• Sharing food can build relationships and may support mental health, too. (Maskot / Getty Images )
Whether it’s a family dinner or a meal with strangers, eating together can make life better.
By
Kylie Walker

11 Dec 2019 - 8:38 AM  UPDATED 11 Dec 2019 - 11:30 AM

“Food is something that unites us all and sitting down to share a meal is one of the simplest, yet most beautiful ways to show you care. In addition to the gorgeous nourishment that food provides, it’s a chance to connect with others and take the time to understand what is going on in their world,” says Ronni Kahn. The OzHarvest founder knows a lot about the power of food – the food rescue charity’s work helps create thousands of meals for those in need every week – and she’s not alone in seeing big benefits in food. Research suggests that the simple act of sharing a meal can also support mental health and make us more satisfied with our lives.

For Carol Salloum, co-owner with her sister Sharon of Sydney’s popular Syrian restaurant Almond Bar, sharing food has always been a powerful way of making and maintaining connections. Carol manages front of house, while Sharon is the chef side of the team.

“We grew up in a household where basically it was our life to be hospitable. For us, food is to be shared. So even now, as adults, we find it hard to eat alone,” she tells us. Coincidentally, when SBS Food chats to Salloum, it’s a Monday – and that’s a special day in the Salloum family.

“Every Monday night is family night at our parents’ house… every Monday we go with our brother and his family, with myself and my son and my sister and her partner. And then, often, we have extended family invited as well.

“You remain close, you don't let life get the better of you. You're forced to build a relationship with your family and keep that relationship because it's very easy to drift apart if you're not seeing each other or talking.  And any issues that we have, we're able to discuss as a family.”

Many benefits

“If you just make the effort to share food with family, and for those who don't have family near, with their friends… it makes a big difference to your quality of life,” Salloum says.

Research suggests Salloum is spot on there.

“Eating isn't just about nutrition or fuel: a critical part of eating is taking a break in one's day to refresh and in particular to eat with others. The idea of commensality - eating and drinking together - has been critical throughout history and across most cultures. Hence eating is a fundamentally social act which can help to create relationships and bond people together, both within and beyond family groups, which in turn can help with mental health and build resilience,” says Dr Rachel A. Ankeny, Professor in the School of Humanities and Deputy Dean, Research, in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide, where she convenes the Food Values Research Group (which explores social, cultural and other aspects of food production and consumption).

“There is some evolutionary evidence that eating with others provides social and individual benefits: those who eat together with others more often tend to feel happier, be more satisfied with life and are more trusting of others,” she explains, pointing to research such as Professor Robin Dunbar’s paper Breaking Bread: The Functions of Social Eating.

Other research suggests eating from shared plates (think tapas, antipasto platters or a Chinese banquet) can make diners more likely to co-operate, even if they start the meal as strangers.  

Building friendships

Dunbar’s paper outlines one of the key ways in which eating together might make us happier: by building relationships: “Over the past decade or so, considerable evidence has emerged that the number and quality of close friendships has a significant and direct impact on health, wellbeing and even survival… Thus, not only may social dining have implications for how many friends one has, but this is in turn likely to have significant consequences at the level of individual health and welfare.”

Many ways to share a meal

It doesn’t have to be a family table to create those positive vibes.

“Although there are many stereotypes about the ideal 'family meal' having certain characteristics, we know that in different cultures there are different types of meal events and of course many different types of families. The ideal of the family meal, in fact, has been documented to be based on a romanticisation of the idea of family that was not always the case and which, in fact, can create pressures and moral approbation toward those who may not be able to achieve it,” Dr Ankeny says.

“Many of the benefits… apply to other types of meals, as the key isn't whether you sit around a table, eat a roast served by Mother, or even eat with family members.”

Salloum says one of the wonderful things about eating a shared meal is that it makes people equal.

“It doesn't matter who you are, how much education you have, how much money you have, at that time you're all doing exactly the same thing, which is sharing food, so no one feels better than someone else or less than or more privileged or whatever. There's no status. It's just as you are, people doing the same thing.

“We find that when we have events at Almond Bar, special nights, we often seat people together who don't know each other, and it's great. It ends up being the best night, and people love it. They love meeting other people.  Initially, everybody's apprehensive, but once you put food down, it changes everything.”

And as she also points out, when everyone is sharing the same food, there’s no food envy! (Research suggests a benefit here too: this study found that strangers who eat the same food are more likely to trust each other and co-operate.)

Cooking with love

Cooking for others can also add much joy to our lives.

“For me, the act of cooking is one of the best ways you can show love.  No matter who you are cooking for, the fact you have taken some of your valuable time to create something delicious will always go a long way,” Ronni Kahn says when we chat to her about why she’s so passionate about food.

Kahn and the Salloum sisters are three of more than 20 much-loved Australian chefs and cooks who share their passion for cooking and some of their favourite recipes in The Great Australian Cookbook, an 11-part series coming soon to SBS Food.

Also featured in the show is venerated Melbourne food pioneer Gilbert Lau, founder of the city’s award-winning Flower Drum, who shares his recipes for roast chicken and fried rice, which he cooks along with his grandson Teddy.

Family gatherings are a regular event for the Laus too.

“It's a fantastic part of my life. You know, to be able to cook for people,” he says in the show. “That’s what we do. We’re connected [when we eat together]. And when you see people happily leave the table, the reward, it’s indescribable.”

Dr Ankeny agrees: “Cooking with others also has been associated with many of the same positive benefits… particularly when it results in eating together as well (as opposed to more commercial settings, where service is to others). Working together toward a joint goal and producing pleasurable food experiences can bond people together and help to create or cement relationships.”

Chef Bill Granger is another firm believer in the importance of eating a family meal. He still cooks a family meal at home almost every night.

“It's the heart of our family. It's where we all sit down… it's the nicest thing to cook, connect us all, and get an anchor for our day.”

The bottom line? Whether it’s sitting down to a family dinner, or the simple act of cooking for others, food has the power to make everyone’s lives better.

Join Ronni Khan, Carol and Sharon Salloum, Gilbert Lau and others, including Paul West, Clayton Donovan, Ann Polyviou and Merle Parrish, in The Great Australian Cookbook, Sundays 8.30pm on SBS Food Channel 33 from 15 December. See Bill Granger in Bill’s Tasty Weekends on SBS On Demand.

A taste of The Great Australian Cookbook show
Marinated lamb skewers (lahem meshwi)

Coated in a mix of Middle Eastern spices and herbs, serve these tender lamb skewers alongside a bowl of fresh hummus and a homemade tabouli for the full spread.

Chocolate, pear and almond tart

Maggie Beer shares her recipes for this incredibly dense tart, sinfully rich thanks to the almond meal, cream and poached pears.

Lau's family roast chicken with fried rice

Most Sundays, my grandson, Teddy comes to my house and we cook roast chicken and vegetarian fried rice. In my younger days we had no Sundays off - every day was a restaurant day. Now, I have a little bit more time and I like Sundays with my family, cooking and, of course, eating.