The Science and Scripture Behind the Value of Communal Meals

by Napa Institute
Published In November 25, 2019

Thanksgiving meals gather family, friends, and loved ones in the spirit of gratitude. We share stories and laughter and offer prayers and thanks as we indulge in traditional dishes and delicious desserts. The care that goes into the preparation is praised and we leave with full hearts and satisfied appetites. This is the ideal image of a Thanksgiving meal. While our own experiences may vary, we can all appreciate the value of sharing a holiday meal — and the importance of any shared meal.

Multiple studies show that shared meals have psychological and social benefits. For example, a University of Oxford study found that communal eating leads to greater individual happiness, sense of belonging, and satisfaction with life. The regularity of scheduled meals brings a sense of comfort and routine. This time spent with those close to us helps us feel secure and content, giving us a consistent opportunity to communicate, listen, and receive consolation or appreciation.

Yet besides special occasions and holidays like Thanksgiving, leisurely meals are rare. Family meals at the dinner table have decreased by 30 percent over the past three decades. There are many reasons for this — maybe we’re working late, running errands, shuttling children to and from activities, or rushing to the airport. We can’t always make time for a communal meal, but we can intentionally plan them and reframe the way we think about meals as an experience of family, faith, and fellowship.

Meals can involve more than just the act of eating — it can become a shared experience of community and faith. Do we actually relish our food, eating with mindfulness and appreciation for the many colors, flavors, smells, and textures? Or are we watching TV, reading, on our phones, or otherwise distracted? In the company of others, it is easier to transform eating into a rewarding experience for our bodies, hearts, and minds. We are less likely to rush through it, looking to finish and move on.

Mindful eating is when we pay attention to what and how we are eating, which causes greater satisfaction and relaxation. In conversation with others over a meal, we can express and heighten our experience of mindful eating. The company of others turns it into an experience, not just a source of energy and sustenance. Research proves that mindfulness during meals leads to healthier eating habits, too, helping us avoid overeating by being present in the moment and attentive to what we consume.

There are many instances throughout the Bible where Jesus gathers for a meal with his disciples, several pointing to the importance of communal eating for fellowship and faith. We see this in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus was invited into their home for a meal, and Mary “was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to his word.” Meanwhile, Martha “was distracted with all her preparations” for the meal and asks Jesus to tell her sister Mary to assist her instead. 

Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42, NASB). He gently reminded her that she should prioritize her relationship with him and time in his presence over other tasks and activities. Blessing our food and gathering in God’s name helps us build relationships with each other and with God as we adore and thank him.

Providing food was also a way that Jesus showed his love for others. He did this for the masses when he duplicated the fish and bread to feed the five thousand gathered to see him in Bethsaida. (Luke 9:12-17, NASB). A similar occurrence happened at the wedding at Cana, when he turned water into wine at the request of his mother Mary. Although he was reluctant — “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come” — he fulfills her wish and replenishes the supply (John 2:4, NASB).

So this Thanksgiving and beyond, let us take a more
mindful approach to our meals in recognition of the many mental, physical, and
social benefits. We should intentionally be present to those we are eating with
and praise God for the gift of food, family, and friendship. Eliminating the
many distractions that pull at our attention will help us relish our food with
all our senses in relationship with others. As Jesus showed us, meals are both
a time for replenishment and selflessness giving.

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I enjoyed the encouragement of the value of the shared meal. It reinforced for me the wisdomt of the leadership of our church in reinstating communion from the cup which had been denied to the faithful for so long. At a meal we eat and drink. Jesus told us “Take and eat and take and drink.” I am grateful to the wisdom of our Holy Fathers, our Bishops and my brother priests who have made this richer experience of the Eucharist a reality in our parishes.

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