Researchers at University of Antwerp suggested 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.
466 students in Belgium were surveyed, and the researchers asked them about how frequently they ate home-cooked family meals during childhood. They also had the subjects complete self-reports about their level of altruistic behavior. Those who shared family meals grew up to be more considerate, altruistic adults.
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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.
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.
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.