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Sindhuri Nandhakumar
Questions for Answers

Credit: Sindhuri Nandhakumar

College students spend a lot of their time either eating or thinking about what they’re going to eat.

So a couple weeks back, when I got sick and was unable to eat anything except potato chips and Gatorade, I felt a little lost. There was no planning or thinking involved in this new diet — any vending machine would have the ingredients, and the greatest variety I ever had was when I sometimes changed my Gatorade flavor (orange will always be the best, though).

In addition to missing higher quality food, I also really missed the social aspect of eating. I politely declined offers to “grab” dinner, lunch or coffee. At other times, I accompanied friends to meals and watched them eat, making them a little uncomfortable in the process.

But this hiatus from social dining left me with some time to think, and I came out of this experience with a new perspective. It’s beautiful how food brings people together. But I also feel that somewhere along the way, the quality of these interactions has declined.

As a child, my family ate out only occasionally. On birthdays, anniversaries and particularly lucrative paydays, we would eagerly clamber into my father’s station wagon and go to our favorite restaurant. The next day, my sister and I would carefully divide the leftovers and eat them slowly. In our middle class family, eating out was a treat.

At the same time, mealtime at home wasn’t something that we complained about. We loved sitting around our round wooden table. There was usually a guest or two, and my mother loved showing off her cooking skills. So, even though eating out was special, eating in was equally, if not more, enjoyable.

During my time at Penn though, I feel like my relationship with food has vastly changed. Freshman year was characterized by the quintessential weight gain caused by heaps of different kinds of food. While I’ve started cooking a lot more since then, I often choose not to so that I can catch up with a friend over a meal at a restaurant. Very few students invite their friends for a meal at each other’s place. Instead, the question often is, “Which part of campus are you going to be on? Cosi or Chipotle?”

I started wondering if socializing was something that was only accessible to the wealthy. What did people who didn’t have the money to eat out every day do? How did they hang out with their friends? But then I reminded myself of all the meals that I have had in the homes of other people, and all the people who sat around my family’s dining table, making conversation. I realize that socializing and food don’t necessarily have to interact solely in the sphere of restaurants and take-out lines — that’s just what it’s become at Penn.

Granted, Penn’s campus and Philadelphia have some great restaurant choices, and I have no problem going out to a good restaurant or Center City every now and then. But I think we overspend a lot of our money on food. Yes, a sandwich from Houston Market is convenient, but do we really need to be spending six or seven dollars on an uninspired meal every day when we could make it ourselves for much less? The new Asian station in Houston sells rice bowls for eight dollars that I could personally put together for about two.

Many students probably pay the extra amount because they feel like they just don’t have the time, will or expertise (though making a sandwich shouldn’t be all that difficult for Penn students) to make their own food, but I don’t think we really try to make time. Would it be that much more time-consuming to make a quick dish with a friend, rather than going out to get similar fare?

As I started feeling a bit better, my doctor and nutritionist encouraged me to reintroduce other (healthier) food into my diet. While I haven’t been standing at my stove cooking any elaborate meals — my current diet consists mostly of applesauce and rice — I am more reluctant to get a quick lunch at a restaurant. I’d rather invite a friend over and cook together.

Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a College senior from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Her email address is Follow her @sindhurin. “Questions for Answers” appears every other Thursday.

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