I don’t know about you, but cooking and eating are two of my favorite things! I love trying all sorts of dishes and food combinations, and growing up, I’ve always had dinner with my family, no matter what. However, I recently found out that not many families do, even though there are a lot of benefits that come from eating and cooking together.
Commensality is defined as the act of eating together at the same table. Since ancient times, eating together has been a vital social activity for humans. There are two types of commensality:
- Everyday ordinary commensality — a routine of sharing meals in private within households and close family members.
- Exceptional commensality — an event that takes place in a more open space as occasional public feasts for a larger circle.
However, since many people work longer hours nowadays, and many adults have moved away from their hometown to other cities or countries, it can be difficult for us to find the time to eat together.
Eating and cooking together can have positive effects on one’s health. A study conducted in London described three different local food sharing initiatives.
The Skip Garden and Kitchen is a food growing space and a vegetarian café. It offers programs concerning seasonality and diverse culinary traditions, as well as programs for children where they can play football, eat, and cook together. Moreover, thanks to the “Lunch and Learning” initiative, employees from different local businesses teach kids how to cook and then share a meal with them. The best part is that all these initiatives are free of charge and socially inclusive, meaning that everyone can go there and learn a new skill.
Be Enriched is a charity that runs three communal kitchens and serves free vegetarian meals to an average of 175 guests. Older people go there more frequently, but the tables are occupied by people from all walks of life and ethnicities.
The Community Shop is a charity that provides surplus food to residents who pay for it at a discount price. It can help people who have a low income eat a decent meal on a weekly basis, as well as help people form new and stronger relationships.
To create a sense of security and inclusion, these initiatives emphasize that food preparation occurs in a kitchen where cooking is visible to everyone. Even though the kitchen and the dining room are separated, everyone can go in one room or the other and talk to the staff, who are always willing to have a chat with people and teach new cooking and baking skills.
The Benefits of Eating Together
As highlighted by R.I.M. Dunbar in an article about social eating, being able to share a meal with someone else is a great way to form and strengthen relationships and friendships, which is fundamental to one’s wellbeing and happiness. Dunbar even proposes that eating together forms social bonds, and has done so throughout human evolution, rather than the other way around.
Commensality can also be a great way to bring together different generations, whether at school, in the workplace, in open public spaces, at community centers, or other institutions. It has been shown that it improves bonding, encourages conversations, promotes understanding, increases wellbeing and can also be seen as a base for solidarity between generations.
When it comes to parents, they try their best to keep their family bonded by joining them at the same dining table. They also make sure to be a role model for their children in terms of having nutritious food choices and healthy eating behaviors. Consequently, this improves the children’s eating behaviors, mental health, and communication skills. And what often goes unnoticed, is that the social and emotional wellbeing of the parents also improves. Moreover, for many parents, going to public places where they can eat together with other people is a great way to take the children out of the house. However, it isn’t always easy to group the whole family together at every meal.
A study conducted in the United Kingdom investigated how many meals families were able to eat together during the week, when both parents worked. Despite parents stating that family meals were very important to catch up and socialize with their children, less than a third of them managed to eat most of their meals together; when that happened, it was mainly with the mother. The reason for this was that, most of the time, the parents’ schedules didn’t match, and children were usually fed early in the evening, before both parents were able to come back home
Eating food requires preparation. Since we’ve highlighted the benefits of eating together, it’s only fair that we look at the benefits of cooking together. Many families can’t prepare their children’s food every day of the week and may turn to take out or instant meals, a more convenient but unhealthy option. This can have negative outcomes for the children’s health. In fact, a study conducted on Japanese children highlighted that a low frequency of home cooked meals was a predictor of child obesity due to its association with unhealthy eating habits. Many studies have highlighted the health benefits of home cooking, proving, for example, that the more people cooked at home, the more likely they were to meet their weekly intake of fruits, vegetables, and calcium, and lower their BMI!
Home cooking has many advantages, such as:
- Control. Home cooking can help parents remove non-nutritious ingredients from their children’s meals as well as sneaking healthy food into dishes. Moreover, involving children in cooking for assistance encourages them to purchase less ready meals, resulting in an overall better health.
- Self-reliance. Many families have tight budgets and meal prepping is a great way to prepare the desired quantities using affordable ingredients.
- Connection. When people cook together, they have to think about the other family members’ needs and food preferences. This can lead to the establishment of a closer connection to one another.
- Traditions. Home cooking enables families to pass on culinary traditions and/or break away from them.
- Independence. The ability to cook was regarded by teens as a fundamental skill to have for when they move out and go to college.
Regardless of what families may think the benefits of cooking together are, not many families are able to do so. A study conducted on Canadian families aimed at increasing the number of home-cooked family meals they had during the week. The families were provided recipes, ingredients, and materials to cook 5 family meals each week for 8 weeks. At the end of the two months, many of them were happy with how things went during the study. 86% of the meals had been prepared and 96% of the meals were eaten together with the whole family. The main benefits of having recipes to follow each week were mainly linked to the quality of food, being able to eat healthier and include more fruits and vegetables in the diet. However, the benefits also included other aspects: many of the families stated that they felt happier and closer to their families because of the time they spent cooking and eating together.
The Mental Benefits of Cooking Together
Cooking with other people, even if they’re not your family, can have incredible benefits on your mental health, too. A study conducted on a group of older people who lived in a nursing home investigated the mental health benefits of cooking sessions. Many of the people who live in a nursing home suffer from depression, which typically worsens the longer an individual stays at the facility. The reasons why older people develop depression are mainly linked to the lack of personal autonomy, defined as the ability to, “freely choose behaviors and courses of action for oneself in order to meet one’s needs and goals”. Having the chance to choose what to eat, when to eat, and with whom to eat is very important for personal autonomy, but people in nursing facilities have little power over these factors. For this reason, the study focused on providing these people with six weeks of cooking-based activities. Cooking together made the participants feel more comfortable because it made the nursing facility feel like home. At the end of the study, the participants experienced an improvement in their mental health and quality of life thanks to the ability to interact with more people and feel part of a group.
As we’ve seen throughout the article, eating and cooking together can help you lead a healthier and happier life. Choosing to spend the thirty minutes before eating with your family or friends, helping them cook dinner while talking to each other about your day, can help you form stronger ties with them, as well as help you learn new skills.