Mealtime and Mental Health

Published on: 11/01/2021

Gathering around the table and enjoying the company of our loved ones is always a great thing. But communal dining shouldn't be limited to special occasions. New studies suggest eating with family or friends regularly could benefit your overall health and well-being.

There are a lot of psychological, social, and biological benefits of eating meals with other people.

Sharing mealtimes is good for your mental health. Whether it be through sharing experiences with family and friends, winding down with the company, bonding with family members, or just having someone to talk to, mealtimes provide several opportunities for us to set aside a specific time of the day or week to give us time to socialize and relax and improve our mental health.

There are two big reasons for these negative effects associated with not eating meals together: the first is when we eat out, especially at inexpensive fast-food chains, we tend to eat unhealthy foods. Experts claimed meals eaten outside of the home are almost uniformly less healthy than homemade foods, generally having higher fat, salt, and caloric content.

The other reason is eating alone can be alienating. The dinner table can act as a place of community, a unifier of sorts. Sharing a meal is a great excuse to catch up and talk, one of the few times where people are happy to put aside their work and take time out of their day.

In many countries, mealtime is treated as sacred. In France, for example, while it is acceptable to eat alone, one should never rush a meal. A frenzied meal muncher on the Metro invites dirty glares, and employees are given at least an hour for lunch. In Cambodia, villagers spread out colorful eating placements and bring food to share with loved ones like a potluck. In a lot of Mexican cities, people will eat together with friends and family in central areas like parks or town squares.

Studies show that over the past three decades, family meals at the dinner table have declined by more than 30%. Families with children under age 18 share dinners three to four times per week, while one-third of families with adolescents share one or two meals per week at most. Only a quarter eat seven or more family meals per week.

As those numbers decrease, more and more research shows the benefits of family mealtime such as better communication, improved academic performance, and healthier eating habits.

Merely eating together is an important first step, but that alone will not give families the benefits of a shared meal, according to professor and director Barbara Fiese for Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois. Screens such as phones and TV and other distractions during dinnertime take away the “power” of what could happen during the meal.

Making the effort to have a shared meal is not just for nuclear families; the benefits logically extend to any household wanting to reconnect as a family. People living in low-income households don’t need to worry about the meal being extravagant or expensive. The shared meal can just be a snack; it does not necessarily have to be perfect or formal or fancy food at all.

Above all, It's about enjoying your food and good times with the people you value most.