In many cultures across the world, food is the go-to icebreaker. It acts as a segue into the better bit of every relationship, allowing you to quickly skip over all the awkward tension and jump right into familiarity. In contemporary culture, when looking to develop a new relationship sharing a meal is almost always the first thing you do together. Similarly, in most African cultures, sharing or offering a meal to a guest is customary and a sign of good faith. Eating activates the brain’s reward system, which produces feelings of pleasure. But why is it that we feel the need to share this experience with other people?
Sharing food has been a part of human history for as long as it has been recorded. Feasts bring people together to celebrate or serve as a marker for events in different cultures. Scandinavian and African cultures, for instance, have historically used feasts as a tool for communal celebration. While in other parts of the world, feasts have more religious than cultural significance. Once again, this practice prompts the same question: why is food the centrepiece?
Humans are social animals. We desire social interactions. According to Sören Krach, a professor at the University of Lübeck’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, social interactions and socially motivated behaviour trigger the brain’s reward system. This reward system is the region of the brain that is responsible for the feeling of pleasure we experience whilst doing things we enjoy.
"The simple act of sharing a meal with someone creates a path for you and your dining partner to develop a deeper, more meaningful relationship"
Eating also triggers the brain’s reward system which results in the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward system. When we eat with others, the experience is heightened. This elaborate process is why it is easier to unwind and socialise once one has eaten. The results of one study suggest that eating with others is more enjoyable and gives off an enhanced reward. Thus, when the psychological reward we experience when socialising is paired with that of eating, we arrive at the recipe for a peak of positive emotions. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and psychologist at Oxford University, refers to this phenomenon as “Social Eating.”
The premise of social eating is that eating with others has both social and individual benefits, from making us feel happier on a personal level to enabling one to develop deeper connections with those they share meals with. The outlined benefits of social eating suggest that it plays a critical role in social bonding. The simple act of sharing a meal with someone creates a path for you and your dining partner to develop a deeper, more meaningful relationship, hence the phrase: ‘breaking bread together.’
The effects of social eating are just as evident in modern dining as they are in ancient dining. According to the data collected from respondents in Dunbar’s study, sharing a meal with others in the evening made respondents feel closer to the other person, as compared to eating with them during the day. Thus, evening meals were regarded as ‘more appropriate or valuable’ for building friendships. It appeared that the darker atmosphere at night added some form of ‘magic’ to interactions, making it easier for people to socialise. Perhaps, this explains why dinner is often our choice meal to develop a deeper bond with potential romantic partners.
"...being a host and providing food for those around you is associated with praise and recognition from friends and family"
Beyond social benefits, eating also has long-term emotional benefits. Dunbar’s study indicated that those who eat socially more often are far more likely to feel better about themselves and have a stronger social network capable of providing them with emotional support. Social eating is likely good for your mental health. If we examine the effects it appears to have on the people in Dunbar’s study, we see that eating together develops a sense of self-confidence and enhances our ability to create more meaningful relationships with those around us.
Additionally, a study lead by Helen Ruddock of the University of Birmingham suggests that being a host and providing food for those around you is associated with praise and recognition from friends and family, which ultimately strengthens social bonds. This seems to explain why some cultures practice providing food as a centrepiece of their hospitality.
Frequent social eating is important. Beyond its overt social benefits, the benefits it has on one’s character and ability to strengthen vital bonds and relationships are well worth having. To me, eating with others can serve as a gateway to countless positive outcomes, aiding in the building of new relationships and the repairing of broken ones. Although social eating doesn’t guarantee you a good relationship, it gives you a pretty good head-start.
BY THE BOOK
The case for off-the-cuff cooking
In the kitchen, recipes can be both aids and adversaries. But while recipes can broaden our horizons, overreliance can stifle creativity and, more importantly, diminishes the unique joy that comes from creating something new.