Why Cooking & Eating Together Are as Important for Your Health as the Foods You Eat

Though appropriate and adequate nutrition is a significant contributor to health, other factors, such as cooking and eating with your loved ones, can positively impact your overall well-being.

a photo of a family making food together
Photo: Photo: Getty Images. Design: Tambra Stevenson.

Hundreds of nutritious fruits, vegetables and grains are indigenous to the African continent, where the cuisines of each country and region are as diverse as the crops that grow there. Our series, African Heritage Diet as Medicine: How Black Food Can Heal the Community, explores the African Heritage Diet and highlights some of the most nutrient-dense foods found on the African continent and treasured by the diaspora. This dietary pattern—introduced by Oldways—promotes health outcomes associated with longevity and increased vitality and features foods that are most likely to be available worldwide.

Oftentimes when we think about nutritious eating patterns, the emphasis is on what we eat—not how we eat or who we're eating with. But this piece of the puzzle is incredibly vital to our overall health. And some research surrounding the adoption of cultural foods has shown of just that. A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that adults who maintained a meal pattern with foods traditionally consumed by people of their ethnicity—in this case, a traditional Caribbean diet that included starchy vegetables and fruits like plantain, yuca and bananas—had a more nutrient-dense dietary pattern than those who followed other dietary plans. As a registered dietitian for EatWell Exchange, I have experienced time and time again how individuals are more willing to implement suggestions from a dietitian about their dietary practices when the changes are familiar and aligned with foods from their cultural background.

The African Heritage Diet is a way of eating based on the nutrient-dense food traditions of people with African roots. The diet's principles are reflective of those traditional, nutritious dishes and encourage eating a variety of herbs and spices, beans and peas, peanuts and nuts, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables—especially tubers and dark leafy greens, like callaloo and collards.

But what's even more important than the foods on your plate is preparing and sharing meals together. Here's why.

The Benefits of Cooking and Eating Together

It Models Healthy Habits in the Kitchen

Having worked with families for 10 years in the field of nutrition, I know that telling a child to eat their veggies is not usually as effective as having a child cook with you and eat the vegetables they helped prepare. Children are actually more likely to eat vegetables if they are in the kitchen, even if they're just stirring a pot, emptying a bag of salad or helping you put vegetables on a tray to roast. Their involvement helps them feel a part of the meal and can increase their willingness to try new foods. In fact, a small 2022 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior showed that kids involved in preparing vegetables are curious to try what they've prepared. Furthermore, a study from Utah State University showed that this behavior would continue into adulthood by making children more willing to try new foods and eat more vegetables simply from being present in the kitchen and cooking with family. The African Heritage Diet demonstrates how a nutritionally balanced plate can be incorporated within the family, and the importance of teaching about the history of these traditional foods while in the kitchen.

It Continues Family Traditions and Passes on Recipes

The kitchen is where stories are told and recipes are shared. Every Thanksgiving when I was growing up, I would help my mom prepare mac and cheese. I knew that, as the youngest child, this was my alone time with my mom and also a time to learn how to make one of my favorite dishes. My mother did not write down this recipe, but she would prepare it the same way every single year. If I wanted to learn, I had to be in the kitchen with her and watch what she was doing so I could remember it. As I got older, I became the mac and cheese maker for my family, which allowed me to share the recipe with the next generation and continue the tradition of my mom's unique dish.

It Improves Communication with Your Loved Ones

Cooking with your child, sibling, friend or partner is a positive time to communicate, whether you're talking about what happened at school or work or just catching up. While cooking together, you are carving out time from your busy day to be intentional and focused on what you're doing and who you're sharing the space in the kitchen with. Unfortunately, many families have difficulties with expressing emotions and opening up regarding their mental health challenges. Dedicating time in the kitchen to have open dialogue can allow family members to feel more comfortable discussing their emotions or pressing issues. Not to mention, cooking with others is a great time to learn (or teach) how to cook and improve your culinary skills. And the development of cooking skills can help lead to making more nutritious food choices overall.

It Keeps Cultural Foods on Your Plate

Even as a registered dietitian, I did not learn a lot about the benefits of my cultural foods while in school. That does not mean that my cultural foods are not nutritious. Now, many years later, a lot has changed, and there are more resources, like the African Heritage Diet, which demonstrates how to include foods associated with traditional cuisines from the African diaspora in a nutritious eating pattern and highlights the benefits of some of your favorite foods. While in the kitchen with family, you are able to learn about recipes that have been passed down for generations. Keeping foods from your cultural background on your plate encourages you to maintain your cultural identity, traditions and family history. For many African Americans, there is so much uncertainty about history due to the mass dispersion during the transatlantic slave trade. That's why it's important to intentionally preserve the traditions and incorporate the foods represented in the African Heritage Diet while in the kitchen and at the dinner table.

Tips to Get Started

1. Share Your Favorite Recipe

Invite family or friends into the kitchen to watch you prepare the recipe. Involve them if there is a step they can help out with. Talk to them about what this recipe reminds you of, who prepares it, what time of the year it is usually eaten and what is special about the ingredients.

2. Plan It Out

Set a date every week to cook a meal with your family. Try to stick to a specific day and find new exciting recipes to cook each week. Also, encourage different family members to take the lead. I have seen children develop excellent kitchen skills with practice. Help build their confidence and excitement for these moments in the kitchen.

3. Limit Technology

When cooking, it's OK to refer to a recipe on a screen, but try not to get in the habit of watching a TV show or movie or scrolling through social media. Not only is it unsanitary to cook and touch your phone or tablet continuously, but also it takes your focus away from the people you're sharing space with. The same applies at the table: encourage everyone to put their phones down, talk and be present. This helps everyone "unplug" from their gadgets and interact with each other.

The Bottom Line

Family meals are crucial for building culinary confidence, having family time and maintaining our respective cultural foods. Sharing a meal together is a great time to talk to each other, share stories and enjoy delicious food. The magic can begin in the kitchen when we cook together, share stories of the foods we like, pass on recipes and have quality time with family members—plus, it can benefit our health physically, emotionally and socially, too. Create a positive, healthy and impactful tradition with your family by sharing space in the kitchen and at the dinner table.

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