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By Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND

My mom told me recently that she was removing the center island from our family vacation home. “Why?” I asked. “I love sitting there with family.”

“I hate seeing people perching on those awful stools,” she said. “Meals should be eaten at a table!” she said officiously.

And there lies one of the major differences between me and my mother. She believes family meals should be eaten at home, at tables with properly set dishes and silverware. I believe you can make any meal a family meal.

My husband and I have four sets of tables and chairs–one in our kitchen, another in our dining room and two for outdoor dining—yet we rarely eat at these tables. We typically eat at the island counter in our kitchen or in our living room, seated on the floor with our plates on the coffee table.

In the evening we put Lester Holt on pause long enough to have our “How was your day?” talk. We then watch the NBC Nightly News followed by other favorites or we take a walk through the neighborhood while continuing our “How was your day?” discussions.

If I’m at home for lunch I eat with Lucy, our little old tuxedo kitty. I sit on the floor at the coffee table, and Lucy sits on the couch behind me occasionally affectionately rubbing her head against my shoulder. I talk to her for a few moments before turning on The Chew, The Talk, or another daytime talk show.

Is it weird that I talk with my cat while eating my lunch? I don’t think so; I doubt I’m alone in this habit.

In fact, studies show many people today eat meals by themselves. Research from the Hartman Group shows nearly half (46%) of all adult eating occasions occur alone. Other studies show we eat alone together. What does this mean? Many people who eat alone are online while eating, looking at posts from family and friends on social media or posting photos of the food they’re enjoying. So we’re sharing meals in a non-traditional way, and that’s okay.

What about meals eaten in restaurants? Do they count as family meals? I have a client who promotes family meals at breakfast at their restaurants, giving parents permission to share a meal with their kids prior to dropping them off at school. While I fully support school breakfast programs, I also support parents who need a break from morning chaos and want to enjoy a breakfast with their kids while enjoying a meal prepared by someone else. The family can talk for a few minutes and enjoy each other’s company, even if the talking and eating is in the car.

So what makes family meals so special? Research shows one of the biggest benefits of family meals is the time spent talking and connecting with one another, creating a sense of belonging.

I see that “sense of belonging” in action at the bar at my husband and my favorite neighborhood restaurant. The people who come in alone most often sit at the bar and then start conversations with fellow diners over whatever game is on the TV over the bar.

A TV over the bar would never be a good thing in my mom’s eyes, but I see it as yet another opportunity for creating a way to make any meal a family meal. It provides a way for strangers to connect and create community.

September is Family Meals Month. It’s also Fruits & Veggies—More Matters Month. So no matter where you’re eating your meals and no matter with whom, I hope you’ll find ways to connect and create community. And I hope you’ll make half your plate or half your meal fruits and vegetables!

With that, I’m going to go talk with Lucy and see how her morning was while enjoying some leftovers from last night’s family meal, which I ate at our kitchen table. My father-in-law was joining us, and there’s not room at our coffee table from three people!