Africa-Press – Botswana. Eating together – even if it’s just occasionally – could improve your emotional wellbeing, diet and could also help develop even the fussiest of taste buds. Here’s how to get the benefits of eating together, even if you don’t have the time to do so every evening.
Studies suggest that shared mealtimes are a recipe for happiness, as gathering around the dinner table connects us and promotes bonding. Other research shows links between children and teenagers who regularly sit down for meals with others, and a healthier diet, including more fruits, vegetables, and nutrients. There’s even evidence that ‘family meals’ reduce the likelihood of young people becoming overweight or obese.
It’s a highly complex area and some experts argue it’s impossible to isolate the effects of eating together from other potential contributing factors. For example, households that share meals most frequently might have more financial resources to buy fresh food and/or the time, energy, and physical ability to cook, than those that don’t. In addition, some doctors say the idealised ritual of the family meal is impossible for many households to achieve and involves significant stresses.
But psychologists and nutritionists broadly agree that sitting down to eat with others is good for everyone’s physical and emotional wellbeing, especially children and teenagers. “What we know is that when you don’t pay attention to the act of eating, you overeat and eat whatever’s in front of you rather than thinking about it,” says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and parenting expert. “Being with other people focuses your attention on the fact you’re eating, and because we know it’s not good to eat without paying attention, the best cure is to eat together.”
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Catherine Lippe, a Registered Nutritionist specialising in child nutrition, says the foundations for healthy eating are formed at an early age, and enjoying meals around the table with others can play an important part. “It’s all about a child’s exposure to food,” Lippe says. “If you have mealtimes where everyone sits down together to eat, young children will recognise different foods and notice what they look and smell like.”
This exposure helps children learn to appreciate food, especially if they’re ‘picky’ eaters. “If it’s a new or challenging food, they may need a lot of exposure to these sensory elements of eating before they get to that final step of wanting to try it themselves,” Lippe says.
Crucially, children also learn how to eat well and socialise by observing others at the table. “This role modelling aspect is really important,” Lippe says. “Sometimes as parents our role modelling is intentional, for example, we eat healthy foods we want our children to eat as a way of demonstrating that it’s safe, enjoyable and part of family life. Sometimes it can be unintentional, too. Just the act of sitting nicely at the table, saying please and thank you, this is all role modelling.”
Shared eating means better communication
Mealtimes are also one of the most effective times to communicate with children and teenagers. “Kids of all ages, but particularly teenagers, are more likely to tell you things they’re uncomfortable about or want to clear up if they don’t have to make direct eye contact,” Blair says. “When you’re eating with them, they don’t have to stare at you, they can look at the food. That’s why they will often say things they wouldn’t say if you sat down and said ‘OK, let’s talk’.”
For couples and housemates too, mealtimes are valuable opportunities to connect. “If you’re rewarding yourself with food while you talk – and food is a reward for humans – then you’re in a better mood and less likely to snap,” Blair says. “It’s usually a more constructive argument over a meal.”
But for many households, it’s not possible to sit down to eat together all the time. A survey last year by one supermarket chain found that only 28 percent of households shared a meal every night. Most people surveyed (55 percent) struggled to find the time and one-in-five (19 percent) worked too late to eat with the rest of the household. Almost one-quarter (23 percent) of parents said their children ate meals in front of the TV or games console.
So how do you make the most of eating together when it’s not possible every night?
1. Quality not quantity
“Frequency really isn’t important,” says Blair. “As long as you attempt to eat together once or twice a week, that’s what counts.” It’s important to be flexible, especially with teenagers, who are unlikely to communicate well if they’re forced to the table.
“Remember the adolescent brain actually changes physiologically and they’re on a different schedule than adults,” Blair says. “They aren’t lazy, they really can’t get up in the morning and are raring to go late at night. So have a fun brunch on Sunday at midday if that’s when they’re getting up. Or sit down and have a hot drink and snack when they come home at night after going out.”
Blair says it’s unnecessary for every household member to share every meal. “For example, if one of your children is at sports practice, that’s a lovely opportunity to sit down with one of your other kids and focus on them.”
2. Make mealtimes an occasion
Blair suggests making shared meals a regular event if possible. “It might be Sunday lunch and pizza night on Tuesday, for example,” she says. But don’t stress about the quality of the meal, she adds, as food isn’t the most important aspect of eating together.
Consider adding a fun element, especially where young children are involved, by bringing the buffet to the table, Lippe suggests. Instead of plating up individual dishes, place different elements of the meal on the table so everyone can help themselves. Noodles, fajitas, tacos or even toast with different toppings all work well, Lippe says. “Children can pick the bits that they want, and you can all have a conversation whilst you’re eating together. It can be a great way for children to feel they’re a bit more in control.”
Getting children to help with meal preparation can make eating together more appealing, too. Lippe suggests encouraging them to help with cooking, setting the table, serving, and clearing up, depending on their age.” If they feel like they’ve contributed to mealtime, then they might be more likely to sit down and enjoy it as well.”
3. Put devices away
Mounting research suggests there are significant benefits to putting screens and devices away during shared meals. Several studies suggest a link between screen use at the table – by parents, carers, and children – and increased risk of unhealthy eating patterns and obesity. One explanation for this is that you don’t notice when you’re full if you’re distracted by a screen. Another theory is that children can’t learn healthy eating habits from following the example of others if they and/or parents or carers are using their screens during meals.
“Awareness of the meal is so important,” Blair says. “It only takes 15–20 minutes to actually eat a meal. Everyone can spare that time away from the phone.”
4. Think beyond the dining table
According to one survey, 20 percent of British households no longer own a dining table, but that doesn’t make sitting down to eat together impossible. “Think about barbecues or eating outside,” Lippe suggests. “Or especially if there are children involved, throw a rug down and have a carpet picnic. All of those things can make eating together a bit of an adventure.” Even if you’re sitting on the sofa together, just turn the TV off so you can catch-up while eating.
5. Be realistic
Dr Max Davie, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says although there is evidence that eating together has benefits, for many households it isn’t possible. “It’s really important that we don’t present an unattainable ideal,” Dr Davie says. Households on low-incomes, shift workers, disabled people and individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders were examples of those who struggle to cook and/or enjoy shared meals.
“The idea of the happy family around the kitchen table eating home-cooked healthy foods, presented as an ideal, is unhelpful and counterproductive if people can’t do it,” Dr Davie says
And if you don’t live with family or friends?
For many of us, the last couple of years, with lockdowns and limitations on meeting up, has led to us almost forgetting how to socialise. When dealing with the day-to-day stresses of life, socialising can begin to feel like an effort.
Yet, evidence carried out by the University of Oxford shows that the wellbeing benefits ‘social eating’ bring, make it well worth the effort. In fact the research states: “Those who eat socially more often feel happier and are more satisfied with life, are more trusting of others, are more engaged with their local communities, and have more friends they can depend on for support.”
It doesn’t have to involve eating at expensive restaurants, an alternative option – which is much more budget friendly – is to arrange a regular get-together at each other’s houses where you take it in turns to cook. Alternatively, if you like to host regularly, consider inviting guests to bring a dish each.
Find it hard to get friends to commit? There’s lots of likeminded people wanting to do the same. Keep an eye out for pop-up dinner events near to you. Often these involve guests sitting at a communal table (rather than individual ones) and as such, encourage conversation between diners. In addition, check local groups to find organisations that arrange community meals in your area. There’s plenty of them and many are also focussed on reducing food waste, a winning combination.