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When we “Break Bread," we build social bonds

Picture of military personnel sitting at a table eating food together Marines with 1st Marine Division eat a warrior's breakfast at the awards ceremony for Supersquad 2020, on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton last summer (Photo by: Marine Gunnery Sgt. Chad Pulliam).

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Throughout history, people have bartered, decided the fates of nations, and built friendships all over meals. Within traditional military units there are key social times when meals have historically been shared: hails and farewells, promotions, and celebrating historical dates. Often these are labeled as "mandatory fun", but perhaps they play a bigger role. The sharing of meals has been shown to improve feelings of closeness, increase satisfaction with life, enhance team performance, and influence food choices.

Within the Total Force Fitness (TFF) framework, the 'Social Fitness' domain includes the ability to engage in healthy social networks and promotes overall well-being and for optimal unit performance. The global pandemic has forced physical distancing, closed indoor seating, minimized group size, and discouraged shared meals.

This, in turn, is discouraging the use of social meals in fostering social fitness. Countering any negative effects on social fitness, team cohesion, life satisfaction, and overall health among military members should be an important consideration.

A team is only as strong as its weakest link, and developing opportunities for social networking can promote team cohesion.

Unfortunately, per the Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report, suicide rates among military members was at an all-time high in 2019, with nearly 26 per 100,000 service members committing suicide. Concerns have already been voiced that the stress of the COVID-19 might drive these numbers even higher in 2020 and 2021.

Eating socially has been shown to influence happiness and life satisfaction; specifically participating in evening meals with more people, more laughter, reminiscing and alcohol consumption resulted in individuals feeling closer to those with whom they ate. It therefore makes sense for military leaders to find ways to promote social networking and team cohesion during a pandemic and adding a food element could help support those opportunities.

Social scientists have suggested that the phrase "you are what you eat" should be replaced with "you are what the people in your social circle eat". Eating habits and food choices seem to be influenced by the social circle that people belong to, so much so that "prior eating habits of friends have been shown to predict current eating patterns".

Perhaps, now is a time to capitalize on influencing food choices by creating virtual shared food experiences that can promote healthy eating habits and develop social connectedness.

Ways to Promote Social Connectedness and Fitness over Food during a Pandemic

  • Virtual happy hour - Pick a non-work topic and afford your team an opportunity for everyone to unwind with a beverage or snack of their choice and share in quality conversation.
  • Virtual networking event - Set up the event to include members of your team based on an interest or a team topic.
  • Virtual cooking classes - The class could include a specific recipe, with a list of ingredients for each person to pick up ahead of time, so that each participant cooks the recipe and the group eats the final product together. This would promote cooking skills while combining the opportunity for social conversation. Reach out to your local Military Treatment Facility to see if their nutrition professionals would be willing to provide a class, recipes, or both.
  • Virtual dinner party - Develop a menu, incorporating fresh foods. Send out the shopping list in advance with the recipe. Advise all participants to have their food plated and be seated in front of their electronic device at the start of the dinner party. The menu can be as elaborate or as simple as you'd like. Reach out to your local Military Treatment Facility to see if their nutrition professionals would be willing to provide recipes or suggestions for your menu.

Get creative, build your team, and incorporate healthy options to promote health and social connectedness.

To learn more, or get support - reach out to your military medical treatment facility nutrition professionals for assistance incorporating healthy options or seek out additional online resources by accessing the Human Performance Resources by the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP).

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