Australians lead busy lives and the average work day is no longer nine-to-five. There’s so much temptation to grab something to eat on the go, but actually stopping for a meal, whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner has a range of benefits both physical and mental.
Research by Mars Food Australia found that 78 per cent of Australians feel more connected to their family when they eat at the table together, and more than three-quarters of people want to make a change when it comes to meal time.
The report also revealed that only half of Australians eat their weekday dinners at the table and over half sit down in front of the TV at least once a week. Psychologist Andrew Martin says it may be time to think twice about TV dinners.
“Eating together at the table without any distractions provides an opportunity to open up and talk,” he says. “When there’s no TV or background noise to take away attention, conversation opens up and that’s always positive.”
Eating alone can also lead to prolonged psychological effects, having an impact on mental health and heightening feelings of loneliness. Martin says reaching out to someone who you know is eating alone can be extremely beneficial.
“We know meals harvest conversation, so even just inviting a neighbour around for dinner or asking a colleague to have lunch with you can help a lot,” he says. “Some families also use tactics like question boxes or a no-phone rule to really encourage chit chat.”
There are also benefits to physical health from enjoying meal time. Sitting down and taking the time out of a busy life means giving yourself time to let your food settle, decreasing the likelihood of overeating. Eating alone or on-the-go can go hand in hand with unhealthy eating.
According to nutritionist Samantha Paget, it’s proven that when we take the time to think about what we’re eating ourselves, we make better food choices.
“People are likely to eat more nutritionally balanced food at the dining table as the table provides a focal point. This encourages individuals to pay attention to what they eat,” she says. “Eating healthy is about a lot more than the food we eat, it’s about being conscious and mindful while we eat, the environment around us should aid digestion and enjoyment.”
Besides being aware of what we put in our own mouths, cooking for others means thinking more about what goes on the plate.
“What I’ve seen is that people are far, far less likely to serve up something to their loved ones that they aren’t proud of. If you’re eating alone you’d be more likely to eat something that isn’t very good for you or isn’t fresh,” says Paget. “When we’re cooking for others, there’s love that goes into the meal.”
Martin is aware that many time-poor families often feel guilty about carving time out to eat, but setting the time aside is important.
“Factoring the time [for meals] helps avoid negative feelings like stress and anxiety caused by eating on the go,” he says. “You’ll be able to pay more attention to your emotions and what you’re eating.”
“Don’t feel the pressure to be a master chef,” adds Paget. “It’s less about what you eat and more about the moments you’re sharing with the people you care about.”