Eating together = eating better

10/3/2017  By HealthNews

October 3, 2017 

October is Eat Together, Eat Better month. Photo: nate bolt

Think back to your last meal. Did you eat it alone?

Thirty years ago, eating alone was just starting to gain acceptance, having tripled in the U.S. since the 1960s. Today, it's become the norm, with nearly half of all snacks and meals - mainly breakfast, frequently lunch - eaten solo.

One reason given is busy schedules. Not enough time in the day to linger over a meal together. But in most cases, it's simply a matter of conflicting priorities.

When busy people make time
Jeanie Jennings is no stranger to busy schedules. She's one of four KVH employees who share a homestead that spans several generations. Along with their full time jobs, the thicker-than-blood family manages a farm, often preserving food and preparing dishes late into the night.

While providing food for their family is a priority, eating meals together has become a unifying ritual for an often scattered household. The central location of their dining room ensures that no one passes through the house without feeling its lure. "There are no rules. You just end up being pulled in," laughs Jennings. "When one person sits down at the table, it's not long before every seat is filled."

Getting everyone together means that meals are about more than eating. "It's a great place for conversation. Even if we're on our smartphones, invariably we'll find something we want to share with the rest of the group, something funny or thought-provoking, and everyone gets in on it."

She adds that "some of our best plans" have been hatched around the table while enjoying a meal. "If we want to make a change to the property, or bring a new person into the house, it makes sense to have those conversations while we're all together."

When it comes to the many perks of family meals, Jennings is in good company (pun intended). "Improved communication" was the most frequent benefit reported by participants of "Eat Together, Eat Better" (ETEB), a program created in 2003 by the Nutrition Education Network, an alliance of public and private organizations coordinated through Washington State University. 

The program also claims that families eat more nutritiously and consume a greater variety of foods when eating together. Not surprisingly, food selections in families with children are largely influenced by the children's tastes in finding meals that appeal to everyone.

According to ETEB, it's children who have the most to gain from family meals. For them, eating together leads to excelling in school and experiencing fewer behavioral problems. Frequency is also a factor, with measurable differences between children who eat with the family five times per week to those who do so three times or less.

WSU's Eat Together, Eat Better materials encourage families to get creative in finding ways to balance the demands of work, school, and activities to carve out time for unhurried meals.

When 'alone' is not a choice
Busyness isn't the only factor for the eating-together challenged. If you live alone, you're probably eating alone. Single-person households face the additional challenge of mindful eating. If you are among the lone eaters of the world, never fear - we'll tackle that perspective in a future post.

Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, HealthNews does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare provider.

Related: Eat Together, Eat Better downloadable resources