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In her 1928 essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes that “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

Our need to “dine well” is,  of course, innate. It is necessary for us to eat and drink in order to stay alive, and both our physical and mental wellbeing are affected by the nutrition we consume. If we don’t eat enough, we experience fatigue and, in the worst cases, illness. Being denied food and drink can also result in becoming obsessed with pursuing it, leading us to ignore our other needs until our need for nutrition is sated. 

Humans have always gathered together to share food and it is this fundamental human ritual that makes our requirement for food and drink one of the most interesting of our needs, because the necessity for physical nourishment is intimately connected to our need for emotional nutrition. By eating together, often with our loved ones, the physical act of eating becomes bound up with the quality of our emotional connections. This link between the two forms of nourishment is so important that it’s frequently reflected in the culture we consume. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for example, generosity with food and constructing meal time as a vehicle for emotional nourishment and growth are very plainly linked. Similarly, a miserly attitude to human relationships and a deprivational approach to physical nourishment are seen as indistinguishable.

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Cook is a physically repulsive character with questionable personal hygiene. Although he is described as skilled in the kitchen, the disgusting nature of his character and physical being is a metaphor for the competing agendas of the other characters and the fact that there is no real “togetherness” in the group. Because the narrative around the food is not healthy, even to the point of being toxic, there is also little evidence of significant emotional nourishment in the group and every character is very much alone on their own journeys. 

And in the Martin Scorsese film, Goodfellas, satisfying the physical need for nourishment is seen as fundamental to creating emotional connections. Meetings which involve important decisions are held in restaurants; after a particularly grisly night of crime, the three characters involved end up at a family home, eating a hearty meal while seated around a dinner table as a way of re-bonding with each other after a challenging task; and later on, when they are incarcerated, they spend significant periods of time working together to create food and drink they can take their time to consume, thereby facilitating a kind of “nourishment” that ensures their bond remains intact in the face of difficult circumstances. By investing so much time and energy in preparing and eating meals together, these characters are reinforcing the emotional importance of their bonds and their mutual support network.  

If we listen to what our body tells us about the food we need, and our relationships are also satisfying, then the act of sharing a meal with those closest to us results in many of our innate needs being met across the dining table. When we feel emotionally under-nourished, this is often expressed in our relationship to physical nutrition, and we might mirror that deprivation by denying ourselves food, or try to fill the emotional gap by physically overeating.

There is evidence to show that those who regularly eat alone are less likely to eat healthily and more likely to eat fast or boxed foods. There is undoubtedly a practical component to this, because these kinds of foods are quick to prepare, which might be an advantage if you frequently eat by yourself, but it’s interesting that without the social bonds of eating with at least some of the people who form your support network, this paucity of emotional nourishment is often reflected in the food choices we make when dining alone. Is there a relationship between how highly we prioritise mealtimes and how highly we prioritise “feeding” ourselves in other ways?

As with all our innate needs, what matters is striking the right balance. By giving enough attention to our nourishment, eating healthily, and keeping hydrated, we can ensure our need for food and drink does indeed help us not only to dine well, but also to think well, love well and sleep well. 

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