By Amanda Miller MS, RN
Throughout the history of human evolution, eating has always been a social event – or at least it used to be. The majority of Americans spend their meals apart from others, in front of their computer, TVs, in their cars, or grabbing something to-go. Not taking the time to sit down to eat with family and friends is costing us our health. Conviviality pours from the social benefits of social eating – stories, food, and companionship shared. But what do scientific studies say about the topic?
“ Meals together may lay the groundwork for healthier eating in later adulthood”, says a 2013 study by the University of Minnesota. Meals spent together during childhood and adolescence lead to more nutritious diets as adults, including higher consumption of fruits and vegetables, fewer soft drinks, and a greater variety of vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, the researchers found that those who share meals together have a lower Body Mass Index (BMI). When eating alone, people tend to eat more calories and are less mindful in knowing when they are full. Individual eating typically enforces a reach for quicker options – meals commonly cooked in unhealthy oils and with unknowing amounts of calories. This alludes to the fact that eating alone may pose a potential risk for obesity and other chronic diseases.
Looking further into the benefits of communal dining, a study by Columbia in 2014 found children who eat dinner with families often do better academically, have less behavior problems, and report feeling closer with their parents than children who eat dinner alone. Furthermore, families often report enhanced communication when eating together. The dinner table acting as a unifier, kids, families, and friends feel more supported and less alienated when dining with others. Feeling these types of bonds with loved ones can promote feelings of gratitude and happiness rather than feelings of depression and loneliness.
With the burdens of work, long commutes, and school activities, it can be difficult to find the time to sit down and enjoy a meal with others. Here are some tips for squeezing in meal times with families and friends:
- Remember that dinner doesn’t have to be the shared meal – breakfast and lunch count, too. Consider making Saturday morning breakfast or Sunday lunch one of your priority meals for the week.
- Include everyone in the planning. Build meals around favorite foods and assign each person the responsibility of preparing or serving one item.
- Use the meal preparation as quality time. Consider planning meals at the beginning of the week and include everyone in the process – from food purchasing to preparation to meal set up and clean up.
- Family can be defined however you want it to be – including coworkers, roommates, and friends
- Remember to eat slowly and chew your food. Your digestion will improve because your food will contain more salivary enzymes necessary to aid in metabolism. You will also be able to understand when you are actually full.
Perhaps seeing eating together not as another appointment on a busy calendar, but rather as an opportunity to de-stress and catch up with those we love. Taking the time out of our lives to eat as a community will allow us to attain positive individual eating habits, and thus, help us lead healthier and happier lives.
Amanda Miller, MS, RN, is a Clinical Integrative Nutrition Nurse Consultant at the Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine. You can make an appointment with her by calling 310-451-8880 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jerica M. Berge, Melanie Wall, Tsun-Fang Hsueh, Jayne A. Fulkerson, Nicole Larson, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer. The Protective Role of Family Meals for Youth Obesity: 10-Year Longitudinal Associations. The Journal of Pediatrics, 2014
Larson N, Fulkerson J, Story M, Neumark-Sztainer D. Shared meals among young adults are associated with better diet quality and predicted by family meal patterns during adolescence. Public Health Nutrition. 2013