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Discovering the benefits of shared meals

Updated: Apr 28

“Food and partaking in collective meals have been analyzed as acts that connect the human being as a biological organism to a social person. Understood in this way, eating together makes up a fundamental part of our social nature” (Jonsson et al., 2021).


History shows that sharing food has been a key part in the formation of societies and cultures; researchers have also linked it to the formation of individual social identity. Looking back across history, we can see patterns that have persisted, some transcend culture and geography, meaning that certain characteristics are present in nearly every society regardless of where it is located or other cultural differences. Since food is such a basic need, it makes sense that it has carried such importance, however, we rarely think about its key roles in day to day living.

It’s obvious that food is key to survival, but equally important is the impact that sharing meals has on our physical health and overall well-being.

Food is so important in the human experience, that it is tied to nearly every facet of our lives, even stories. In literature there is a noticeable pattern of the role food plays; it is used as a symbol of hospitality and trust. In fact, it is a symbol of the ultimate betrayal to harm a person who visits your table. This symbology is in Greek literature as well as modern stories. Readers feel that a villain who poisons his dinner guest is especially wicked. Perhaps it is because we all need food to survive that this villainous behavior is so offensive. It makes sense then that sharing the meal has a similar positive weight.

In his book on literary analysis, Thomas Foster writes, “Generally eating with another is a way of saying, ‘I am with you, I like you, we form a community together” (Foster, 2003). To invite others into our home is an ultimate gesture of trust and generosity. We open one of our most sacred spaces when we invite people to enter our homes, sit at the table and share in a meal.


Sharing food responsibilities is baked into human history


In hunter-gatherer societies, food was a communal act. People gathered or hunted food in groups to make the work more effective and beneficial for everyone, much easier to kill and process a mammoth or an elk with help. Even as we settled into agricultural societies, working lands together and sharing the harvest were the norm. Preparing food for meals or preserving it for future use were also shared tasks, often in small groups or family units and sometimes working with the whole village. There are still cultures that operate this way today.

Most people in the U.S. now do not grocery shop together, but we often cook together, and there are producers who still reach out to neighbors for help during harvest time. These patterns have stayed with humans across time and place, showing how food plays a fundamentally important role in our lives.

There has been a growing body of research on how our interactions with food impact society, too. The ramifications are wide-spread.

It is quite amazing to think about how many areas of life food touches. Especially interesting is to note the social importance of food and food sharing. It allows for a time to share news, pass down cultural “rules”, and form connections. Evidence suggests that shared mealtimes could improve well-being and health.


Eating together positively impacts physical health


For most people eating at home is simply healthier overall. Cooking meals in the home keeps us from consuming poor quality foods (aka fast food or road snacks). There is data to show that making home-cooked meals a priority in our diets greatly reduces the amount of empty sugars and low quality carbs.

Families can significantly improve the overall health of their children by cooking well-balanced meals that prioritize vegetables and quality proteins. Project EAT, a long-term study, showed that teens who regularly ate home-cooked meals tended to have better diets and have fewer problems with adult obesity (Glanz et al., 2021). This is attributed to both the example that is set by parents for what healthy food and proportions and habits look like, and to the kinds and quality of food provided. People often put more care into the food they cook. Using quality, whole food ingredients is an obvious way that shared meals can improve people’s health.


Eating together impacts psycho-social well-being


Psycho-social well-being encompasses everything from mental health and self-esteem, to one’s comfort level and ability to navigate social settings. Anne Fishel, psychiatrist, founded The Family Dinner Project after 20 years of research into the benefits of family mealtimes. Mealtimes provide families time for positive interactions and communication. She discusses how regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders as a result of this communication. “I sort of half joke that I could be out of business if more families had regular family dinners, because so many of the things I try to do in family therapy actually get accomplished by regular dinners” (Anderson, 2020). Additionally, positive interactions around the dinner table teach us how to interact and communicate. It provides a safe place to work on the important skills of navigating social interactions.

Other researchers support this and go on to show that this is true outside the family group, too. People in general report a better sense of happiness and connection and belonging when they regularly share meals with family or friends (Dunbar, 2017). Food offers a natural way for us to join together and sit down and talk. We must all take time to eat, and it has long been a “time and place devoted to conversations and sociability - where social bonds are strengthened” (Jonsson et al., 2021). It allows us to share views and ideas creating social connections that provide a sense of belonging.

Humans need these things; connection and belonging are critical components to our sense of well-being. What better way to fill these critical needs than enjoying a delicious shared meal? It doubles the warm-fuzzies, tasty food and good company.


Share a meal with family or friends to increase your happiness


The growing body of research about sharing meals confirms that it is a fundamental center of human culture. People have always gathered to share in the processes of food gathering, preparation, consumption. The research simply provides data to back up what we have always known; sharing a good meal provides a sense of belonging to a community and increases our happiness. The benefits are increased if that meal is made with healthy, whole-food ingredients. In an era over-run with distractions and negative news, it serves us well to take a break. Put the phone down, turn off the television and connect with those around you.


References

Anderson, J. (2020, April 1). The Benefit of Family Mealtime. In ED CAST [Podcast]. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/ideas/edcast/20/04/benefit-family-mealtime

Dunbar, R.I.M. (2017). Breaking Bread: the Functions of Social Eating. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 3, 198-211. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40750-017-0061-4

Foster, T. C. (2003). How to read literature like a professor : a lively and entertaining guide to reading between the lines. HarperCollins.

Glanz, K., Metcalfe, J. J., Folta, S. C., Brown, A., & Fiese, B. (2021). Diet and Health Benefits Associate with IN-Home Eating and Sharing Meals at Home: A Systematic Review. International Journal of e Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(4), 1577. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18041577

Jonsson, H., Michaud, M., & Neuman, N. (2021, June). What is Commensality? A Critical Discussion of an Expanding Research Field. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(12), 6235. 10.3390/ijerph18126235

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