I was recently talking to a teacher at my school about how I find lunchtimes difficult: we don’t have a microwave in the staffroom, so any meal brought has to be salad-based (I love salads, but they’re sometimes not the best thing to eat right before standing up in front of a classroom), and the cafeteria is only open from 11:30-1:00 (in addition to being a butter-cream-meat-and-preservatives nightmare.) Though snacking and solitary eating is generally frowned upon in the French lifestyle, said teacher mentioned how more and more of the staff are beginning to bring their own food to work, noteably because it allows them to have control of their meals, and also because electives are often taught during the lunch period.
I immediately jumped on board with the brown-bagging crowd, until the teacher turned around and rebuked his comment with, “It’s great to be healthy, but bringing your lunch to school eliminates the social aspect of the cafeteria.” I hadn’t before thought of this utilization of lunchtime: socialization. As kids, we always ate lunch with our friends, whether we brought it along or purchased it, but most of us adults are too busy with work, follow special diets, end up discussing work on our lunch break, or simply prefer “me time” to be bothered with social eating. In fact, as a kid I often saw dinner as an impediment to playing outside in the last hours of daylight, but now it’s a much-needed period of relaxation in my day.
Of course, every health magazine out there will tell you that mealtime socialization will “destroy your waistline” with alcohol and processed treats, but I think there are pros and cons to both eating alone and with others. In a group, you can still pick the salad instead of the fried chicken, pass up beer on your work break (that should be a fairly simple rule to follow…), and turn to your friends for the comfort you might otherwise seek in food. During my busiest of days at school, however, I often felt the desire to curl up alone with soup and a book I had been meaning to squeeze into my schedule. Even here in France, where lack of free time is not a problem, I sometimes have odd lunch hours that don’t allow me to follow a traditional meal normalcies. In addition, my odd dietary regulations (which make the world a better place for both myself and those around me) often limit where, when and what I can eat: a French cafeteria is not exactly a great place to find grain-and-dairy-free, vegetarian meals.
I think in an ideal world, I would be able to have my soup and eat it too: spend half of lunch break eating with friends or coworkers—each bringing their meal of choice—and the other half on a casual stroll around the neighborhood with a podcast or just the noise of the world, allowing myself some downtime. But, modern society doesn’t always give us a choice as to whether we eat alone or with others or how we prepare our meals. I try to mix it up each week between eating for myself by myself and eating with others—both with friends and with strangers. Humans have always tended around a social table. Our fuel has developed into a central aspect of society, and even those who follow the hip “back-to-basics” food trends (ahem, “Paleo”) can find strength in communities with like-minded principles. Sometimes, my table provides comfort in its silence; at others, it provides warmth in its fullness. All the time, however, I know that I am fortunate enough to choose the way in which I prepare and eat my food. That, after all, is a blessing for which I can sacrifice my rules and eat a piece of bacon over good conversation.