. The natural sharing out of portions, helping each other to reach dishes or fill each other’s plates promotes empathy, active listening, and the exchange of different ideas and perspectives. A shared meal can be a more relaxed way to discuss challenging issues or address conflicts, providing each person more time and space to speak than if you were simply together in a room, not bound by the ritual of a meal.
Sharing meals is also a fun way to explore different cultures’ cuisines and traditions, fostering cultural exchange, tolerance, and acceptance throughout a local area. Exploring and embracing different food traditions can help bridge cultural gaps and promote a more inclusive society.
And the final pillar: nature. Shared meals are more likely to be cooked from scratch using whole ingredients, as opposed to the ultra-processed foods that are so damaging to our world. Read more of my thoughts on this topic here. Swapping tips about those ingredients, and the local shops and markets they come from strengthens connections to local food systems.
You can even enjoy meals out in nature; a picnic in a beautiful park will definitely boost your appreciation for our world. And how much better do sandwiches taste out on a country walk than simply eaten in your kitchen?! Falling in love with our environment is a fabulous shortcut to wanting to take care of it.
In summary, shared meals foster sustainability by connecting us to ourselves, each other, and our world. They forge genuine human connections by building and strengthening relationships, they support health and emotional well-being, they preserve traditions and local communities, and they expose us to the beautiful ingredients of our wonderful natural world.
Takeaways from the Sustainable Food Society
- Tomorrow, take a lunch break away from your desk, with a friend or colleague
- Go to a restaurant from a culture whose food you’ve never tried
- Sign up for a supper club (often these are themed around interesting topics for debate, or specific cuisines)
- Invite friends over and cook something that’s new for them
- Have that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off over a few sharing plates to break down the barriers
- Share your own sustainable eating tips with colleagues by bringing a tasty treat
- Attend a breakfast event and meet new people