SCIENCE
11/12/2014 08:20 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Children Who Eat With Their Families Grow Up To Be More Considerate

In a world of Seamless and sad desk lunches, traditional sit-down family dinners can sometimes seem at odds with contemporary life.

We often eat our meals on the go or in front of the screen -- nearly 20 percent of snacks and meals in America are eaten in the car, according to In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan.

But it isn't just nostalgia for the pre-convenience era that should get us to the table: Children who grow up sharing meals are more likely to exhibit prosocial behavior as adults, according to a Belgian study published in the journal Appetite.

University of Antwerp researchers hypothesized that children who did not engage in family meals and instead ate in more solitary contexts may not have had the opportunity to learn rules about sharing, fairness and respect. To test this hypothesis, the researchers surveyed 466 students in Belgium, asking them about how frequently they ate home-cooked family meals during childhood. Secondly, they had the subjects complete self-reports about their level of altruistic behavior. People who shared family meals more often as children grew up to be more considerate, altruistic adults. In particular, they were more likely to offer to give directions to strangers, give up their seats on public transportation, help friends move and volunteer.

Of note, the researchers distinguished between sharing meals and simply sharing food -- eating with friends in contexts in which each person has their own dish doesn't have the same bonding effect as sharing food family-style with communal platters that are divided into individual portions.

"In contrast to individual meals, where consumers eat their own food and perhaps take a sample of someone else's dish as a taste, shared meals are essentially about sharing all the food with all individuals," the study's authors write. "Consequently, these meals create situations where consumers are confronted with issues of fairness and respect. One should not be greedy and consume most of a dish; instead, rules of polite food sharing need to be obeyed."

This makes sense evolutionarily speaking, the researchers noted, as in many cultures a whole animal was hunted and then shared among families. Historically, food sharing and distribution was linked with interpersonal cooperation within tribes and social groups.

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