Let's eat!

Is sharing a meal with others the recipe for happiness? Fiona Maher looks at the many benefits of communal eating.

Written by Fiona Maher
"The average adult eats nearly half of their weekly meals alone."

If someone asked me to describe my day on a plate, you’d find most of my meals don’t involve a plate at all.

First up, breakfast: a large skinny flat white drunk from my reusable coffee cup (when I remember to bring it) as I make my way to the train station.

Lunch: some kind of bread product. Judging by the crumbs on my keyboard, also not involving a plate and eaten at my desk as I power through my workload.

Dinner, however, does usually involve utensils and is shared at the table with my immediate family. Because we’re busy like most people, it’s a quick affair, often involves a food fight (my 4-year-old refuses to eat) and sadly, it’s not always the relaxing family gathering I like to think it is.

Looking at my day on a plate, it comes as no surprise to me that a study conducted by The Big Lunch in conjunction with the University of Oxford revealed the average adult eats nearly half of their weekly meals alone.

And although eating alone might feel typical for us now, it wasn’t always the case.

Food as ritual

Sharing meals has always been part of our human story. In fact, the saying “to break bread together” is as old as the Bible and highlights the power of food to build relationships, let go of anger and promote a sense of community.

In some cultures, the sharing of food is even a way to let those who have left us know they are not forgotten. Ever travelled to Thailand and noticed the offerings of food at grave sites?

But despite the clear connection between social eating and social bonding, in recent years, the simple act of breaking bread together is becoming less and less the norm. Yes, we celebrate the odd birthday or Christmas lunch, but dining together is now a ‘special occasion’ instead of something we make time for every day.

And while mealtimes were the glue that once held communities together in the past, the University of Oxford study also revealed over 70% of respondents had never shared a meal with their neighbours or local community.

"We eat breakfast on the go, grab lunch at our desks and even order in our favourite restaurant meals rather than booking a table with friends."

Convenience vs community

So, who’s to blame? Food delivery apps? Maybe in part. Our convenience culture combined with our busy lifestyles mean we often opt for quick and cheap rather than socially satisfying. We eat breakfast on the go, grab lunch at our desks and even order in our favourite restaurant meals rather than booking a table with friends.

But this trend towards solo dining goes against what we know leads to better wellbeing. According to the same University of Oxford study mentioned above, the more people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives.

Of course, on-the-go eating affects more than just our social lives; it influences the types of food we consume.

“These foods are often less nutritious and lower in veggie and wholegrain content,” says Karen Stafford from Nutrition Australia. “On-the-go eating has also led us to be less mindful while eating. This means we’re not listening to our body’s hunger and fullness cues.”

And to all the parents out there, no pressure, but according to the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children who eat dinner with their parents five or more days per week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier and show better academic performance. Gulp!

Father hugs his daughter

Like what you're reading?

The Power Issue of Live Better magazine is here. Whether it's a digital detox or spending time by the ocean, delve into the small but powerful things we can do to recharge.

Soul food

In the UK, research commissioned by The Eden Project discovered the social gap between people and their neighbours is accelerating at an alarming rate. This disconnection was also found to be stunting productivity, shortening lives and costing the UK around £32 billion ($60 billion AUD) per year. The report found that:

  • More than half of people living in the UK feel distant from their neighbours.
  • 1 in 5 people in the UK have never spoken to their neighbours.
  • A further 1 in 5 have no-one in their neighbourhoods outside their immediate family they could call on for help and support.
  • 76% believe people were closer 20 years ago than they are today.

This fragmentation of communities is why The Eden Project launched The Big Lunch back in 2009, to reunite neighbourhoods and encourage them, just one day a year, to come together and share a meal.

In Australia, researchers recognise this link between social eating and our health.

“We underestimate the power of connection to people,” says Stafford. “Research shows strong social connections can positively impact your mental and physical wellbeing. Feeling connected can also help decrease feelings of depression and improve overall mental health, as well as improve blood sugar control and decrease risk of cardiovascular disease.”

“In fact, research investigating the healthiest and longest living communities of the world identify social connectedness as a crucial component to health,” she says.

Set the table

It’s clear the benefits of sharing a meal go way beyond what’s on the plate. Whether it’s bringing neighbours closer together or helping your workplace culture thrive, eating with others can nourish you in more ways than one.

I’m not suggesting you eat every meal together; we all need our alone time. But every so often ask a colleague to lunch or invite a neighbour around for afternoon tea. We often think of food as fuel for our bodies, but it’s a great way to fuel our relationships too.

Previous article

Healing chicken noodle soup

Next article

Crispy fish tacos with pineapple slaw and chipotle cream

Related articles