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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Can everyone benefit from eating with others as much as families do?

Three construction workers are enjoying lunch together

When was the last meal you shared with others? Who did you eat with? A family member? A friend? A work colleague? A neighbor? Who do you commonly share meals with?

The month of September has been designated Family Meals Month and the benefits of family meals are numerous. In summary, family meals improve many aspects of our physical and mental well-being.

But what about people who don’t live with other family members? Do the benefits of sharing meals with others apply to everyone, or only to people living in families?

That question begs another and another…

Do most U.S. adults live with family, with another adult, or alone? Do we eat alone or with others more often?

According to the 2020 US Census, 30% of US households are composed of only one person. That’s a lot of people not living with family.

In addition, more than 71% of adults live in households without children according to the latest census. These include those who never had children and those whose children have grown up and left home.

It should come as no surprise that among U.S. adults, regardless of family situation, 46% of all eating occasions are experienced alone and 40% of visits to restaurants are alone, according to the Institute of Food Technologists in “What, When, and Where America Eats.”

Another survey found that the average U.S. adult eats 7.4 meals alone each week.

A study among adults in Ohio found the prevalence of eating meals with others was similar for adults living with or without minor children in the home.

The purpose of this post is not to induce guilt about eating alone but rather to present what we know about eating alone versus eating with others.

How do people view eating alone?

A study by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council looked at the eating habits of 2,000 American adults. Their findings included:

  • Of the 7.4 meals eaten solo, 6 are eaten while scrolling on an electronic device.

  • 2 of 3 Americans surveyed said they don’t feel alone when they’re eating and scrolling through their phone.

  • 68% look forward to eating a meal alone saying they can relax more, it works when they are busy or rushed, it saves money, their friends are also busy, and it allows them to catch up on TV shows.

  • 76% say engaging with others on social media helps them feel connected when eating alone.

This leaves as much as a third of Americans less inclined to enjoy eating alone. In fact, there is a name for people who fear eating alone in public: solomangarephobia.

However, if eating alone is viewed favorably by so many, are there reasons to promote eating with others to everyone?

Is sharing meals beneficial for everyone?

Do people not living in a family unit derive benefits from eating with others? Such as people who are single and live alone or adults without children in the home. Yes. More than you might think.

Benefits of eating together in work settings:

A work setting well known for eating together is the firehouse. A study published in 2015 explored the association between firefighters eating together and team performance. They found significant positive correlations between regularly cooking and eating together and cooperative behaviors and work-group performance.

A study of 98 working individuals found that during meals with others, participants reported fewer dominant and submissive behaviors and more agreeable behaviors. These findings were largely independent of the gender or the role of meal companions, the number of people present, or the location of the meal.

A Harvard study explored whether business deals are improved when people discuss important matters over a meal. It compared negotiations over a restaurant meal to ones that took place in a conference room with or without a meal. The study involved simulations of negotiating complex joint venture agreements and involved 132 MBA students.

Participants who ate together while negotiating, either at a restaurant or in a conference room, created significantly greater profits compared to those who negotiated without a shared meal.

To determine whether the same benefits could be obtained by having the participants share another task instead of eating together, the study included an additional experiment with the same simulation while putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Doing this shared task did not create better negotiation outcomes.

The reasons why eating together produces these benefits are unknown. Possibilities include the beneficial effects of increasing glucose levels which in turn promotes complex brain activity.

Also, research has shown that eating leads to unconsciously mimicking others, such as how fast or slow we eat, how much we eat, and other eating behaviors. These are considered prosocial behaviors which may result in more positive feelings about others.

Benefits of eating together in communities:

A qualitative study of three urban food-sharing initiatives in London describes food sharing as not only the exchange of food but also food-related skills and spaces, designed to bring together diverse groups of unrelated people.

They found that food sharing is a significant tool for not only addressing food insecurity but also creating social bonds and promoting communication and connectedness.

This study quotes a participant named Laura, who is disabled:

“I have no cooker, so I warm up a meal in the microwave and eat it watching telly. This is one of the few places I have access too [pointing at her wheelchair] There are no stairs, I just cross the road, you see that block of flats [indicating the council estate outside of the window] I lived there for more than 20 years. I like coming here because I eat with people, but I also eat good food. You know, you guys [looking in the direction of the kitchen, still crowded of volunteers] you cook a curry from scratch. It tastes so much better, because someone put the time and the love in doing that.”

A similar study in Germany found community gardens and community kitchens promote food security and sustainability.

Benefits of eating with others among the elderly population:

A Japanese study explored the relationship between eating alone and health status among community-dwelling elderly. Eating alone was significantly associated with depressive symptoms and a reduction in several measures of functional capacity.

Benefits of sharing meals for college students:

A South Korean study explored the impact of solo dining among university students. Their objective was to measure the association of solo dining that is not motivated by self-determined solitude with physical and mental health problems.

They found that students who live and dine alone, not due to self-determined solitude, were more highly vulnerable to mental health problems, such as depression.

Sharing meals benefits our physical and mental health:

Studies indicate that eating together is good for our health in many ways. The diet quality of meals eaten with others is higher than seen in meals eaten alone.

Studies in adults beyond college age and the elderly indicate that eating with others lowers stress, depression, and even suicidal ideation.

Therefore, even though eating alone when seeking solitude can be a positive experience, eating with others has numerous benefits. As is the case for families, eating with others benefits everyone's physical and mental well-being.

Sharing meals with others should be prioritized as often as feasible, especially among adults living alone.

How can people prioritize and plan for shared meals?

A previous post, “What’s the big deal with family meals?” suggests these strategies:

  • Find daily opportunities to come together with others to eat.

  • If you share a residence, eat at the same time and place, even if not the same food.

  • When you take a meal break at work, invite a coworker to join you even if it means sitting together at one of your desks with sack lunches from home.

  • When you go to a restaurant solo, pick one with a counter and sit next to someone who is willing to converse.

It goes further to suggest answering 4 simple questions:

  1. Who? Determine who to gather around the table.

  2. When? Determine a date and time.

  3. Where? Select a location.

  4. What? If not eating out, share the food preparation. Keep it simple and easily replicated by others. Food is not the center of attention, people are. Set aside your phones and focus on one another. Have deep conversations, have fun, and make lasting memories.

I have many more ideas and resources for promoting shared meals. Check them out.

“The average American surveyed eats alone or with their phone more often than they do with another person.” ~ U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council

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