For students, food is more social than savoury

The transitions students face in university can influence eating habits, professor says

Students eat together in Ban Righ cafeteria. Eating at university is a largely social experience, students say.
Students eat together in Ban Righ cafeteria. Eating at university is a largely social experience, students say.
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Before coming to Queen’s, Halla Imam, ArtSci ’13, was used to the homemade, well-balanced meals her mother prepared. Upon entering first year, however, she found it increasingly difficult to maintain portion control.

“At the caf I would try and make the most of my meal,” she said. “Basic things that probably could have sufficed as an entire meal, like a salad for lunch, suddenly became a starter.” Like many students, Imam was affected by the change in eating habits that often coincides with the transition from secondary to post-secondary studies.

Imam said first year turned eating into more of a social experience for her. Her eating habits so far in second year have been noticeably improving, she added.

“In first year, even if I wasn’t that hungry, if everyone was going to dinner, I’d go along with them,” she said. “Now, I usually still eat with people, but my meals take less time, and I enjoy them more because of this, and because I know what is going into my food when I cook it myself.” Elaine Power is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies who specializes in the sociology of food, a discipline she defines as the study of how food systems are constructed and how this changes in varying conditions.

Power said a student’s transition from high school to university and from first year to upper years can influence a person’s eating habits.

“In high school teenagers have more restrictions of what they eat, but in university they can have whatever they want whenever they want,” she said.

The availability of higher fat and higher calorie foods in university certainly influences a person’s eating habits, as these are the foods people turn to in stressful situations, Power said. The social aspect of food is also a major reasoning factor that permeates into the way students think about food.

“Food is a big part of socializing with friends. When students go out drinking, they come back and have the munchies,” she said. “In university, lots of eating goes on that doesn’t have the same sort of boundaries that we have at home with our parents.”

Robert Thom, ArtSci ’11, rowed for his first three years at Queen’s. He said he enjoyed the quantity and quality of meals Queen’s cafeterias provided.

“I loved the caf. I went there two times a day and ate as much as I needed,” he said. “When I ate with my rowing friends, we would eat a ton of food together, but the caf was also a good place to hang out with my floor-mates and friends in first-year.” Thom said because he enjoyed the food and the experience in the Queen’s cafeterias so much, he still eats most of his lunches there as a fourth-year student.

“Sometimes, it’s just nice to get a muffin and a coffee when studying,” he said. “It’s something else to do. Going over to a friend’s house for a dinner party is social; food is social.” Power said the manner in which food is prepared also influences students’ approach to eating.

“When you’re cooking your own food, there’s a lot more appreciation for the amount of work that goes into making meals. If you expect to be served, you have a different approach to life and to food,” she said. “We need an approach that lets us think about what’s important.” Power said while many cultures have entirely different orientations to food, with a focus more on flavour than calories, our society has now become obsessed with defining food primarily as a source of nutrition.

“Health has become a key way that we define ourselves and think about ourselves,” she said. “As a society we’re fixated on rules and rigidity, rather than enjoyment and pleasure. Thinking about food in this manner is a disservice we’ve done to ourselves.”

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