I graduated college a while ago. I won’t say which reunion I just attended, but let’s just say it’s somewhere between 20 and 60 years. Give or take a few.

Although my college experiences were wonderful, some of my memories have faded over time. I can’t recall the details of my senior research project. I can no longer explain the differences between Venetian and Florentine artists (even though Art History was one of my favorite classes). And my recollection of how I spent many weekends is slightly hazy. But I do have fond and vivid memories of eating in the dining hall.

Sure, the food was fine. But it wasn’t the lasagna that made me come back meal after meal. It was the experience. Eating with other students offered welcomed opportunities to relax, connect with others, talk about classes, make plans, and meet new people. The truth is, it felt good.     

According to a Kansas State University researcher, I may have been on to something. A recent study of over 300 freshman students suggests that eating with others in a university dining hall is related to better grades and increased social support. 

In online and in-person surveys, 62 percent of students reported that eating in the dining hall made them feel more socially connected. Over 75 percent of students said they were rarely or never lonely when they sat with others for meals. The potential impact on grades is also compelling. According to this study, college freshmen who ate at least 11 times a week in the dining hall earned an average GPA of 3.4, while those who ate fewer than 7 communal meals a week earned an average GPA of 3.0.

That said, it is difficult to draw a direct link between eating shared meals in college and experiencing more favorable outcomes. Certainly, there may be a host of other factors that boost success among students who choose to eat with others. Even the study’s author admits that there is room for further research to better understand these findings and what’s behind them.  However, this study does offer important food for thought. (Yes, pun intended).

College is filled with new and, at times, challenging experiences. Being away from home, taking tough courses, getting to know new people, assuming more adult responsibilities, navigating all kinds of social situations…the list goes on. It seems reasonable to assume that sharing a meal with others could provide much-needed nourishment, both nutritional and emotional.

Yet colleges are offering more and more “pack and go” convenience foods for busy students. Food trucks are becoming more commonplace. What’s more, many freshmen have microwaves and refrigerators in their rooms to save the time and avoid waiting in dining hall lines. Meal plans can also be expensive, and certainly cost more than living on ramen noodles and peanut butter. But, according to this latest research, there may be a different kind of cost associated with skipping the dining hall experience.

This study poses another interesting question. How might these findings generalize to all the meals we provide before our kids go to college? I have to believe that regularly taking a break from busy days and connecting during mealtimes – whether our kids are in preschool or pre-med -- can bring all kinds of important benefits and memorable moments to our families. 

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