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Dining with a group is better for our health, so why is everybody eating alone?

Food

Everybody's eating alone

Dining with a group has a host of health benefits, but it's increasingly hard for Canadians to pull off. Maryam Siddiqi looks into the decline of the communal table

Recently, I was watching Instagram stories while preparing a meal from Chef's Plate, a food-delivery service that ships recipes and premeasured ingredients to customers' front doors. As the videos scrolled by, I saw that two other friends were also in the midst of putting together their own Chef's Plate meals.

That is, we were all about to eat the exact same food separately, in our own homes. It seems funny, until you realize that a majority of Canadians often eat by themselves.

"Meals are becoming a lonely institution in Canada," says Prof. Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University. He's the lead author of "Disintegration of food habits," a May study that found 66.8 per cent of Canadians eat breakfast alone and 57.7 per cent eat solo at lunch.

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"Contemporary Canadians are experiencing a disruption of meal times, a rise in the frequency of snacking and an erosion of the will or ability to cook meals," says Charlebois, also a professor of food distribution and policy. This isn't just kind of sad – he says "these fragmented food habits … represent a challenge to public-health nutrition in Canada."

Eating among company is healthier than eating alone in a number of ways, especially if we begin in childhood. A September paper from the Vanier Institute of the Family reports that "family meals are associated with a variety of beneficial outcomes for youth," everything from literacy to better mental health to reducing the risk of substance abuse.

Despite that significant incentive, the statistical snapshot reports that 26 per cent of Canadians don't prepare or eat meals at home. Most attribute their bad habits to the struggle for work-life balance.

Finding time for dinner together as a family is a daily issue for Aviva Guidis. "I would definitely like to eat together more," says the Toronto mother of one, who cites her husband's shift-work schedule and her six-year-old daughter's early-evening karate classes as reasons her family can't gather for a meal on a regular basis.

"I often feel guilty that we don't eat dinner together every night," she says. "When my husband is working, my daughter and I will sometimes eat together, but more often than not, I'll prepare dinner for her and clean up while she eats and watches the iPad." An exhausted Guidis often finds herself eating cereal in front of the television after her daughter is in bed.

Even if their families had regular shared meals, young adults are on their own when they leave home – often literally. In 2016, according to Statistics Canada, 28.2 per cent of households in the country were occupied by a single dweller. That's more than one in four Canadians – the most ever recorded by the government organization and the cohort most likely to resort to on-the-go snacking over a real meal, although Charlebois's team found that all of us are increasingly eating that way.

The Dalhousie study also reported the office is increasingly the site for breakfast and lunch – 11.6 per cent of Canadians eat breakfast at work and 63.2 per cent eat their lunch there. "If we want people to eat together more often, we will need to find incentives for people to eat with others at work," Charlebois says.

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Although he lives alone, Tom Earl has long made an effort at sharing at least a few meals a week. "I cook way better for other people than I cook for myself," says Earl, who lives on Fogo Island in Newfoundland. Before moving to the island in 2015, he managed restaurants in Toronto and often prepared staff meals for employees at the end of a shift.

"I live alone and I don't like eating alone, so after work quite often I would cook a big staff meal for everyone," he says. At home, he often hosted meals for friends as a way of keeping in touch.

Now, as a bed-and-breakfast owner, he cooks breakfasts and the occasional dinner for guests and dines with them, serving meals such as shrimp salad or baked cod, a crab boil with corn and potatoes and lemon pudding with local berries for dessert. "People come here from all over the world, so I get to meet really interesting people and hear about really interesting lifestyles," Earl says.

When he's not hosting, he eats alone, often while watching television or working. "Generally, I don't eat as well," Earl says of his solo meals. "I'm more likely to throw in Dr. Oetker pizza for myself than get up and make something special."

A number of home and food retailers have been capitalizing on the appetite for communal dining. President's Choice started the year promoting the hashtag #eattogether, launched along with a video of apartment dwellers creating one long table in their floor's hallway to get to know one another and, well, eat together.

The campaign was a Canada 150 marketing initiative but resulted in bigger community outreach for the brand. "We saw lots of people on social media tagging a friend and saying, 'We should do this,' or 'We should try this,'" says Uwe Stueckmann, senior vice-president of marketing at PC brand owner, Loblaw Cos. Ltd.

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After numerous customers got in touch to say they had been inspired to have communal meals, "we realized maybe we have an opportunity to take something that was an advertising campaign and make it to something bigger." In June, hundreds of Loblaw stores held events in which colleagues and customers came together to eat as a group.

Somewhat similar was IKEA's one-day Cook This Page recipe series giveaway in February. The recipes, which included baked salmon and ravioli with meatballs and each made at least two servings, were printed on parchment paper: Alongside written instructions were precise illustrations that matched actual proportions of ingredients needed.

As with Loblaw's, the campaign's goal was to get people into stores (the food illustrations were designed to match IKEA food offerings). And, again, the idea went viral, inspiring people by turning the process of cooking from chore to fun.

"The only thing one had to do was add food, roll it all up and bake it," says Lauren MacDonald, IKEA Canada's head of marketing.

Most recently, in mid-August, Chef's Plate partnered with beer brand Stella Artois to create "hosting kits." Along with ingredients, the kits included glassware from the beer company and a one-off recipe from Patrick Kriss, owner and chef at the acclaimed Toronto restaurant Alo, meant to inspire turning a meal into an event.

"Meal planning and grocery shopping are major obstacles because they are time-consuming and can be daunting, mundane tasks that people don't enjoy," says Andrea Nickel, Chef's Plate director of brand and content. "We're enabling [people] to put a really great meal on the table for friends and family without all the work."

The company's core customer base is on its two-person plan, two to three meals, each two servings, delivered weekly, although Nickel says the company is finding a growing number of people are opting for its four-person plan and then batch cooking, so they can use leftovers for ready-to-go lunches.

My own dinners are still solo – unless it's an occasion, I'm not organized enough to host an impromptu dinner chez moi – but per Charlebois's advice, I'm changing lunch habits by eating away from my desk and with friends or colleagues whenever possible. At least at midday, my eating is a little more mindful, the conversation is certainly more stimulating and Instagram doesn't factor in the meal.

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