By Dr. Mercola
In the realm of family dinners, Thanksgiving is king. Perhaps no other day of the year do so many Americans sit down to break bread together, often sharing their meal “family style” and passing each dish from person to person until everyone has been served.
This tradition feels intrinsically good – and this is no coincidence. People have been sharing food since the beginning of time. In those days, during primitive times, there was no choice, of course. Societies had to work together to not only hunt and gather their meal but also to distribute it fairly.
Today, many of us have access to individual meals and single-sized portions, such that sharing is no longer a necessity. But the Thanksgiving tradition of sharing food is one that deserves to be experienced all year long.
Sharing Food with Others Is Good for You and Your Children…
Sitting down to a meal with others is beneficial in multiple ways. A recent study by researchers from the University of Antwerp in Belgium looked specifically at the act of sharing food with everyone at the table.1
They analyzed data about frequency of shared meals during childhood and showing characteristics of an altruistic personality in early adulthood, and a strong association was found.
Those who shared meals more often as children scored higher on the altruism scale, exhibiting such positive pro-social personality traits as giving directions to strangers, offering their seats on public transportation, helping their friends move, and volunteering.2
To be clear, this refers to sharing food with others at a meal, such as by eating “family style” where the food is served on large platters from which everyone partakes. It is not the same thing as going out to dinner with a group of friends during which each person orders an individual entrée.
The researchers explained that sharing food presents a perfect opportunity to think about fairness and other acts of altruism. They noted:3
“In contrast to individual meals, where consumers eat their own food and perhaps take a sample of someone else's dish as a taste, shared meals are essentially about sharing all the food with all individuals.
Consequently, these meals create situations where consumers are confronted with issues of fairness and respect. One should not be greedy and consume most of a dish; instead, rules of polite food sharing need to be obeyed.”
90-Year-Old Man Arrested for Feeding the Homeless
In an ironic turn of events, while sharing food helps children develop altruistic behaviors, showing altruism in public might get you arrested. This was the case for 90-year-old Arnold Abbott, who is facing 60 days in jail after being arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for feeding the homeless.
The city recently passed a controversial ordinance that restricts where charitable groups can feed the homeless on public property, in what is described as a way to control the area’s growing homeless population.
Abbott, however, has no plans of stopping. After being arrested on November 2 along with two pastors, he was cited again by police on November 6. Mayor Jack Seiler has defended the arrest, and told Abbott to secure an indoor location instead.
In response, Abbott said that no indoor venues to feed the homeless are available, and he intends to continue with his mission outside until the mayor finds him a suitable location indoors.4
84 Percent of US Families Say Dinner Together Is Their Favorite Part of the Day
A 2014 study found that the majority of American households eat meals together less than five days a week.5 This is unfortunate as a separate study found 84 percent said the time their family eats together is actually one of their favorite parts of the day.6
Beyond simple enjoyment, research shows that children who share family meals three or more times a week are more likely to be in a healthy weight range and have healthier eating patterns. They’re less likely to eat unhealthy foods, more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to have an eating disorder.7
Meanwhile, teens who eat with their families at least five times a week are 40 percent more likely to get As and Bs in school than their peers who don’t share family meals.
They’re also 42 percent less likely to drink alcohol, 59 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes and 66 percent less likely to try recreational marijuana. They were also less depressed.8 The benefits are truly profound. Separate research showed that with each additional family dinner, adolescents had:9
- Fewer emotional and behavioral problems
- Greater emotional well-being
- More trusting and helpful behaviors toward others
- Higher life satisfaction
The reality is that family relationships appear to grow stronger around the dinner table, with another study concluding:10
“Our findings suggest that family meals may provide a unique opportunity for building stronger families and young people. Creating environments where frequent family meals are normative, valued and feasible for families may result in benefits for young people that extend beyond good nutrition.”
12 Tips to Avoid Food Waste on Thanksgiving and Every Day
Another reason to eat family meals together, of course, is because it allows you to choose what types of food to eat. A large part of the benefit is the time you spend preparing your meal and cleaning up. Getting your children involved teaches them invaluable lessens about food preparation and how you function together as a family, as well as how to plan and prepare healthy meals.
As part of that lesson, you can teach your children (and learn yourself) how to avoid and reduce food waste. The average consumer wastes 61 percent of the food he or she purchases, and Thanksgiving dinner is one of the worst offenders. You can help to reduce your waste and use of your leftovers with the following 12 tips:11
- Buy only what you need: Try to make an accurate guess of how much food you’ll need so you’re not left with leftovers you can’t use up.
- Check the clearance section: This can save you money, but you’ll also be helping to consume a food before it ends up in the landfill. You may be surprised at what types of healthy foods can be found in your grocery store’s bargain bin.
- Use the whole vegetable: Rather than peeling your veggies, leave the skin on. You’ll get more nutrients and reduce waste (ideally choose organic vegetables if you’ll be eating the skin). If you’ll be eating beets or turnips, you can also eat both the root and the greens.
- Help charities find “blemished” produce: If you volunteer on Thanksgiving, use the app Food Cowboy, which helps connect produce shipments that have been rejected for aesthetic reasons with charities.
- Compost your food scraps: Many of your Thanksgiving leftovers can be turned into compost.
- Freeze your leftovers: If you can’t finish all of your turkey, freeze them for later use.
- Create new meals: Get creative with your leftovers, repurposing them as soup, salad, or healthy casseroles.
- Send your leftovers to someone in need: If you have prepared foods that weren’t served, or packaged goods you didn’t eat, certain organizations, such as City Harvest, will distribute them to people in need.
- Donate leftover produce to AmpleHarvest.org: If you purchased produce you can’t use, AmpleHarvest.org is a national service that distributes fresh produce to hungry people. This one is also useful if your garden produces more produce than your family can consume.
- Download a food waste app: A growing number of apps aim to connect hungry people with other people’s leftovers or excess ingredients. Two to try are CropMobster and SpoilerAlert.
- Try LeftoverSwap.com: This site connects people with too many leftovers with others who want to eat them. You simply take a picture of your leftovers, post it, and arrange for a pick up.
- Donate scraps to a zoo or farm: Local zoos or farms will sometimes take leftover food scraps for animal feed. Check with those in your area for details.
Enjoying Family Meals Takes Proper Planning
One of my favorite sayings with respect to your meals is if you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail. Family meals don’t just happen… you’ve got to make them happen. This means not only shopping ahead of time so you have the food available to cook, but also setting aside the time to eat together. Many sports for kids are scheduled at the family dinner hour, for instance, or parents may have a hard time getting home from work at a reasonable hour.
If you value the importance of a family meal, however, you must make it a priority. This might mean your family meal takes place at lunchtime instead of dinnertime on certain days of the week, but ideally strive to eat together as often as you can, scheduling non-essential activities around your dinner, and not the other way around. Most Americans make time for this on Thanksgiving… but chances are you can make time for it on “regular” days as well.