Building Connections Over a Shared Meal

Find out why a family that eats together, stays together.

Here’s some food for thought. Research conducted by Welch’s Kitchen Table Report found that nearly three-quarters of respondents (71 percent) say they eat dinner as a family as often or more as their parents did when they were a child. That means family meals are not a thing of the past, despite conventional wisdom. More family dinners mean more shared experiences and discussions, which can lead to happier families and relationships.

“Food and eating together engages all of the senses,” says Bri DeRosa, communications consultant at The Family Dinner Project. “By sitting down and sharing a meal, we're engaging together in an activity that will give us a shared experience in sight, smell, taste, sound, and texture. That can help people to be immediately present and attuned to everything that's happening, and provides a jumping-off point for conversation.”

The Family Dinner Project

It’s no surprise that food connects people. From first dates and date nights and celebrations, eating is a way for people to bond and communicate with others. “As with any shared experience, sharing a meal encourages people to share their thoughts and feelings with one another,” says Tamara S. Melton, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It is one of the few things in life that every person on this planet has in common.”

The dinner table, in particular, is a place where people can discuss their days, the important happenings in their lives and make announcements (think: “We’re getting married!” or “We’re having a baby!”). Conversations while eating are something that can be shared by everyone involved, helping to nourish not only the body, but the mind and soul, as well. “It is a way to provide an environment where the ‘breaking of bread’ feeds the soul and mind and enables people to have interchanges that hopefully are constructive,” says Patricia Pitta Ph.D., clinical and board-certified couple and family psychologist practicing in Manhasset, NY. “Food is a symbol of love—the getting it, making it, and the ingesting it. The maker of the food is extending oneself in time, thought, and energy.”

Soul Food

Family dinners are more than just good for a family’s relationship with each other. Studies show that teenagers who regularly eat meals with their family are more likely to have high-quality relationships with their parents and get higher grades in school. They are also less likely to use drugs and alcohol. In fact, a study conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that teens who eat two or less family dinners per week compared to those who eat five or more are twice as likely to use alcohol and tobacco. When it comes to younger kids, research shows that kids who eat dinner with their families have a larger vocabulary and better early literacy skills, according to DeRosa.

Family dinners are also an opportunity for everyone, but especially children and teens, to try new and healthier foods. According to KidsHealth.org, kids who eat family dinners regularly are less likely to snack on unhealthy foods and more likely to eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains. “Eating as a family is very important for children,” says Melton. “It's a time when parents can model positive behaviors around eating and food. For instance, mealtime is a good time to try new foods, and when kids see mom and dad eating (and enjoying!) healthy foods, they are more likely to try these foods themselves. Eating together creates positive memories for children.”

It’s About Time

In today’s on-the-go society, preparing and eating a shared family dinner regularly each week can seem impossible. Soccer and dance practices, long work hours and other obligations always seem to get in the way. However, the data indicates that it’s even more important now for families to make shared meals a priority in their schedule. Fortunately, there are ways to make meal preparation easy. Mapping out meals for the week can help take the guesswork out of what to cook each night, and utilizing appliances like a slow cooker can help make a delicious and super-easy meal when time is limited.

Also, family meals don’t have to be elaborate. In fact, simple meals are often encouraged, as they require less work in the kitchen and more time connecting with family. “Scrambled eggs, cold sandwiches, and other quick meals keep the focus on the family time and reduces stress for the cook,” says DeRosa. Plus, the shared meal doesn’t even have to be dinner. “There's nothing about dinner that makes it inherently better than any other shared meal opportunity,” says DeRosa. “So, if family breakfast, Sunday brunch or some other regularly scheduled time works best for you, that's great.”

Shared meals are also crucial for maintaining social relationships. The increase in technology has made face-to-face interactions less important, as friends can keep up with each other and connect through social media platforms and email. But hosting a dinner for friends or family can be the perfect excuse to spend some time together, face-to-face in a relaxed atmosphere, according to Melton. She recommends creating a calendar of potluck meals with family and friends in which every person brings one dish, so that no one person is stuck in the kitchen, and too tired after all that cooking to enjoy their company.

Community Relations

While the experience of preparing, serving and eating a family dinner at home is undoubtedly the best option when it comes to connecting with family on a regular basis, eating out offers benefits as well. From enjoying other’s company in a relaxing environment to trying new foods without the trouble of preparing them, eating out on occasion can be a beneficial experience. What’s more, many restaurants are helping their community and those in need by supporting local businesses and using local farm-fresh ingredients, and raising funds for charities by hosting special nights in which a portion of proceeds get donated to a particular charitable organization or cause.

Some restaurants take community and charity to the next level by providing meals to in-need members of the community. At JBJ Soul Kitchen (owned by entertainer Jon Bon Jovi and located in Red Bank and Toms River, NJ), which is a non-profit community restaurant, paying and in-need customers are welcome to enjoy a delicious locally sourced farm-to-table meal in a warm setting. And, those who are unable to pay for their meal can volunteer at the restaurant as payment. One hour of volunteer time earns a dining certificate that feeds the volunteer and up to four family members, according to the restaurant’s website.

Similarly, The King’s Kitchen & Bakery in Charlotte, NC, a restaurant serving local, healthy Southern cuisine, raises funds to feed those in need in the community. All profits from sales are used to help feed the poor in the Charlotte area. The King’s Kitchen also partners with local area ministries to provide job-training, life-skills training, social etiquette workshops and financial management guidance to those in need.

A shared meal is important for all families regardless of socioeconomic status, which is why the Kansas City Community Kitchen (MO) created a space that nourishes the body and the mind. Thousands of volunteers from area churches, schools and local businesses and organizations work together to offer in-need members of the community a chance to enjoy a delicious meal in a restaurant-like atmosphere, complete with a hostess when they enter, and waiters who take their orders.

The Family Dinner Project

Many charitable organizations also prove that there are benefits from sharing a meal with someone else, even if that person is a stranger. At Bridges Outreach in Summit, NJ, for example, more than 2,000 volunteers each year from the community deliver 65,000 brown bag meals and 49,000 cups of soup, as well as clothing and toiletries to more than 21,000 people in New York City, Newark and Irvington, NJ. Local civic, corporate and religious volunteer groups gather to prepare the lunches that will then be delivered on a scheduled Bridges run. Before each run, the volunteers prepare the food together, and then share in the experience of serving the lunches to those in need. In serving and sharing the food, the full impact of a simple act is felt by all involved. Talking and interacting with someone they likely would have never met, let alone shared a meal with, is what makes this experience so powerful for both parties. 

Shared Meals are a Recipe for Success

Studies show that family dinners at home provide the most benefits to people’s lives, but whether it’s a home-cooked family dinner or eating out at a restaurant, sharing a meal with family and friends offers the chance to connect with each other over food and conversation, leading to better relationships and satisfied appetites. “Food is a necessity, so it can serve the function of giving us that moment in time, every day, when we can stop our individual pursuits and come together,” says DeRosa. “While food is the thing that brings people to the table, it's what happens at the table during dinner that really brings us together and makes people want to stay—and come back again to share another meal.”