Why Eating Together Matters

All right, I was a little fired up yesterday.

(My mom’s response? “You’re like that critic in Ratatouille. Authors will be afraid of you reading their books.”)

Actually, I try hard to be generous in my readings. This may sound corny, but a number of years ago a teacher said that we ought always to “love the author”–as in, “love your neighbor,” and the author is your neighbor–and that has always stuck with me. But sometimes? Sometimes there is just nothing good to say about a book, and yesterday was one of those times!

But if I rack my brain, there is one good thing to say about the book: it brings attention to something that matters a lot: eating together. It’s something close to my heart, something I’ve written about quite a few times (here, here, and here, and also in several undisclosed locations.)

And it’s something that I try to live daily: ever since my husband and I married, we’ve made eating together a priority in our lives. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about it is because eating together with him is one of the things that helped me heal from years of disordered eating and thinking.

But even before that–in my tortured starvation years, when the thought of eating clenched my stomach and filled me with fear–I could eat heartily with my mom. Once, when I was 17 and just a few days away from a very serious operation, she came home from work to find me curled up, filled with anxiety, and very hungry from a day of self-inflicted fasting. She took me straight to the diner for a Belgian waffle topped with ice-cream, which I ate with gusto. In her presence, and hers alone, I could eat with childlike abandon, even if elsewhere I was disordered as ever.

Interestingly, numerous studies have confirmed what I have experienced: that meals eaten together are good medicine. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you start talking about “studies,” so I’ll keep it brief and name just a few:

  • A University of Minnesota study published in The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that frequent family meals led to better nutritional intake, and a decreased risk for “unhealthy weight control practices” (read: eating disorders) and substance abuse five years after the initial study.
  • A Harvard University study published in Archives of Family Medicine showed that eating family dinners “most” or “all” days of the week was associated with eating more “healthfully”–families eating meals together ate meals that were lower in fat, higher in fiber, and richer in important nutrients than families “never” or “only sometimes” eating together.
  • Another University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that children who ate family meals consumed more fruits, vegetables and fewer snack foods than children who ate separately from their families.
  • Other studies (like a Lou Harris-Reader’s Digest national poll) showed higher scholastic scores among students who frequently shared meals with their families; another survey of high-achieving teens showed that those who ate a lot of meals with their families tended to be happier and more hopeful than those who didn’t.

Sadly, in our society, shared meals of any kind are quickly becoming a rarity—many people regularly eat alone and on the run. A few years ago, the BBC presented a magazine article titled “Portrait of the Meal-for-One Society,” reporting that half of all meals eaten in the UK are eaten alone. The article attributed this trend, in part, to the ubiquity of ready-to-eat meals and to the dramatic rise of single-person households. Although I was not able to find data suggesting just how many meals are eaten alone in the US, current research regularly reports a steady decline in the number of meals that children eat with their parents; in a 2007 study, for example, just 39% of 12-17 year olds reported eating with their parents 6 or 7 times per week; 30% ate with their parents three times a week or less.

Every culture attaches high significance to eating together. I’ve read of cultures in which it’s considered inappropriate for engaged couples to eat together before being married. Thought of in this way–as an act of serious intimacy–it’s no wonder that Jesus came under fire from the religious folks for eating with sinners. In that act, he was getting dangerously close to them, dirtying his hands with their stains, so to speak. But for Jesus’ followers, sharing meals became very important. It became one of the primary ways of celebrating their unity and of reaching out to other people. In the early church, the oddity of people of various backgrounds eating together constituted, for some, a “proof” of the gospel.

Eating together is what people do. I think it’s kind of what we’re made to do; it’s one of the things that helped human culture develop. It’s only specialization (and, you know, things like microwaves) that makes eating alone feasible at all. And we don’t really need university studies to tell us that it’s just good to eat with others.

{look at all the people THEY can fit around the table!}

But that makes me think: there are plenty of people who, for various reasons, eat alone. If you’re one of them–or if you know one or more of them–why not find a way to create a ‘family’ for sharing meals with? In our own home, this has meant extending our table often, but in a casual way, as in “join us for whatever we’re eating, even if it’s just noodles and broth.” It’s the kind of sharing that, to me, is least like charity, because whether we’re the ones accepting or extending the invitation, we’re going to be blessed.

2 thoughts on “Why Eating Together Matters

  1. One thing that bothers me about “Christian” book reviews is that they always tend to shy away from a good analysis in the name of “grace”. Each book review turns out to just like the one before it in an endless march of blase responses and half-sincere affirmations of how the book: “challenged” the “critic” in question…

    I greatly, strongly appreciate the passion and candor with which you reviewed the book in your last post…

    I think your professors admonition is one which I will take with me as I read…love the author. It is a helpful saying, and by that principle, sometimes the wounds of a friend are better than the kisses of an enemy, that is, of an indiscriminate reader.

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