by Chunyan Song
The fast-paced modern life we live in America does not encourage healthy eating. A lot of us get food from where our cars get fuel, meaning we buy gas, and then dash into AM/PM to load up on hot dogs and chips. We eat last night’s leftovers in front of our computers. When we are too busy to go inside a restaurant, we pick up our orders at the windows of the drive-through. The demand for efficiency and profit in the capitalist economy propels the epidemic of the Standard American Diet—the SAD diet. Much of the food in American grocery stores is not “real food” or at least food that our ancestors would have recognized as such. The aisles of canned food and processed food are loaded with chemicals, sugar and preservatives, catering to the twin demands of modern living: ready and convenient. Typical school lunch items include pizza, macaroni and cheese, burgers, and French fries. Everything is yellow or brown, made intentionally so for the convenience of finger eating. Most of the days, I pack my kids’ lunches with healthier alternatives from home. But I know that by lunch time, they are already several hours old and cold. When it is time to eat, the lunch scene is chaotic with some kids eating while running and some others eating crackers from their lunch boxes on the grass. In France, according to the author of French Kids Eat Everything, Karen Le Billon, five-year-old French kids all sit down to enjoy a three-course hot school lunch starting with soup, and served with real silverware and cloth napkins.
Popular kid’s menu items in American schools and restaurants exist because they can be cheaply prepared and pre-packed, and kept frozen until there is a demand. Then it is easy and fast to meet the impatient little customers demanding here-and-now. I have only seen kid’s menus in American restaurants, not in Asia, or in other countries I have visited. Kids, once past the infancy stage in most other cultures, are regarded as mini-adults. Hunger between meals is normal and is expected to be tolerated rather than whined about. Snacking between meals is forbidden in French and Japanese elementary schools. Kids are expected to wait to eat at the same time as everyone else, an acknowledgment of the social function of mealtime. They also eat the same food as everyone else, and to eat with silverware instead of their fingers. In America, parenting experts advise parents to always give their kids options. What do you want to wear today, pink or purple? What do you want to eat, pizza or broccoli? Here in America, kids are deemed as special human beings demanding special foods and treatment. All individuals, kids and adults alike, are assumed unique in an individuality that is always honored and respected. This accommodation to individuality is a byproduct of the individualist cultural norm of American society. In group-oriented societies, you will go hungry if you do not eat the food provided for the rest of the family. It does not matter whether you are three or thirty.
When my kids were three and five, I took them to visit my sister in China. To my surprise, my nephew who is the same age as my son, had none of my kids’ food fussiness. He drank water instead of juice. He barely snacked. He ate three proper meals a day including a hot breakfast and a hot lunch at his preschool and dinner at home. Thus, he didn’t even own a lunch box which was deemed as an essential necessity for all preschoolers in America. At the age of three, he ate fried peanuts with a pair of chopsticks, which had left quite an impression on my two kids and me. Whenever we went out together, I always made sure to carry a backpack full of juice boxes and snacks along with tissue papers and hand sanitizers. All my American parent friends do the same. At the first sign of hunger or tiredness, you are supposed to comfort your kids with a snack. My sister and other Chinese moms in the playground couldn’t comprehend my over-indulgence to my kids. They looked at my large snack backpack as something bizarre and something totally unnecessary. My kids were used to snacking all the time! I confess, I snacked all the time too. After all, someone had to take care of the kids’ leftovers. Even when people do not have the burden of kids, many Americans snack like kids themselves. In America, we are too busy and too impatient to wait for the quality experience of a proper nutritious meal.
During lunch hours, you can always expect to spot a few lone diners at any American restaurants. With a fork in one hand and a smart phone in the other, the lone diners quietly and grimly gobble down the meal at a corner table. But eating alone seems to me to be an American phenomenon. It is a byproduct of modernity and material abundance, industrialization and specialization, which while maximizing efficiency, isolates human relationships. We eat alone, play alone, live alone, and some of us even go bowling alone, as Robert Putnam reminded us. Eating alone has been associated with unhealthy dietary behaviors and obesity; it is not good for your soul either. The Latin root for companionship, “panis”, means bread. When you share your bread and food with someone, you gain companionship. Human companionship and face-to-face interactions are the sources of the deepest happiness and meaning. In American restaurants, even families order meals individually. Sharing meals in family style has to be made in a special request. In China and many parts of the world, family style is an unquestionable part of the local food culture. With the ease of a rotating tray in the middle of the table, everyone gets a taste of everything.
At Chico State where I work, classes are scheduled from early morning to late in the evening to maximize the use of classrooms and other facilities. Some of my colleagues and I only see each other at the Department meetings, once a month. But in Chinese universities, and at the University of Hawaii according to a colleague who used to work there, the campuses are closed off during a common lunch hour when everyone goes to the dining hall to share precious social time over a meal. I went to a four-year university in Beijing before I came to the U.S for graduate school. For four years, I never had to eat alone, not even once. Over our daily lunch and dinner routines in college, my friends and I formed a lifelong bond like sisters. One of the biggest challenges in my first semester of graduate school in America was to find people to eat lunch with. My roommates and classmates were busy and had different schedules. Eating lunch together was no longer a spontaneous thing everyone did together like in my university in China. Making a week-day lunch request required advanced notice and skillful coordination between two or more calendars. I often ate alone. I hated it.
One generation ago, most Americans had sit-down-together dinners at the end of each day. Only a quarter of today’s American families eat family dinners every day. With two working parents and two kids of each gender, like many middle-class American families, my own family of four is stretched between the dance lessons, karate lessons, baseball practices, and piano lessons. We often have to rely on those grab-and-go pre-packed food and sugar loaded “nutrition bars” on the run. On the rare occasions when we can share a home cooked meal together, I struggle to get everyone together. Alone and together, here we are, the four of us, all under the same roof, scattered into different parts of the house, each distracted by a separate electronic gadget, a video game, a TV drama, or glittering text messages on the IPhone. Once I saw in SkyMall magazine an ad for a peppershaker with a hidden Wi-Fi blocker. When the mom twists the peppershaker at the dinner table, everybody is forced to eat together without any distractions. I immediately knew this was the secret weapon that I had been looking for.
 Le Billon, Karen. (2012). French Kids Eat Everything: How our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters. William Morrow.
 Putnam RD. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 Tani, Y., Kondo, N., Takagi, D. (2015). Combined effects of eating alone and living alone on unhealthy dietary behaviors, obesity and underweight in older Japanese adults: Results of the JAGES. Appetite, Volume 95, 1-8.
 Beardsworth, Alan, and Teresa Keil, (2005). Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society. New York: Routledge.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.