EATING LOCAL - Sharing meals together nurtures more than just the body

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The weekend before last I pulled my family out of bed early for a pancake breakfast at the Muddy Frogwater Festival in Milton-Freewater. We arrived at the park with the sun starting to peak over the hills. There was a variety of people gathered, from seniors to toddlers, and everyone in between. After passing through the line, where we were offered pancakes, bacon, sausage, and eggs, we found seats at communal tables, and enjoyed our breakfast amongst other members of our community. Smiles and warm greetings easily passed across the tables, along with the maple syrup and butter.

Sharing meals with others is more than just the physical benefits of nutrition and health. Eating together builds family and community bonds. It brings people together over something common. It promotes unity and a sense of belonging. It gives us a chance to relax, nourish our bodies and connect with the people around us.

Food is something that is common among us all. But we each have our own food culture and history that we bring to the table. From the food we grew up eating, to recipes passed down from generation to generation, to cooking skills and knowledge we have learned along the way. These are all treasures to be shared and passed on.

Like the "suzy pancakes," or crepe Suzette, my grandma made whenever we visited. Rich and delicious, with butter oozing out of the folds. My grandpa would joke that he loved us coming to visit because she would only make them when we came over. They have both since passed away, but the tradition continues on with my mom and kids.

Living in Los Angeles, we became very active at our children's school, which was primarily Latino. I looked forward to potlucks, where parents from all over Central and South America would bring traditional dishes to share. I would fill my plate with all sorts of beautiful homemade food and have since written down these recipes to make at home for my family.

These days, sitting down to dinner together as a family is becoming a lost art. With parents working late, after school activities, and crazy schedules, people seem to be relying more and more on fast food. Being a working parent myself, I can relate and sympathize.

But to me, with a little pre-planning dinner can be made at home just as easily and with much better results, nutritionally and emotionally. Studies show sitting down to eat as a family promotes children with higher self-esteem, who interact better with their peers, and show higher resilience in the face of adversity.

"The time we spend with the family at the dinner times should be held sacred," Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University, was quoted online at www.physorg.com/news7166.html regarding a study on benefits of family meals.

This is the time to catch up on each other's day, share experiences, and just reconnect. In our family, we go around the table and share one good thing and one bad thing that happened in each of our day. I enjoy this time, to hear what my kids did while I was at work and to empathize with any frustrations.

For those who don't have a family or who live alone, sharing a meal and conversation is just as important, if not more so. Numerous studies point to a decline in nutrition among the elderly when they live alone or become more isolated. Obviously, if you live alone, it isn't possible to sit at a table and share conversation at every meal, but you can invite people you know over to dine once in a while.

Maybe consider joining a dinner or cooking club, where friends, neighbors, or co-workers meet regularly for potluck or take turns hosting home-cooked meals. This is a wonderful way to share meals, socialize, and get a break from cooking all the time. One of my co-workers mentioned her church puts on weekly dinners open to the whole community. Check with your church, ask around, or maybe consider starting one with your friends and neighbors.

I love sharing food with others, from preparing snacks for my kids and their friends who come to play to putting together a meal to share at group events. I gain much pleasure from nourishing my family and community. This evening we are having our monthly community garden meeting, which has turned into a monthly potluck as well. Everyone brings their own personality, food history and culture to the fold-away dinner table, and we eat like kings.

Last month I made arroz con pollo, without the pollo for the vegetarians, shaved squash salad with basil, and a chop salad. Other folks brought homemade quiche, beet salad, rhubarb bars, rice, and squash curry soup. Word spread after the last event, and we expect to have a bigger crowd, with more delicious recipes to sample, stories to share, and bonds to build.

When was the last time you shared a meal with your friends or neighbors?

Melissa Davis, a personal chef with a bachelor's degree in nutrition and specializes in natural foods, can be reached at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her culinary writing is at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.

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