Why Eating With Others Matters So Much

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 my forthcoming book.)

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.

repost from the archives

3 thoughts on “Why Eating With Others Matters So Much

  1. That picture at the end looks like me and my wife eating with her family; we crowd around the table and make everyone fit somehow.

    The intimacy issue regarding engaged couples and not eating together reminds me of a related discussion I had years ago about high school kids dating and praying together. A friend pointed out that praying together is an intimate act and that as youth workers we should keep that in mind when talking to the students about their relationships. He said one pastor he knew even went so far as to advise dating high schoolers not to pray together in private as it can be such an intense and intimate experience.

    In our marriage, my wife and I spend time in prayer together regularly. We start and end the day together in prayer, although the morning prayers are the lengthy ones while the prayer at the end of the day is purposefully brief. It’s like meals, a time of special intimacy.

    Tim

  2. Rachel, I love this post, and your review of the book yesterday. This is something Christians ought to care about. While secular research supports the benefits of family meals, it is much harder to quantify the spiritual value of breaking bread together. We have a biblical mandate, regardless of the outcome, to not only eat together but to invite others to the table, to share our food. My kids, now 18 and 16, love our meals together, but they also know deep within them that there is always room for another at our table. Their friends are always welcome, and over the years we have opened our home and our table to people from all over the world. And what we put on that table matters! So enjoying your blog.

    1. When our son brought friends home from college, they were surprised at the lingering together time around the table and then afterward in the living room. To our kids, though, their friends’ surprise was what was surprising. Like your home, Keri, it’s just normal stuff at the Fall house.

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