After my mother passed away and my brother went to study in New Zealand, the first thing that really felt different was the dinner table. My father and I began eating separately. We went out to dinners with our friends, ate sandwiches in front of our computers, delivery pizzas while watching movies. Some days we rarely saw each other at all. Then, a few weeks before I was set to leave for university, my father walked downstairs. “You know, I think we should start eating together even if it’s just you and me,” he said. “Your mother would have wanted that.” It wasn’t ideal, of course—the meals we made weren’t particularly amazing and we missed the presence of Mom and my brother—but there was something special about setting aside time to be with my father. It was therapeutic: an excuse to talk, to reflect on the day, and on recent events. Our chats about the banal—of baseball and television—often led to discussions of the serious—of politics and death, of memories and loss. Eating together was a small act, and it required very little of us—45 minutes away from our usual, quotidian distractions—and yet it was invariably one of the happiest parts of my day.
Sadly, Americans rarely eat together anymore. In fact, the average American eats one in every five meals in her car, one in four Americans eats at least one fast food meal every single day, and the majority of American families report eating a single meal together less than five days a week. It’s a pity that so many Americans are missing out on what could be meaningful time with their loved ones, but it’s even more than that. Not eating together also has quantifiably negative effects both physically and psychologically.
Using data from nearly three-quarters of the world’s countries, a new analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that students who do not regularly eat with their parents are significantly more likely to be truant at school. The average truancy rate in the two weeks before the International Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test administered to 15-year-olds by the OECD and used in the analysis as a measure for absenteeism, was about 15 percent throughout the world on average, but it was nearly 30 percent when pupils reported they didn’t often share meals with their families.
Children who do not eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week also were 40 percent more likely to be overweight compared to those who do, as outlined in a research presentation given at the European Congress on Obesity in Bulgaria this May. On the contrary, children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often, according to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
There are two big reasons for these negative effects associated with not eating meals together: the first is simply that when we eat out—especially at the inexpensive fast food and take-out places that most children go to when not eating with their family—we tend not to eat very healthy things. As Michael Pollan wrote in his most recent book, Cooked, meals eaten outside of the home are almost uniformly less healthy than homemade foods, generally having higher fat, salt, and caloric content.
The other reason is that eating alone can be alienating. The dinner table can act as a unifier, a place of community. Sharing a meal is an excuse to catch up and talk, one of the few times where people are happy to put aside their work and take time out of their day. After all, it is rare that we Americans grant ourselves pleasure over productivity (just look at the fact that the average American works nearly 220 hours more per year than the average Frenchman).
In many countries, mealtime is treated as sacred. In France, for instance, while it is acceptable to eat by oneself, one should never rush a meal. A frenzied salad muncher on the métro invites dirty glares, and employees are given at least an hour for lunch. In many Mexican cities, townspeople will eat together with friends and family in central areas like parks or town squares. In Cambodia, villagers spread out colorful mats and bring food to share with loved ones like a potluck.
In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier argues that dining together can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios.