Eating together, or commensality, is common — anyone, even animals, can do it — but convivial eating, or fully engaging with someone during a meal, is less common these days. National Nutrition Month is upon us, and the theme is “Put your Best Fork Forward.” Eating well isn’t just about nutrients, though, but how you think about eating, and even how you think about those with whom you eat.
Multiple studies link family meals in which all members are fully present with benefits ranging from better food choices to decreased drug and alcohol abuse by teenagers. Research focusing on conviviality links social interaction at meals as a key component in strengthening family ties and teaching children empathy, including how to notice and interpret facial, eye and vocal tone cues.
And yet, conviviality is a conscious but declining social choice these days. Often, at restaurants, we see tables full of diners’ heads bent over their glowing laps. They’re physically there, but they’re not giving their fellow tablemates their full attention.
In a Pew Research Center survey, 82 percent of adults felt cell phone use during social gatherings hurt the atmosphere or conversations of the group. Yet, despite those concerns, 38 percent felt it was generally OK to use cell phones at restaurants. But family dinners? No — only 12 percent of respondents felt that cell phones belong at the family table.
Making Meals Non-Mobile
Including the phone at the dinner table can weaken social ties and ruin opportunities to create an environment of comfort and support. Some research reports children and young adults feeling insecure and neglected because of adults dining with devices at family meals.
This is why Rebecca Wheeler, culinary instructor, food tour guide and mom, treats her family dinners as sacred times. Her and her husband’s concern was that picking up or even glancing at a device during dinner was not only a distraction, but a subtle message that something else was more important than eating together. As parents, they’ve resisted their own tech temptations at the table, instead modeling a message meant to teach their kids good habits around technology.
Mobile Meal Etiquette for Healthier Dinner Habits
Consider adopting your own basic phone etiquette to help create healthier and more socially considerate dinner habits. Start by examining your motivations and priorities. Is that phone call, text, email or social media post critical? What’s behind the need or desire to respond? Can it wait until after the meal? Will a crisis evolve if you take a break to prioritize people who want to enjoy your company while dining?
Here are some tips to virtually eliminate the use of electronics at the family dinner table:
Nuke the notifications. Don’t tempt yourself. If you decide to devote your attention to socializing with others, turn off your phone or its notifications and place it out of sight.
Don’t look distracted or disengaged. Even a text, short email or glance at the phone to check for updates immediately communicates that someone else who is not at the meal is more important. Don’t buy into the myth that you can multitask conversations in meaningful ways.
Acknowledge your fellow eaters' feelings. If a potential phone distraction is likely or feels unavoidable, share that you have a time-sensitive or important issue which may require your attention and apologize, in advance.
Don’t invite a virtual third party to the table. If you must take a call, leave the table to talk without being overheard. This avoids disrupting the meal and making your priority everyone else’s business.
Protect against pathogenic phones. Finally, consider the food-safety angle. More than 90 percent of phones carry common bacteria. Clean your phone often and wash your hands after using it, especially if you’re eating.
Consider the month of March a time to adopt new cell phone habits that can pay off with better health, wellbeing and relationships. At the very least, your memories of engaging with friends or family over a meal are likely to last longer than your latest cell phone session.