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Grateful Gatherings

In a news, media, and technology driven world, it has become increasingly easy to feel distant from people, even the people we love. Whether intentional through being busy at work, sports, or media consumption, the American society tends to make excuses to avoid eating dinner together. Society has bred a culture of highly independent individuals; However, this strong sense of independence often leads to an unawareness of the necessity for human interaction, especially within familial settings. With the rise of technology in an increasingly busy society, even gatherings that happen “together” often feel lonely or unfulfilling. In a study performed by R.I.M Dunbar and published in Adaptive Human Behavior and physiology, it was noted that ”There is now considerable evidence, for example, to suggest that the size and quality of one’s social network has very significant consequences for one’s health, susceptibility to illness (and even death), wellbeing and happiness”. The study continued to analyze the effects of the social network being surrounded around food, being rooted in survival, and the emotional attachments that creates.

Physiologically, food uniquely reinforces emotional and mental associations with the home and life events. Food involves all your senses, primarily sight, smell, taste and touch and at a dinner with other people, conversations involve hearing. The stimuli from eating a meal with others impacts the brain in a unique way where it is able to lock in the memory efficiently. Every person has a connection to some sort of meal or food, be it happy, sad, a holiday, Sunday dinner, or just getting a packed lunch. The connection between emotion and food is not just created at meals. Certain foods often have an emotion associated with them. While a craving is oftentimes the body’s way of communicating a nutritional need, it can also be communicating an emotion. A global example is cake: Cake is associated with parties and birthdays, often joy filled celebrations. With a craving for cake, perhaps the body is communicating a desire for joy or the emotions associated with celebration.

Human beings are communal creatures and when the importance of a meal shared with others is disregarded, one of the most beautiful social functions that can occur is missed. In a 2007 study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, it was found that “teens who have frequent family dinners are more than one and a half times likelier to say that the best time to talk to their parents about something important to them is during or after dinner”. While the study focused on the family dynamic surrounding meals, the principle of communication occurring during communal meals stands. IN a study performed at Kansas State University, “Results related to grade point average and perceived social support revealed a significant positive relationship between frequency of eating in the dining center and grade point average for all participants combined.” When done intentionally, communal meals are a time to share the joys and the burdens of life. The intentional meal and gathering serves to create a warm and welcoming environment to share and carry one another’s burdens and joys as we travel down the road of life.

As humans, we are not our natural selves when we’re hungry. Being hungry activates the sympathetic nervous system’s desire to survive and can send the body into fight or flight. When starved of proper food and community, the self is more likely to fall into extreme negative emotions: Anger, depression, exhaustion, etc. At a very basic physiological level, a study performed by the Canadian Center for Science and Education notes that, “Research shows that social context, particularly the presence of others or not during mealtime, has a greater influence on food consumption than the basic physiological functions of hunger and satiety”. The setting in which you choose to commune, alone or with others, has an impact on your hunger and satiety cues.

If hunger can negatively impact emotions, then the logical conclusion is that we are most ourselves directly following a meal. This is when the body goes into a dominated parasympathetic state of feeling safe, digesting and healing. Post consumption of food is when stories of the day and laughter truly break forth amongst those gathered around, and in some instances, it is a tender place of vulnerability and sorrow. Even so, the community shared over a meal us an experience expressed through the beautiful and intricate medium that is language.

Studies have shown that communal and intentional dinners can also increase a child’s (and anyone else gathered) vocabulary and capability to speak in public settings. Telling stories, giving advice, and sharing life with those around you in verbal form activates a new level of interest and increases curiosity for language and understanding.

Intentionality involves not only putting away technology, eating at the same time, and sharing life through language. Trips to orchards and fresh farms are excellent examples of ways you can spend quality time together with others while being in nature and enjoying fresh foods. For families, these healthy eating habits continue to serve the individual as they move into adulthood and begin making decisions for themselves.

Amidst the business of life, intentionality is often the first thing to slip. Bringing attention to meal time and creating time for fellowship with others is a beautiful way to realign with your life. Taking a step back from life and being present in the moment with those around you is grounding and life giving. Setting aside time for meals with family or friends provides an outlet for communication of life sharing, wisdom, important decisions, and love.

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