October 14, 2022 | In the News
Sharing a Meal With Others Can Reduce Stress, Improve Well-Being at Work, and Help You Eat Healthier
Reserving time to sit down at a meal with family or friends can end up at the bottom of your day’s to-do list because everyone seems too busy to take a break, or it takes too much effort to make a plan, let alone cook a meal. Plus, many of us eat on-the-go or while we work at our desks. However, new research suggests that sharing a meal with those we care about, like family or colleagues, may lower our stress levels, improve our workday, and help us make healthier food choices.
In a report released this week, the American Heart Association (AHA), which surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults about their dining habits, found that almost all (91%) of parents say their family is less stressed when they share meals together. Over two thirds (65%) of adults reported being at least somewhat stressed with 84% wishing they could share a meal with others more often. Overall, respondents reported eating alone roughly half of the time.
Managing chronic stress can help reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. When the body is in a constant fight or flight mode, our stress hormones get activated and in turn, our blood pressure and heart rate can spike. Meal times can be a way to reduce that heightened response and instill a sense of calm.
“Sharing meals with others is a great way to reduces stress, boost self-esteem, and improve social connection, particularly for kids,” says Dr. Erin Michos, associate director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins in a press release. Research suggests teens may feel most comfortable opening up during meal time, Anne Fishel director and co-founder of the nonprofit Family Dinner Project said in an interview with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Asking your child questions during family meals shows you’re curious about them, which can boost their self-esteem.
Shared meal times also tend to promote healthier eating habits: 59% of those surveyed said they are more likely to make healthy food choices when eating with others.
Another benefit is the un-distracted connection time: the survey found that for 67% of respondents, sharing a meal reminds them of the importance of connecting with other people, with 54% saying it reminds them to take a break and slow down.
The mental health impact of partaking in the simple act of eating together can also help us in the workplace—69% of people who identify as part-time or full-time workers said taking a break to have a meal with a coworker reduces their stress levels.
“We know it’s not always as easy as it sounds to get people together at mealtime. Like other healthy habits, give yourself permission to start small and build from there,” says Michos in the release. “Set a goal to gather friends, family, or coworkers for one more meal together each week. If you can’t get together in person, think about how you can share a meal together over the phone or a computer.”
It’s not about bringing back the “fantasy from the 1950s with a spotless kitchen and one parent, usually the mother home slow roasting a pot roast,” Fishel said to Harvard, but instead, reframing meals so they’re about the people you spend them with.
About a year ago I suggested to my two roommates that we have a “weekly roommate dinner” where each Wednesday, one of us cooks a new recipe for all of us to share around our dining table, which rarely gets used. With our varying schedules, we hadn’t been making the time to sit together and really have a conversation. Now, I look forward to catching up over dinner every week.
Make meal time a chance to explore a new recipe with a friend or your kids, or check out a new restaurant. Instead of eating because you have to at the end of a long day, look forward to that time as a way to connect to others without screens. The famed Mediterranean diet touts “conviviality,” which draws an important distinction between “what” we eat and “how” we eat it.
Each Tuesday, the AHA shares budgeting tips, suggestions for managing meals with a picky eater, and ways to incorporate tech-free meal times into your week.
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