Look at almost any ancient culture around the world, and you’ll find a culture of food. But not just food, meals. With real people—often family—real food, and few distractions. Historically, mealtime is a sacred space.
Here in the West, we’ve changed the meaning of eating. We rush. We dine alone. We eat while standing or walking. We multitask: a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service found that Americans spend just 64 minutes a day eating as a "primary activity"—focusing on the meal in front of them only. Another 16 minutes per day is spent eating as a secondary activity—eating while doing something else.
The report also found that we're spending less time eating as a primary activity today than we were a decade ago, on average. What are we doing instead? Watching TV, working, commuting, doing housework, you name it. In these cases, the meal is secondary to whatever else it is we’re doing.
Contrast this to the French who spend an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes eating every day. The idea that food is meant to be savored is a key part of their culture, and the French will often linger around the dinner table long after the meal ends.
Why should we get away from distracted eating? Here's a few of the reasons why we’d do well to put down the smartphone, turn off the TV, get the family together, and sit down for an actual meal.
Dining together strengthen bonds between family and friends
Food has always been the ultimate uniter. Regardless of your job or social status, your views on the current election, or even your mood, everyone needs to eat—and the table is a neutral, safe space for bonds to be strengthened. Pick a topic to discuss or a question to answer, and go around the table. Ask for everyone’s high and low point from the day. Even if it’s quiet, just be together. You can’t connect in the same way when everyone is scrolling through Facebook on their phones or the TV is blaring in the background.
Mindful eating can help you lose weight
That’s right: scientists have found that those who pay attention to their food and practice mindful eating tend to consume less. On the other hand, distracted eating leads to increased consumption and weight gain.
Even if you’re eating alone—and let’s face it, that’s a lot of the time—slow down to notice the colors, smells, tastes, and textures of the food you’re eating. Pay attention to where your meal came from: the farmer who produced the ingredients, the cook who prepared it, the worker who served it. Be grateful for these things. Cherish them.
“If mindful eating is a new concept for you, start gradually,” wrote Dr. Howard LeWine at the Harvard Health Blog. “Eat one meal a day or week in a slower, more attentive manner.”
You deserve a break
More and more Americans are working while they eat. According to several recent surveys, 39 percent of American workers stay at their desks for lunch, while 28 percent don’t take a lunch break at all.
That report can wait a half-hour. Get up from the desk, walk to a local restaurant or park, and enjoy your lunch. Leave your work behind for a few minutes.
OK, confession time: what’s your biggest distraction at the dinner table? And how can you avoid it? Share in the comments.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho