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SALT LAKE CITY — In the opening scene of Dreamworks animated movie "The Croods," Grug, the burley caveman dad, hollers "breakfast formation" and in response, each family member from grandma to baby hustles in place for an all-in, epically choreographed hunt, ending in a shared meal back at the cave.
Historically speaking, eating has been collaborative in nature for hundreds of years.
Certain members of our tribes or families have been assigned with hunting or earning the food, gathering or shopping for food and others with preparing the food so several could enjoy it.
Unlike the caveman Croods, we no longer depend on others for food. We can make it to the grocery store or Cafe Rio without lurking sabertooths.
In fact, we couldn't get away from food if we wanted to — there are few places it isn't offered.
Convenient food is great, but may lead us to eating in isolation.
Food nourishes more than our cells and body systems. It also transmits a sense of identity and culture.
Food gives us an opportunity for connection.
Researcher and best-selling author Brene Brown often states that humans are hard-wired for connection. Each of us requires genuine authentic connections with others to give meaning to our lives. Food gives us a common ground to nurture those connections.
Whether you are 80, 8 or 8 months, you can benefit greatly from a shared meal. Eating with others improves our well-being nutritionally and psychologically.
Research has shown that people of all ages who sit down and eat with others eat more fruits, more dark orange and leafy green vegetables, whole grains and calcium-rich foods, and less harmful fats and soda.
Kids in particular have much to gain from family meals. Research is replete with the developmental benefits including better performance in school, fewer risky behaviors and fewer eating disorders among kids who share meals with their families.
Family meals are an obvious opportunity to share a meal, but also consider meals with co-workers, neighbors and friends.
Dinner groups or cooking clubs among couples, widowers and singles are a great way to make sharing meals a regular part of your routine. Assign themes, sides or days and adjust as needed to make it work for you.
If you are an older adult, try congregate meals at senior centers.
Organize a lunch group at work. One Utah company hosts get-togethers at lunch for employees, like green smoothie day when employees bring their favorite ingredients and blend to share. This is a great opportunity to try something new with low risk.
To maximize the benefit of a shared meal, consider the following suggestions:
1. Turn off the TV and put down your phone
Limiting the distractions at meal times leads to more mindful eating, healthful choices, and meaningful conversations.
2. Keep the peace
Arguments at dinner time don't just ruin the mood, they disrupt appetites. When tensions run high, adults and children make unhealthy food choices. Though it can be tempting to resolve conflict when everyone is together, arguments can trigger coping skills like comfort eating.
Ideally, mealtimes should be enjoyable and safe for all present. Feelings of security allow us to branch out and try new foods and engage with others.
3. Plan ahead
Research and common sense validate that people who plan meals ahead of timeeat better, weigh less and have fewer incidences of chronic disease. When we sacrifice time to think deliberately about our food, we make better choices.
Though it may seem like common sense, research has shown that when more healthy foods like vegetables are offered, more are scooped onto plates and more are eaten. If healthy foods are available, they are more likely to be eaten!
4. Ditch perfectionism
A shared meal doesn't have to be Pinterest-worthy. People don't need formal invitations, centerpieces or table linens. Though these things can help us enjoy our meals, they can debilitate us and rob us from the benefits of good food and great connections.
In a family, not everyone has to be present for the benefits to take hold. Perhaps one parent could eat with each child as they individually return for ball practice and dance classes. Even sitting down while one person eats and the other person visits is beneficial.
If dinner is always a flop, try breakfast, lunch or after-school snack pick-me-ups.
If at first, you don't succeed, try, try again. Any time we throw other people into the mix, our lives get messy, but people make life worth living, so surround yourself with your favorite people and foods and dig in!
Erica Hansen is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a masters degree in Nutritional Science from BYU. She works with individuals and businesses to make meaningful and nourishing changes that stick. She owns the website foodsthatfityourlife.com.