To add to the already brimming pot of existing research to support this, the American Heart Association recently released a survey of 1,000 American adults with some interesting statistics when it comes to eating communally. According to the 2022 survey, 91 percent of parents admitted their family is less stressed when they share meals together. Eighty-four percent of adults said that they would like to share a meal with others more often. The top benefits noted were feeling less stressed and more connected with loved ones, while also being more intentional about taking time to slow down and enjoy life.
"There is an interesting psychology at play that most of us aren't even aware of, and can be helpful to keep in mind both when eating alone and when eating communally," says Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RD, a registered dietitian based in Brooklyn, NY. Here’s what we know so far.
What does the science say about the benefits of eating with others?
First of all, it’s important to define what “eating with others” actually means. Does sitting together while everyone is nose-deep in their Instagram feeds qualify? Probably not.
"[Eating communally] includes eating with others, at a table, without distraction. It provides an opportunity for socialization and communication, which can improve mental health," says Veronica Rouse, MAN, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator who specializes in cardiac nutrition and diabetes educator at The Heart Dietitian.
You may feel more connected with your loved ones, roommates, and coworkers
It’s no surprise that eating with friends and loved ones can facilitate feelings of “bondedness” between people, according to a 2017 study from the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology. For example, eating together as a couple, family, or roommates could encourage more feelings of connectedness by working together to assemble a meal, clean up as a team, and simply talk while you enjoy your food.
You may eat more nutrient-dense foods and have better digestion
The mental health benefits may seem obvious, but it’s also possible that eating with others may actually influence your digestion. "It can also put the body in a parasympathetic state, also known as the 'rest and digest' stage, as it relaxes the individual and aids in digestion and absorption of nutrients,” says Rouse. These things can also help you feel more satiated throughout the day.
Sharing meals with loved ones may also encourage you to prepare and eat more nutrient-dense meals, says Pasquariello. Typically, meals eaten with others tend to have more nutrients available, like fiber, protein, healthy fats, and more, given the idea that you may work together to create a main dish with multiple sides, she says.
Family meals may influence self-esteem, mental health, and other important factors for kids
If you’re a parent, this one is for you: Having family meals more often may have far-reaching positive health effects for children, according to a 2015 literature review from the journal Canadian Family Physician. The study found that family meal time was associated with lower rates of violent behavior, eating disorders, depression, and even suicidal ideation, while also promoting higher rates of school success and healthy self-esteem. It’s important to note that these positive results were particularly significant for adolescent and elementary-aged girls. Of course, there are lots of other factors at play for these things, so think of family meal time as one small way to help foster some of these positive health effects.
If eating alone is your norm, there are still ways to reap positive health benefits
All of that said, eating alone has become a reality for more people today than ever before, especially due to the increase in working from home, says Pasquariello. The good news is, solo dining can still result in positive effects for both gut health and mental health, especially when done mindfully, says Pasquariello.
A few tips to try? Pasquariello says to make sure to slow down and take intentional breathes or sips or water between bites, and remove distractions—try reading a book instead of mindlessly watching a show or scrolling through Tiktok.
3 tips to add more communal meals to your schedule—even if you can’t cook regular meals or you live alone
The reality is, American culture is not super conducive to eating together, says Rachel Larkey, RD, certified eating disorder counselor and dietitian. The economic pressures of working to make ends, the cost of food—and other socioeconomic factors—make it very difficult for the average family to cook, serve, and eat dinner together, she says.
On the other hand, many people live alone, and it’s not feasible to meet up with friends every time your stomach grumbles. If you fall into either of these two camps, but you’re still interested in figuring out a way to get more shared meals on your schedule, Larkey says, “It’s okay to start very small, and just try it once rather than setting up a plan right away to make it happen weekly or monthly.”
1. Try scheduling a potluck with friends or coworkers
“You can try potlucks with friends once a month so you have less cooking to do, or if it's in your budget, pick a day to go out with a loved one to share a meal,” says Larkey. You may even want to block off your lunch on your work calendar once a week and ask a friend or your roommate to do the same. That way you can really commit to taking a break and bonding with a friend.
2. Share a meal over Zoom
“If you're far away or isolated from loved ones, even a Zoom date to eat would be fun,” Larkey says. You can set up a time when you and a loved one cook together over Zoom or Facetime, and then eat what you cook. Picking the meals you’re planning to cook could even turn into a bonding tradition.
3. Check out clubs or meetups in your area
“Some libraries even have Cook Book Clubs that are free to join, where you and the group pick different recipes to make from a cookbook and share the food together,” says Larkey. You also might check out supper clubs or cooking classes in your area, as they can both provide much-needed social interaction centered around food—particularly if you live alone.
Don’t forget that humans have a rich history of sharing culture through food
Human nature has been closely tied to eating together for thousands of years, as evidenced by the deep connection between cultural traditions and food, says Pasquariello. That's why it's always a good idea to be mindful of how you talk about the types of meals you share with others. Diet culture can be particularly harmful to your mental health when people shame meaningful cultural foods as "unhealthy" or "bad for you."
Think about the role that food plays in holiday gatherings or celebrations of any kind— not every food has to be nutritious to bring value to your life—but who you share it with certainly can. At the end of the day, pun-intended, it can be really rejuvenating to leave your phone in your pocket and work on your desk and connect with others over food— something all humans need to survive.
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