The Good Life Part 06: Eating with friends. Does a celebration have to mean excess?
How to survive celebrations and parties
‘Tis the season to be jolly. So now you’ve read through the four basics of healthy eating – breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks – it is time to think about how these basics are going to fit into the imperfect world we all inhabit. Eating with friends can change how we eat. It is all very well deciding to have porridge for breakfast, but what if you’re staying with friends and their standard breakfast is Kellogg’s cornflakes and plastic wrapped white toast? And how on earth do we square healthy eating with Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries and all the other reasons not just to be jolly, but perhaps to over-indulge, drink too much and be a little bit too silly?
Commensality or eating with friends?
Sometimes I think that our society has forgotten the deeper function of eating together with our friends and family. Communal eating serves many functions. For me food isn’t just about stuffing nutrients into the body. It is a social, cultural and enjoyable pursuit. At the end of the nineteenth century many ‘civilised’ people saw eating as a primitive, most basic, biological function. This notion has permeated Western thinking, ever since. But not everyone agrees,
In David Bowie’s iconic lyrics for the song Space Oddity, eating is reduced to the minimum. Ground Control instructs Major Tom, “Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.” For NASA eating is merely a prophylactic, a precautionary medicine, like wearing protective clothing. But the spaceman’s final message is about something far more important, “Tell my wife I love her very much. She knows.”
Deep down, we all know that eating is not a purely functional exercise. We know that when we sit down to eat with friends, family and even strangers, we are taking part in an important social and psychological ritual. David Bowie’s poetry contrasts the militaristic view of eating, with the commensal pleasures of togetherness. This much richer understanding of why we eat, is summed up in the biblical phrase, ‘Man does not live by bread alone’, an observation attributed to Moses after he had delivered the ten commandments and then reiterated by Jesus as he confronts the Devil in the wilderness. (Deuteronomy 8: 3; Matthew 4: 4) We have always realised that eating has a greater purpose than just fulfilling one’s mundane, bodily appetites. But when we try to eat healthily, I think we can forget the pleasures of eating together, even if we aren’t eating food that we would ever choose for ourselves. Don’t look for the devil in food you eat with friends. Religions all have feast days and fast days, and according to the writings of Claude Fischler , festivals or periods of abstinence have elevated eating to a religious observance, bringing ‘fleshly creatures closer to spirituality; closer, as it were, to their creator’. However as we get older we need to remember that our capacity to feast or fast reduces .
The psychology of communal eating
Claude Fischler, who has written extensively about commensality, suggests that eating together bonds us together. He also observes that the shape of the table and the hierarchy of seating, according to gender, relationship, age, and degree of intimacy is an illuminating form of social patterning. For example, the round table is a symbol of equality and all institutions, from prisons to Oxbridge colleges, have their dining hierarchies, embedded in well-established social structures. I think we sometimes use the way we eat to send messages to our friends and family. Consider what picking at your food, or alternatively tucking in happily might mean for you. How easy is it for you to remain sober while the rest of the room becomes tipsy? Fischler would say that we all want to belong. For many of us belonging means subjugating our own eating preferences, or sometimes simply disregarding them.
For us there are a lot of specific situations that can damage these delicate social structures. Your vegan children may not wish to take part in Christmas lunch. A death in the family might change the established social hierarchies. As an older woman, it is all too easy to place oneself outside the group. And if you care about what you eat, you can find yourself marginalised even further. No wonder that celebration meals can become so stressful for us. I think we’ve all at one time or another sat down to eat with friends, and within five minutes realised that we don’t “fit in”. It is an excruciatingly uncomfortable feeling.
Some researchers have attempted to show a relationship between obesity and eating alone. There is certainly empirical (observational) evidence that countries where commensal eating is still practiced and venerated tend to have lower levels of obesity. France and Japan head the list. We think that is because it is (generally) socially unacceptable to display greed. Binge eating, for example, almost always occurs in private and some binge eaters will go to extreme lengths to hide their habit. However, there is also contrary evidence, which shows that when we are with people we tend to eat as they do, for better or worse. This is known as modelling. We learn by imitating others  .
