Could we be holding back our hedonic rewards and harming our relationships with food (and with other people) by using utensils instead of eating with our hands?
Let’s open our minds, roll up our sleeves, and get our hands dirty as we sink our teeth into the question:
Can we maybe get more out of our food by eating with our hands?
Your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother wouldn’t mind.
Unless you have East Asian heritage, your great6 grandmother wouldn’t mind if you dug into your extra-extended family meal with your hands.
That’s because she was most certainly raised to do the same. Cutlery didn’t start to become widely adopted until about two hundred and fifty years ago.
Chopsticks go back longer. At least 900 years. So if you’ve got East Asian blood, that extra-extended family meal would need many more seats to accommodate your great28 grandmother on down.
A significant minority already does it every day.
As many as one-third of people eat the majority of meals with their hands today.
Most are in and around India, but many are in the Middle East, Africa, McDonald’s and Chipotle, too.
Here’s a (size of) jaw-dropping factoid.
Cutlery may have caused us to have overbites.
Anthropologist C. Loring Brace studied thousands of skulls and discovered that, until utensils started hogging drawer space in the West 250 years ago, people’s top and bottom jaws lined up. The same happened in the Far East 900 years ago.
He theorizes that outsourcing the role of tearing tough food into mouth-sized morsels has stunted the development of our lower jaws, causing the overbites most of us have today.
Is eating with your hands dirtier?
Icky doesn’t mean dirty.
It can feel dirty for many of us white-collared Westerners to fondle moist foods like curries or salads with our hands.
But is it truly dirtier than eating with cutlery?
As long we wash our hands before eating, probably not. It’s probably cleaner. We know where our hands have been. Who knows what that cutlery has been up to and whose unfamiliar fingers have fondled it?
Keep it in the family.
Family-style finger food may be another story. Even if you saw your fellow feasters clean their hands:
- Washing hands won’t completely sterilize them. Resident flora sticks around. And,
- You don’t know where their mouths have been. Those mouths could be transferring who-knows-what back to their fingers and onto your shared platter.
Maybe this is good for your microbial diversity. I suppose it depends on who you’re sharing plates and swapping spit with.
Other cleanliness pros and cons of eating with your hands:
- Better general hand hygiene. The added incentive to wash our hands before and after every meal could foster better habits overall.
- Fewer dishes to wash. But more hands.
- Dirtier clothes. Tearing away with your hands and jaws increases the risk of shrapnel staining your shirt. Maybe even the shirts of innocent bystanders, if you’re a real animal about it.
Is eating with your hands less healthy?
It could slow you down (…or speed you up).
The tools we use to feed ourselves with affect how fast we eat and how much. For instance, one study found we eat slower and consume less with forks than spoons.
Whether hands are faster or slower remains to be studied and up for debate.
Proponents of eating with your hands say it’s slower because you make more careful and conscious bites and are less likely to gorge distractedly. My experience so far bears that out. I also make smaller bite sizes when I eat salad or rice dishes with my hand rather than a fork or spoon.
But no champion speed eater has ever won using cutlery. So while eating “sit-down foods” like salads and curries with your hands may slow you down, it likely has the opposite effect for “take-away foods” like hot dogs, sandwiches, and pizza.
It gets you more of the extra nutritious bits.
Eating with your hands is the only way to get at every nutritious bit of grit and gristle when eating foods like ribs, whole chicken, and shellfish.
Vegetarians too can get closer to the cores of their fruit when nibbling around it rather than cutting or scooping.
It may help your kids be less picky eaters.
Maybe if we encouraged kids to eat off the bones with their fingers more, they’d acquire a healthier taste for all bits of meat rather than a preference to cherry-pick the easiest, meatiest bits.
They might eat more vegetables, too. In First Bite, author Bee Wilson reports that small children at Finnish nurseries ate many more veggies when allowed to play with them, inspect them, and eat them with their fingers.
There are potential digestive issues.
Other blogs on the benefits of eating with your hands make unsupported claims that the enzymes and bacteria from your hands can help with digestion.
Seems reasonable. But what they don’t mention is that if you don’t wash our hands properly before, it could speed up digestion too fast, if you catch my drift.
Also, as we already touched on, there may be pros and cons to swapping bacteria with family-style finger feeding.
What about the social implications of eating with your hands?
Breaking bread with (and for) others is probably a good thing.
The expression, “to break bread with someone” indicates there’s some bonding benefit to touching each other’s food. Swallowing food that has another’s fingertips—and whatever bodily bacteria jumped ship at contact—on it, is an expression of trust.
Maybe that’s partly why social ties seem to be stronger in European countries where literally breaking bread is common?
Finger feeding could foster fondness.
Could feeding infants with our fingers possibly create a stronger parent-child bond than using forks and spoons? It couldn’t hurt (…until the kids’ teeth start coming in).
Maybe there’s something to be said about finger feeding each other later in life, too.
One evening at a restaurant in Sri Lanka, where everyone except Kim eats with their hands, we witnessed what looked to be a first date happening beside us go from stolid to steamy when the guy offered a finger-full taste of his dish to his partner. She swallowed sumptuously, then returned the favor.
For better and for worse, it gives Western norms the finger(s).
People who suffer from minor social anxiety may benefit from eating traditionally un-finger-worthy foods with their hands in a public place like a crowded cafeteria. It’s good practice at caring less what other people think.
But sometimes it matters what people think. On those occasions, it may be wise to keep your finger feeding fondness to yourself.
Does eating with your hands affect flavor?
It’s certainly more sensational.
As Alice Waters is quoted in an Atlantic article about eating with your hands, “The fork gets in the way.”
Tabling your fork for the extra touchpoint, we get from eating with our hands increases our perception of our food‘s texture and temperature.
Plus, it unites our three most sensitive body parts: our fingertips, lips, and tongue. This may enhance your appreciation and mindfulness of what we’re eating.
It keeps you from your distracting devices.
When your hands are all over your food—and vice versa—we’re more inclined to keep them off our distracting devices. Maybe this will make us more mindful of what we’re eating.
It provides the finishing touch.
Licking your fingers after your meals gives you an extra, final moment of mindful flavor appreciation. Such rituals have been found to enhance our enjoyment of what we eat.
Finger licking is also a signal to the brain that we’re finished. This may make you less-inclined to get back to stuffing our faces soon after.
Is it five-tined fork time?
I don’t know about you, but all this talk of stuffing my face is making me hungry. And I’m eager to give eating with my hands a shot.
Not all the time. But more often than before.
As a final appetizer (or dessert), I’ll leave you with this paragraph I like from writer Keridwen Cornelius:
Eating with your hands is a sensuous indulgence, a meeting of soul and skin. Satisfying on a deep, animal level. It’s getting soaked in a monsoon, taking off your shoes and squishing wet sand between your toes, making mud pies, impaling raspberries on your fingertips and kissing them off one by one till your mouth is juicy and full. It’s squashing grapes underfoot, playing music instead of hearing it, slapping fistfuls of your first birthday cake into your mouth. The mutual giving and receiving between fingers and tongue. Primal and earthy and natural.
More Info on Eating With Your Hands
If you’re still hungry for more info on eating with your hands:
- The Science, Folklore, and Joy of Eating With One’s Hands. The best article I found online on the topic.
- Paper finding that people with high self-control get more pleasure and consume more when eating appetizers with their hands instead of toothpicks.
- Etiquette for eating with your hands in India, parts of Africa, and the Middle East.
Please let me know if you’re a finger food scientist with new discoveries.