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A table set for a meal with numerous diners but only one plate and a glass: while, every now and then, some people like to dine out alone and enjoy eating a meal in their own company, others do all they can to reunite families and friends around a virtual dining table.
Families, whether extended or shrunken, mono-parental or made up of singles, possibly separated by huge distances, are now seeking new ways of getting together in the place that most typically represents affectionate ties and conviviality, hot comfort food and recipes: the dining room.
The rise of one-person households
It is possible to share a meal even when living on different continents and there are researchers at work to make this little dream come true, on festive occasions and weekdays alike. How? By linking parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren at mealtimes, even if they live far away. The catchment area involved in this type of research is particularly far-reaching: according to Euromonitor statistics released at the end of 2014, in some areas of the globe, the percentage of people living alone is very high: in western Europe it exceeds 42%, with peaks in Norway, Denmark and Finland, and is only slightly lower in the United States. This figure is destined to increase exponentially from now until 2030.
All the benefits to be had from sharing a meal
At the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, USA, for instance, a group of researchers in psychology is engaged in studying ways of connecting people who live far apart and of creating a shared dining experience among them. Furthermore, they have gone on to analyse the benefits, especially for elderly people: thanks to the closeness of those they love (no matter if it is only virtual), people tend to eat more and better and to combat such problems as loss of appetite associated with old age, as explained by Australian and Canadian university research.
A convivial conference call
There are many different ways of bringing families together, all of which are quite simple and user-friendly: computers, an Internet or telephone connection, tablets or Smartphones can do a lot to change things. From being objects that normally divide people (such as a boy with a Smartphone switched on at the table who does not communicate with the family) they can become instruments that unite by stimulating participation and shared experiences. In the early days it was a call via Skype, with a tablet or laptop open and connected placed at one end of the table.
The researchers describe grandparents who share their recipes, relatives who are immobilized and cannot make it to the Christmas dinner but can enjoy the celebration meal in company, just by looking beyond their plate into the eyes of grandchildren, children and friends from far away, through a monitor. Skype is not the only way: various video conference systems provide a cheap way to converse and see each other, laugh and enjoy the dinner, with different applications to suit every requirement.
Robot chefs for delayed recipes
Then there is the vast field of robotic research and the new possibilities of artificial intelligence applied to increasingly humanized robots. In a not so distant future, a shared meal in far removed places may be served up by a robot assistant which, for instance, may cook the same dish we are preparing for an elderly relative… on the other side of the world, which we have delivered to an operative system along with a message.