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From the Power Lunch to the Birthday Dinner: Our Food-Centric Culture

Take a moment to see if you can name one occasion, gathering, celebration, or holiday that does not involve food in some fundamental way. Really try to think of one.

Having trouble?  I’m not surprised.

We live in a food-centric culture: a society so obsessed with eating that we implicate this behavior in almost every social activity imaginable. If you plan to associate with other people in practically any fashion, there will be a meal, drink, or refreshment involved.

But why?  A couple of explanations could be offered.

For one, food is a form of social currency.  We offer others food to show them that we care. Food is a versatile gift that everyone can accept, understand, and appreciate. When people are gathering, food  welcomes and puts people at ease. Second, food is a great distraction and adds a bit of entertainment to any situation. Thus, food at a gathering creates a positive atmosphere and ensures a group of happy campers.

When you ask my 84-year-old grandmother how her friend’s party went, she bases her response on the food served (for example, “It was wonderful!  She had a beautiful nova platter.”).

While food will likely always remain on the invite list, it behooves us – given the nation’s obesity epidemic – to think about ways that we can scale down the importance of food in our social world. Here are some ideas for food-free options in a variety of social situations:

Special Occasions

Birthday dinners, anniversary brunches, Fourth of July barbeques … there is always another occasion (and associated meal) just around the corner. Why is it that we often allow the food at the occasion – rather than the occasion itself – take the spotlight?

These traditions often begin in childhood, so we need to start changing the paradigm there. Rather than asking your son where he’d like to eat for their birthday dinner, plan some activities that celebrate his talents, interests, and strengths.

Take him to see his favorite baseball team, hang up his artwork all over the living room, give him first dibs on the front seat all week.

Make the occasion – your son and his wonderfulness – the star.

The Office

Power lunches at the finest restaurants, doughnuts around the conference table, after-work happy hours — where there will be long hours and think tanks, there will be food.

However, some progressive companies are implementing the “walking meeting,” in which the leader projects his/her voice by megaphone while leading the employees in walking laps around the hallways or outside the building.

Other companies have instituted “no food” rules for birthday celebrations. Instead, employees can opt for a special privilege on their birthday (e.g., take the afternoon off, utilize a special parking space).

A Funeral/Wake/Shiva

While those in mourning often appreciate visitors bringing a meal, the amount of food that accumulates at these gatherings can be overwhelming and unnecessary.

Thus, express your condolences in a more creative way. You might offer to help with some of the funeral arrangements (such as ordering flowers for the ceremony, housing out-of-town guests, or providing transportation for the family). You may choose to create an album or collage of photos of the deceased as a gift to the family. These gestures will outlive, and will be more meaningful than, yet another tuna noodle casserole.

Start putting some non-food gatherings onto your social calendar. Your friends, co-workers, and waistline will thank you!

About Katie Rickel, PhD

Dr. Katie Rickel graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Florida. She completed an APA-accredited clinical internship in health psychology at Duke University Medical Center, with advanced training in behavioral and bariatric obesity treatment as well as the psychological management of chronic pain and illness. Dr. Rickel also has expertise in treating anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Her research has been presented at various professional conferences and published in scientific journals. Dr. Rickel has also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and has been quoted in several popular media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Health magazine, Yahoo! Health, Women’s Health magazine, Weight Watchers magazine, and abcnews.com.

View all posts by Katie Rickel, PhD