What is a celebration?
In our predominantly secular lives, it is easy to ignore the social importance of religious festivals such as Christmas or New Year. But they are probably rather important. The knack, I think, is to find friends and family who don’t see festivals as an excuse for over-excess. Discuss it with your nearest and dearest before the day. You might be surprised at how many of them might want to be less excessive this year. It is a function of becoming older (and wiser). We just can’t abuse our bodies in the way that we might have found acceptable in younger days.
In 1903 Sir Henry Thompson, a very eminent surgeon, (then 83 years old) said this,
“Each period of man’s personal history brings its own appropriate duties and enjoyments. By no means the least of those which accompany old age is a satisfactory sense of the absence of desire for pursuits, which there is now little inducement, or perhaps, ability, to cultivate.”
Diet in relation to Age and Activity, Sir Henry Thompson, 1903, London, Frederick Warne and Co
Celebration Forward Planner
I suggest making a list of celebrations that are really important to you. Now beside each day you’ve noted, write down why that day is special to you, any issues that you’ve had in the past, how it might be improved and how you will deal with excess, or being encouraged into excess.
Here is an example:
Just one big meal won’t do you a lot of harm. However much you eat on Christmas Day; it is only one day. Christmas dinner can always be walked off on Boxing Day. If you are the host at Christmas you have an advantage – what the host says, goes! There is no need to become too strict. We perhaps enjoy six or eight big celebration meals each year. It is the more regular ‘celebratory’ events when we eat with our friends that can become problematic. For example, if a group of friends goes for drinks and a pizza every week, then that excess will start to show first on the women and the older women. Not fair is it?
Fortunately, some of these events will not be big meals. Because I’m a nutritionist, my friends all know that I’m careful about what I eat. My good friends are good home cooks and they always serve delicious, but not over filling meals. I do find some restaurants infuriatingly bad at providing healthier food. If I’m not satisfied, I simply don’t go back. With restaurants that serve delicious but too rick a menu I’ll ring first to check whether they can cook something a little lighter for me. They generally oblige.
Learn the truth about commensality
Not every meal has to be a blow out. You don’t have to drink a bucketful of alcohol at every party in order to enjoy yourself. When you eat a nice meal, you don’t have to choose to eat every course and you don’t have to choose the most fattening option in each course. It’s fine to do this a few times each year – but the real reason of eating with friends and family isn’t the food. The food is simply a symbol of conviviality. The real conviviality is the company.
What eating with friends really means?
If you look through the example forward planner, you’ll see some activities that are important to me, such as family, pomp, dressing up, hospitality, conversation and laughs. The really important thing about parties and celebrations is the people, the fun and the conversation. Your idea of a good party, or eating with friends, may be very different to mine. But don’t kid yourself into believing that fun can only be achieved by eating. I can’t tell you how to react if you’re given Kellogg’s cornflakes for breakfast when staying with friends. The decision will depend on how well you know them, how long you’re staying and how sensitive your body is to poor nutrition at that moment in time. If I needed to be polite, I’d have a small portion. The milk topping will be good for me. What I can tell you is that whatever you decide, the important thing is that you are sharing a table with friends, not that you are eating cardboard cornflakes!
If you’ve enjoyed this article please leave a comment. You can read the rest of the series here:
Next week – Friday 27 December – we’ll be looking forward, thinking about how we can use a change of diet to trigger wider lifestyle changes. I’ve entitled it The New You. It is a very optimistic and I hope empowering piece for women like us.
 Fischler, C. Commensality, society and culture. Soc. Sci. Inf. 50, 528–548 (2011).
 Stachowiak, G., Pertyński, T. & Pertyńska-Marczewska, M. Metabolic disorders in menopause. Prz. Menopauzalny 14, 59–64 (2015).