Eat Together: Benefits of social eating

Riverside’s Eat Together campaign is promoting the many benefits of social eating and to highlight this, John Glenton, Riverside’s Executive Director of Care and Support, shares his experiences of eating together and how it can have a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing and social inclusion.

There are so many benefits from eating with others – that’s why I am so supportive of our Eat Together campaign. During June this exciting campaign sees customers in our supported services and Retirement Living schemes  – as well as staff across Riverside – getting together to cook and eat socially.

Not everyone knows this but I started my career as a chef in fact I still really enjoy cooking and eating with family and friends to this day. I originally joined Riverside back in 1987 as head cook in a service for homeless people with mental health issues. I really enjoyed spending time talking to customers about the food they would like to try and listening to their memories about their favourite meals and I would plan menus based on our conversations. Eventually I moved to a Support Worker role where I ran cookery groups. This was easy for me because I was confident in the kitchen and my groups would often be oversubscribed, with many customers wanting to get involved. This just underlined to me the positive effect that preparing and eating food together has on so many people.

Most of the people I worked with had been homeless or lived in institutions for a long time and hadn’t had the opportunity to cook in many years. It was great to see their enthusiasm and engagement, there was also a real sense of achievement when we would eat together following cooking the food. It was so rewarding to sit and have conversations over the table and the group would praise each other for a job well done. The plan for many of the customers was to move on and live independently, so being able to cook healthy meals on a budget was a very important life skill.

Generally when we think about the health benefits of eating, we typically consider what we should – or should not – eat; or what nutritious value is within what we are consuming; or calculating how much salt or sugar and even how much we should be eating.

However, experts agree that along with the prospect of the eating experience being delicious and enjoyable, gathering around a dining table together has far reaching physical and mental health benefits, for people of all ages. While dining together, we can share stories, build relationships, learn from each other’s mistakes and triumphs; and not only create the bonds that define us, but also eating together in this way can have a really positive impact on our wellbeing. In fact, research has shown that this quality time benefits every aspect of our wellbeing – emotionally, physically, socially, intellectually and mentally – which all contributes to our overall quality of life. 

In our schemes and services some of our customers live alone. Sometimes when I eat alone I choose a ready meal rather than making a lot of washing up just for me. However cooking together can is also part of the social element, it can work out less expensive and you learn new recipes or try different types of food collectively. Spending time together in the kitchen encourages social interaction and team work, so the benefits to everyone make it more than worth the extra clean-up.

I have some amazing memories of my early days cooking with customers, and throughout my various positions in supported services I have grown to appreciate and embrace the hugely positive impact that cooking and eating together can have. So my advice to anyone reading this blog is – don’t wait for special occasions like birthdays or religious festivals – get together with friends, neighbours, family or colleagues and plan your next meal together now!