The importance of eating together

by Anne Myers-Wright RD/APD

Posted on Apr 9, 09:53 AM in . Comments [1].

As a Dietitian, my mission is to help people to eat better.

This usually means talking about what foods to eat, how much and when. The truth is, though, eating well isn’t always just about the nutrients, it’s about HOW we eat too. The environment that we eat in and eating together, in company, also has a huge effect on health and well being.

Most of us take eating together for granted but the simple act of sharing a meal is a greater one than we imagine. Food is so much more than just fuel. It’s a fundamental part of our health, relationships, culture and well-being. Eating together is about coming together; about belonging.

No-one likes to eat alone. Sadly, however, it is becoming more and more common for many of us to do so, especially in the UK. At the end of last year, the annual UK National Food and Drink report (2017/18) showed that close to a third of us had eaten alone in the last month.

There will always be times when we are eating alone. If we can, however, it’s better for us to try to minimise those times as much as possible. Eating together has benefits both physically and mentally.

Why we should eat together more

It’s tradition, and it’s basically in our genes

Families have eaten together for as long as they have eaten! In most societies, families celebrate important events by sharing food. Mealtimes have traditionally been those times when whole communities or villages come together. Eating together is a symbol of shared life. It’s part of who we are.

Meal times are for bonding and communication

The dinner table is a place of community. Eating together gives us the opportunity to talk, laugh and share. Taking time out to catch up and talk lets us truly connect. For families, this is an important opportunity to switch off the digital distractions and enjoy each other. Family meals foster a sense of belonging. Research has shown that children who eat regularly with their families feel loved, safe and secure. Even teenagers, despite what we may think, treasure the family eating experience. A US study showed that 71% of teenagers said they consider talking, catching up, and spending time with family members as the best part of family dinners.

Couples also benefit from eating together. When couples eat together, they are really communicating, and are 100% focused on each other. Couples who eat together have also been shown to better at sharing, are more comfortable with and tend to know much more about each other.

This is true of work colleagues as well. The times that people eat together are often the few times where they are happy to put aside their work and take time out of their day.

We can use it as modelling for healthy eating behaviours

If you have children, eating together as a family is the perfect opportunity to teach them healthy eating habits in a relaxed and loving environment. Not only does this mean fostering a healthy relationship with food, it also means teaching table manners, intuitive eating, meal etiquette, and social skills. Parents are important role models for enjoying mealtimes. These are the times to try new things, to see, smell and touch food and to learn about hunger and fullness cues. It’s also a great time to build confidence and communication skills in discussion, debate and reflection.

Eating together in friendship groups, also has this effect. People are more likely to try new foods when they are in company.

Eating together is better for our health and well-being

Regularly eaten meals that are prepared and/or eaten in company tend to be more nutritious and healthier. People who eat meals together have been shown to eat more fruit and vegetables, more dairy and fibre than those who eat alone.

Research suggests that people who eat alone have higher rates of obesity and are at higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. A 2010 study by the University of Bristol found that workers who eat alone at their desk are more likely to gain weight.

It is also suggested that we have better relationships with people when we eat with them. This, in turn, has a positive effect on our health and happiness.

Studies suggest that people who eat alone have higher rates of depression. Those who eat regularly with others say they feel happier, are more trusting of the people around them and feel more engaged with their community. In fact, a recent study with the elderly revealed that one in five seniors report that they feel loneliest when eating by themselves.

It’s not just the time spent together or the act of consuming food together that matters. The quality of interactions is important too. Eating together in an environment with no distractions or rushing encourages us to eat mindfully and to practice gratitude.

How to eat together more

When everyone is busy, how can we eat together more? Here are a few tips:

Make Time for Eating Together

  • It doesn’t matter what meal it is – breakfast lunch or dinner will do- make it part of your routine for eating with company.
  • Start by scheduling a meal into your week. Put it on the calendar or in your diary. Have a regular daily meal time when everyone knows to get together for the meal.
  • Block off meal times in your workday schedule. Go to the break room or find a place to get away from your usual working environment. Do not sit alone at your desk. Make this time your time to get away and spend time with colleagues.
  • Try not to schedule activities, meetings etc. at meal time (unless these are eating activities of course)

Grab your tribe

  • Collect a gang of eating companions. Focus on company and form a meal time collective. Think lunch buddy.
  • Think about other people in your neighbourhood who may be eating alone and try to make one meal a week a joint venture.

Make mealtimes interesting and quality time

  • Get the whole family involved in planning and cooking your weekly meals
  • Make it quality time. Ensure your eating environment is free of distractions – a digital free zone. Take your time. Shared plates and buffet-style meals are great for this.
  • Try new things, talk about them, listen. Make it a happy time.

Whichever way you find to do it, make sure you do make a time to eat with company.
Does anyone have a meal time collective or rules to make sure the family eat together?
I’d love to hear about it

Tags: Dietitian, Eating Environment, Eating Together, Eating Well, Health, Well Being

About the author

Anne Myers-Wright RD/APD

Anne is a Health Professions Council (HPC) registered dietitian (RD), an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD- Australia), a fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA), a member of the British Dietetic Association, The Nutrition Society and of The Dietetics Association of Australia.

Comment

  1. Really nicely written article and very informative

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