Table Talk:

The Science (and Magic) of Thanksgiving

There is something – dare I say – magical about a Thanksgiving meal. I’m pretty sure it isn’t actually the food, itself. I once celebrated the holiday over enchiladas and chile rellenos. The year I hosted 30+ Peace Corps volunteers and Bolivian friends the turkey was picked clean before I even got a bite! No. With the possible exception of the pie (mmm… pie…), I suspect that the magic of Thanksgiving arises from the coming together of friends and family around a table for companionship and conversation. We tell stories. We avoid politics (or don’t). We listen. We laugh. We learn. We connect.

I have experienced this magic around the nightly dinner table, too…

Just the other night, our five year old exclaimed, “Wow! That went down my throat so fast! It was like, ‘Schzhoom!’ I think it was faster than light! Faster than a cheetah!”

Our resident cheetah enthusiast gave an incredulous look and shook her head. “I don’t think that is even possible!”

The debate went back and forth until I casually joined in, “I wonder how we could figure it out.”

The exploration that followed was enthusiastic. Our Amazon Echo had a good cheetah joke but knew nothing about the speed of digestion. We turned to Google. Science is one of the exceptions to our “No Screens at Dinner” rule. Obviously. A calculator and a book from the cheetah enthusiast’s collection rounded out the research. I’d like to say that we pulled out a stopwatch and a ruler to actually measure the speed of the “schzhoom,” but I deferred to those in the thick of the debate to suggest methodology.

By the end of the meal, our conversation had meandered through a collection of animal facts, musings, and curiosities. Without even trying, we had connected with one another, had fun, and learned*.

Is it really magic, though? Could it be that there is a science to eating together?  

Everyone from pediatricians to journalists sing the praises of the family dinner table. Indeed, scientific evidence supports the recommendations. A 2015 review of the literature demonstrated a strong correlation between family meal frequency and school success, among several other positive outcomes.

While more systematic research is needed to tease out causation, a 2006 study suggests that family meals offer time for extended conversations that promote language and literacy skills – skills that contribute to improved learning at school and even at the next family meal!

The family dinner table appears to impact more than just academics and is valuable for more than just young children. Preteens and teenagers who regularly participate in family meals generally have higher self-esteem. They also appear to have developed a stronger immunity to some of the common challenges of adolescence, including eating disorders, substance abuse, and depression.

Adults benefit from family dinners, too. One study suggests that family meals help to mediate the negative effects of long work hours. A recent report in Adaptive Human Behavior and Psychology correlates social eating to greater feelings of happiness and satisfaction, higher community involvement, and the development of stronger support systems. The author goes so far as to suggest that social eating may have evolved specifically to facilitate social bonding!

If science supports the practice of social eating, perhaps the magic of Thanksgiving lies in its annual reminder to us to create time for sitting down and connecting. In doing so, we nourish our spirits, our minds, our families, and our communities as much as our individual bodies.

*For those who are on the edge of their seats reading this far in hopes of finding the answer, food travels down your esophagus at a rate of approximately one quarter mile per hour. Significantly slower than light, or even a cheetah, but a little faster than a tortoise on a straight-away.


Tiffany Kapler

Tiffany Kapler

Tiffany is a science educator, parent, and primate enthusiast.

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