Multiple studies now suggest benefits of regular family meals for children and teens. But what does research show about influence of shared meals on adults? And what does this mean for the roughly half of U.S. adults who are single?
Over my years in nutrition counseling, I’ve worked with many single people for whom healthy eating choices seemed extra-challenging due to lack of interest in preparing meals “just” for themselves. It can be easy to skip meals and graze on low-nutrient, high-calorie foods when there’s no concern about imposing those choices on other people.
Research: Family Meals & Shared Meals
- Among children and adolescents, studies overall show that compared to those who share family meals less than 3 times a week, those with more frequent family meals are more likely to have healthier diets and be in a normal weight range, and less likely to engage in disordered eating.
- Vegetable and fruit consumption tends to be higher, intake of sweets and sugar-sweetened drinks tends to be lower, and scores for overall diet quality are higher.
- Among young and middle-aged adults, studies show more variation about shared meals – which can mean family meals with children or spouse, or meals shared with friends, colleagues or others.
- Vegetable, fruit, whole grain and dairy consumption tends to be greater with more frequent shared meals, and so does intake of dietary fiber and several nutrients. Salty snack foods, sugar-sweetened beverages and fast-food restaurant eating tend to be lower.
- Among older adults, more frequent eating alone is linked with skipping meals and lower intake of calories and some nutrients, though some studies find this primarily in men.
- In some studies, eating alone in late adulthood also links to higher sodium intake and more frequent use of foods and drinks that are concentrated in calories and low in nutrients.
Is it the Shared Meals or the Context?
Studies on family meals and shared meals are mostly cross-sectional studies that compare diets of people with more or less frequent shared meals. Some studies are longitudinal studies that follow children over time. All these studies are observational studies, which means they do not identify cause-and-effect of family or shared meals.
Researchers try to adjust for other factors potentially related to family meal frequency that might exert influence, like economic status, employment and parents’ education. In some cases, more frequent family meals could relate to a greater value placed on nutrition or health, or to less interference from financial barriers, job demands or other family issues. This is an important question, since simply targeting “more family meals” may not address the real issue behind unhealthy eating habits linked to infrequent family meals in such cases.
Before you assume that family meals or other shared meals are more healthful, consider the following:
- Meal setting: Is the shared meal at home, at a fast food restaurant or another restaurant setting? Among U.S. adults, more frequent cooking at home is linked with lower calorie intake in people trying to lose weight and those who are not. Eating out more often links to higher calorie and sodium consumption and lower diet quality (with lower vegetable, fruit and dietary fiber intake).
- Food source: Is the shared meal at home comprised of home-prepared foods or high-calorie, low-nutrient selections from restaurant take-out? Studies suggest that among adults, greater diet quality linked with shared meals may be specific to meals prepared at home.
- Portions: Is the shared meal one that supports eating with awareness of hunger signals and appropriate portions, with less mindless eating than a meal alone? Or is the shared meal one in which excess portions are offered and encouraged? Regardless of what foods are included, appropriate portion size is a key part of what makes a meal healthful.
- Television Distractions: In studies of children and adolescents, family meals with the television on are linked with healthier eating than eating alone, but they aren’t as healthful as family meals without the television. Adults, too, often eat less healthfully in front of the television. However, it’s not clear whether the presence of television promotes overeating or less nutritious selections, or whether less healthful meal choices and television occur together coincidentally.
Options for Single Adults
For single adults who want to eat better, the research on family meals and shared meals suggests several options to consider. When eating alone, stop writing off the importance of healthy choices. Apply the same standards for a smart choice in meals-for-one that you would apply if your meal was shared with others.
Shared meals don’t have to be family meals. Consider wider options for a group of adults to enjoy meals together:
- Eat out together: Instead of going to a restaurant that prioritizes speed over nutrition, find a spot that offers a variety of vegetable and whole grain options. This option for shared meals doesn’t bypass the problem of higher calories and sodium in restaurant food, and entails added costs, but it is one to consider.
- Tip: If portions are large, shared meals provide a chance to split orders; otherwise, plan to take extra amounts home for another meal.
- Host a potluck: Invite people who share an outlook favoring healthy meals. The added benefit of a potluck is that you have the chance to try healthful foods that are new to you or fixed in new ways, helping you expand the range of your habits.
- Tip: If potluck brings images of sugary gelatin salads and calorie-laden chocolate cakes, search the Internet for healthy potluck ideas and prepare to be amazed. See the Helpful Resources section below to get started.
- Start a Cook-Together Supper Club: Some groups plan a meal via phone or email, gather to cook and eat it together and split the costs. Other groups have a dual goal of creating a meal to enjoy together and preparing other dishes or enough leftovers that everyone goes home with a meal already prepared for the week ahead.
- Tip: For people who already try to take an evening or weekend day to prepare a few meals ahead, this creates efficiency, adds a social component, and lets you try some new foods. Successful groups often start by trying it out without long-term commitment pressure and keep it positive with good communication. For more ideas, see Helpful Resources below.
- Be Brave, Invite People to Supper: Think about people you’d like to get to know, to thank, or to help out. Don’t get stuck in thinking of this as a “dinner party” requiring desserts and fancy foods. With a little planning, you can offer a simple, delicious meal along the lines of traditional Mediterranean, Asian or other plant-focused cuisines for one or two guests that costs no more than a restaurant meal for yourself.
- Tip: Make enough to have leftovers for another night’s healthy meal with no added work. Enjoy the same week, or choose foods you can freeze to have on hand for emergency nights.
Shared meals aren’t the only route to healthy eating, and don’t guarantee it. Yet especially for single adults who want to eat healthfully and find it a burden, shared meals can be a helpful option. Think “outside the box” about what sort of shared meals to explore and whom to include. Have fun while keeping it healthy with smart choices in food selection, preparation and portions.
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Have you tried any of these options for shared meals? Please share tips you learned in Comments below!
For cooking supper club ideas: Cooking Light offers ideas here; do a website search for more.
Fulkerson JA, Larson N, Horning M, Neumark-Sztainer D. A review of associations between family or shared meal frequency and dietary and weight status outcomes across the lifespan. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2014 Jan;46(1):2-19.
Hammons AJ and Fiese BH. Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents? Pediatrics 2011 Jun;127(6):e1565-74.
Wolfson JA, Bleich SN. Is cooking at home associated with better diet quality or weight-loss intention? Public Health Nutr. 2015 Jun;18(8):1397-406.