Nearly two decades ago I wrote a book called Saving Face. In it I pointed out the importance of family dinners, as a bonding ritual that was essential to social cohesion and good mental health.
Over the years I have posted about the topic on this blog. Link here.
As a rule, eating together is always better than eating alone. People undertake all manner of diets, but they should realize that eating with other people helps in controlling appetite. Those who are struggling with their appetite would do better if they got into the habit of eating with other people.
If it’s just you alone in a struggle with your appetite, the chances are you are not going to fare very well.
As it happened, Freud also contributed to this problem. By this theories, weaning an infant from the breast is the decisive event in the development of eating habits. Freud suggested that human beings are tormented by a perverse desire to return to the breast. They suffer under a mental struggle between their appetite and the socially-imposed need to control it. Thus, he posited a dialectical conflict between an impulse to express a forbidden lust and its repression.
Nothing in Freud’s theory grants a positive value to table manners and family dinners.
Now, social scientists have researched the subject and have again demonstrated that family dinners, eating with other people, contribute significantly to your well being.
Cody Delistraty reports in The Atlantic:
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.
In one sense this shows that intact families provide a better environment for child development.
But, what does it mean to have an intact family and why do some aspects of family life—like family dinners—exert such an important developmental influence?
The answer to those questions lies in the fact that family dinners are routines that require full participation of all family members. It's one thing to be a member of a family. It's quite another thing to participate actively in family life.
When members of the family can, several times a week, put aside temptation and self-interest in order to consume food in a disciplined fashion, to practice self-control, good table manners and conversation… they gain an important psychosocial benefit.
It is also true that, nutritionally speaking, much of what people eat when they eat alone is less healthy than what they eat when their meals are prepared at home.
The former usually involves fast-food and food carts. The latter usually requires parental involvement.
Thus, from Delistraty:
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.