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The Ancient Mental Health Hack No One Has Time For

Sharing meals with loved ones lowers stress. Why is it so hard to do this?

Key points

  • Sharing meals with loved ones lowers stress by helping us unplug from our days and increase feelings of connection.
  • The main barriers to sharing meals: scheduling constraints, cost, and geographical distance of loved ones.
  • We don't have to share an entire supper to experience these positive, stress-reducing effects of communal meals.

A recent American Heart Association (AHA) survey shows that people report feeling less stressed when they share meals with people they love and care about. This probably isn't surprising.

Humans have been doing this since the dawn of our history, and shared meals are a facet of every Homo sapiens culture on earth. Despite its mental health upsides, many people don't make time for this age-old activity. This post takes a closer look at why sharing meals helps lower our stress levels—and how those of us who don't prioritize it can still reap its benefits.

@Sarahlmb | Unsplash
Source: @Sarahlmb | Unsplash

Sharing Meals Allows Us to Take a Break. Dining with people whose company we enjoy helps build pauses into our hectic days. Such pauses are critical to ensuring we can make it through each week without inching toward burnout. Engaging conversation, nourishing our bodies, and shifting our focus off all that needs our attention away from the table helps center us, gives our brains a moment to recharge, and builds positive experiences that help us better cope with whatever our life throws at us outside of meal time.

Sharing Meals Helps Us Be Present. Communal meals give us an excuse to unplug from devices and be present with those around us—if that is, we actually institute a no-device rule at the table. Taking in the smells, tastes, and textures of the food we’re eating and the ambiance around us can also help bring our attention back to the current moment. Attending to the present is highly correlated with improved mood states and reductions in stress. The more we can do it, the better we’ll likely feel.

Sharing Meals Helps Us Make Healthier Food Choices. AHA survey participants noted that eating with others makes them more likely to choose healthy food. These choices can be as simple as ordering or cooking a side of spinach instead of, say, an extra helping of mac n' cheese. Or it can mean not overeating.

Some social pressure may be at play here—making healthier choices in the presence of others could stem from not wanting to be judged. But the healthier choices people make around others may also arise from feeling safer and valued by whoever they're eating with, as well as more engaged and happier—all of which help mitigate triggers to overeat. With these more enjoyable emotions energizing us, we're less inclined to use food to numb or distract ourselves from feelings of sadness, loneliness, rejection, or emptiness.

Choosing to eat healthier can lower our stress levels in several ways: By nourishing our bodies with more whole and less processed foods, we give our cells the nutrients they need to function at optimal levels. This nourishment helps us regulate blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure, lowers our risk of a range of diseases, and influences immunity. When we feel better physically, we also tend to feel better mentally.

Meanwhile, consuming more fruits and vegetables, polyunsaturated fats, and nutrient-rich foods correlates with lower anxiety—which our bodies experience as a form of stress. Sticking to a healthy eating plan can also make us feel like we're better cared for—and as such, increase our belief that we're worthy of such better care. This, too, can increase our ability to tolerate stress by increasing feelings of self-worth and empowerment.

Of course, not everyone has a friend or family group that encourages eating habits that are good for them. The less healthy those around us eat, the more likely we will follow suit. One way to bypass this? Identify a healthy eating ally in your family or friend group who can help you feel less alone by agreeing to order or cook something in line with a nutrition plan you're trying to adhere to.

Another approach: Practice setting the boundary that you're addressing health concerns in choosing healthier foods and remind others that you're not doing this to feel superior and that you don't judge their food choices.

Sharing Meals Fosters Connectedness. Connectedness with others (“relatedness” in Self-Determination Theory) is a fundamental human need, alongside autonomy and competence. Those among us who feel more connected tend to display fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as higher self-esteem, cooperativeness, empathy, and the ability to trust other people—sharing meals with people whose company we enjoy can make us feel more like a part of a family, friend, or other social group. This inclusivity increases feelings of belonging, self-worth, and safety. All of this helps lower stress.

Why Don't We Share More Meals?

For many people, regularly making time for shared meals feels impossible. That time spent conversing with someone across a table may feel like it's better spent hunched over a book or computer or catching up on a never-ending to-do list. For others, those they want to share meals with simply aren't available. The cost of food and commuting can also be barriers.

Over half of all AHA survey respondents pegged their own, their loved ones, or their children's schedules as the reason they don't share more meals with other people.

How to Make More Time for Shared Meals. The AHA survey offered a couple of insights about how to increase shared meals. Respondents stated they would be more likely to share meals with loved ones if they had reminders on their phones to schedule them if they had budget-friendly tips for what to cook or eat, and if they made more effort to schedule at least one weekly shared meal with family.

Another way to make shared meals more feasible? Take the pressure off yourself to make them perfect or fit a particular mold. Sharing meals needn't always be elaborate. Nor do they always have to involve an entire meal. If your and your loved ones' schedules don't allow for regular communal eating, consider grabbing a snack or coffee on the go with them, eating at an establishment that offers quick takeaway meals, or having a housemate pick up shareable food on their way home.

Virtual shared meals also make a difference. If your connections don't live close enough, you can't commute to a shared location, or you're worried about virus exposure outside your home, have someone "over for dinner" via videoconferencing software. The same goes for scheduling 10-20 minute breaks over video chat during work days or making plans with co-workers, neighbors, or acquaintances to walk out of your office (or home) together and grab beverages or snacks.

The point is to utilize shared consumption as an occasion to unplug, pause, focus on who and what's in front of you, and experience the stress-reducing power of connection—even if such occasions last less than 30 minutes. Little moments like these can substantially impact our mental health and stress levels. No matter how imperfect they may be.

More from Katherine Cullen MFA, LCSW
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