I've always believed that sharing a meal together is important, whether it's with family or friends. It creates community, and community gives you a sense of belonging. The connections made over meals are one of the reasons I've insisted on family dinner as often as it can happen at my dining room table. Those connections are also one of the reasons I champion scruffy hospitality, inviting others into my home as is, without the need to clean it before guests arrive.
Now, I can add another reason to my list: eating together is good for your well-being.
A recent study of 8,250 British adults fund that eating alone can make you unhappy, more than almost any other factor, according to the The Guardian. British adults who always eat alone scored 7.9 points lower in happiness than those who eat regularly with others. The only other thing more likely to make you unhappy than eating alone is mental illness.
More happiness is a strong incentive to make eating with your family or friends a higher priority in life. Remember, it's the dining together that's important, not necessarily the specific food. You can connect with people over pizza as easily as you can over poached lobster.
I'd encourage you to make that connection last as long as possible, too. Take your time. Practice what the Italians call conviviality.
For the Italians, conviviality encompasses friendliness, conversation and sharing food and drink while focusing on the people you're with. Everyone sits at a table. Meals can take hours and come out in various courses. Portion sizes are small. Beverages — whether they're alcoholic or simply bottled water — are part of the experience. Electronic devices are rarely pulled out. The meal, along with the company it creates, is the entertainment for the evening, not the first event before you move on to the next one.
You can even do this with an ordered-out pizza if you start with a simple appetizer like raw vegetables and dip. Munch away and chat while you're waiting for the pizza to be delivered. Offer an after-pizza drink along with some fresh fruit to nibble on while the conversation continues. The point is to linger at the table and connect instead of eating and running.
This is the idea behind the Slow Food Movement. I know take-out pizza is not a traditional part of that movement, but we're talking about the importance of eating together, and sometimes takeout pizza is how that ends up happening. However, a home-cooked meal can certainly be an enjoyable part of dining together, especially if everyone joins in the cooking. Once dinner is on the table, eat slowly and keep the conversation flowing.
Finding food friends
What if you love the idea of dining with others more often, but you need a little help finding those others? Here are some suggestions you may not have thought of.
Meet up with new people. Are you familiar with the website Meetup? It's not a dating site. It's a website where groups can post information about meetings that are open to the public, including groups that dine together. Search for food & drink events near you, and you may find a group that has the same interests as you (sushi, wine, vegan...) that meets regularly to share meals.
Check with your place of worship. Some houses of worship have dinner clubs. Some have people whose job it is to connect members with other members. Some have regular potluck dinners. If you're looking for someone to dine with, try asking in the office to be pointed in the right direction.
Sit at the bar. If you're going to a restaurant alone, consider the bar and not a table. I know this may sound strange, and I don't recommend it if you have a problem with alcohol or if you're incredibly shy. But if you're someone who is comfortable striking up a conversation with the person next to you, it may be a way to eat alone without eating alone — which isn't so easily done when you're sitting at a table. There are great conversations to be had with other patrons and bartenders if they aren't too busy. Keep your phone in your pocket and respectfully jump into someone else's exchange if an opportunity arrises. The key to this is the word respectfully. If others are talking about something you a disagree with, jumping in to prove them wrong will win you no friends.
One of the authors of the aforementioned British study, Psychology Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, said they "simply don't know" why people who eat together are happier. Maybe they haven't scientifically been able to reach a conclusion, but I'm willing to guess it has to do with being in a community and making connections. Either way, it's a good excuse to try this approach the next time you find yourself eating alone.