It’s Good for Us to Eat Together
I can’t say my mother was the most enthusiastic or skilled cook, but one of her favorite expressions was “a family that eats together stays together.” No matter how simple our evening meal was, we ate it together, at the kitchen table, without a TV in the room. Today’s busy families face far greater challenges than just switching off the TV, including busy schedules and the tyranny of ever-present cell phones. According to a 2017 University of Oxford study, a third of weekday evening meals are eaten in isolation and the average adult eats ten out of 21 meals alone. So, as we move into the season of meals with family and friends, maybe we should try to make them a more regular habit.
If you already have a rule of no phones at the dinner table, you are creating numerous benefits, among them better communication, which leads to better stress management; better concentration; better sleep; and less social media comparison. For children and teens who eat shared meals, there is less likelihood of obesity and eating disorders and more likelihood of positive achievement outcomes. Causation is hard to prove given so many things are interlinked in a family’s ability to eat together.
Apart from the social and emotional benefits, there are dietary gains, too. Studies show that we tend to consume slightly more calories when we eat in a group, but the quality of those calories, meaning the nutrients they contain, is higher. This is healthier in the moment, but also promotes good eating habits in the long term. When eating alone, people are far more likely to reach for processed foods. While understandable — it seems a lot of work to prepare a single portion from scratch and it’s hard to avoid food waste when one does – the whole foods we use to make meals for family or friends are far healthier. It’s been shown that teenagers eat more fruit and vegetables and consume less soda and fast food when family meals are emphasized.
We tend to eat more slowly in company, hopefully because good conversation is flowing, and this avoids unfavorable blood sugar spikes. It’s probably no coincidence that in the “Blue Zones” (the areas where the world’s healthiest people live), big family dinners, often stretched out over hours, are part of the culture. One study even showed that food tastes better when eating with loved ones compared to eating alone or with strangers.
Some of the other upsides are particularly appropriate as we approach the granddaddy of all family dinners: Thanksgiving. Gratitude is good for us, and tips abound on how to practice it. It may seem like a chore, but we have a day that literally is named for this healthy practice. As we gather around a festive table and give thanks, as we have for over 400 years, we are boosting our serotonin and activating the brain stem to produce dopamine. Dopamine is our brain’s pleasure chemical. The more we think positive thoughts, the healthier and happier we feel.
To counter the belief that Thanksgiving Day fare is inherently unhealthy, remember that the less healthy options (hello marshmallow toppers on sweet potatoes) don’t undo the nutrients you’re getting from lots of other things on your plate. Turkey is a great source of lean protein, which we need for muscle building, and green vegetables contain magnesium and potassium, which support muscle and heart health and regulate blood pressure. Cranberries are jam-packed with antioxidants that help prevent cancer, apples are high in fiber and Vitamin C, and pumpkin contains vitamins A and C for eye and skin health.
If you’re lucky enough to be part of a Thanksgiving gathering, where everyone brings a homemade offering for the table, that variety is good for you, because increasing diversity in our diet is a simple strategy for improving the health of the microbiome (the gut). You will be sampling dishes you may not have tried before, or slightly different ingredients or cooking methods, and this all means new flora for the gut, helping it thrive.
Finally. if you start to feel like the stress of preparations and family politics may outdo all the positives above, remember that in 2020, and indeed 2021, when the pandemic kept us from gathering with people outside our own households, we longed for our regular Thanksgiving traditions, marshmallows and all.