We think of meals as being primarily about food, but meals are also highly social affairs. We all have the memory of generations together in the kitchen, cooking from old family recipes, serving the warm, comforting food to a large table filled with beloved kin. Most social species like humans actually consume more and digest better when they eat with companions. Even sheep eat better when another sheep is nearby! For many Americans, the dinner meal is a significant part of daily life, but the social and familial parts of dinner can fall away as we age. Children move out and find other dinner companions, leaving a hole in the activity. The loss of a spouse can make dinnertime feel even lonelier. It is little wonder that people who sit down to a table alone feel less than motivated to cook or eat big meals.
When your family dining group has dispersed into their own busy lives, consider reaching out to others who, like you, might enjoy sharing meals. Some seniors find local restaurants where they meet with friends to share morning coffee, deli-style lunches, or nightly specials for dinner. Most communities have senior centers that serve at least one meal each day, creating easy access to a group of people who would like dining companions and nutritious food. Another way to enjoy friendship at mealtime is to create a “dinner club” with neighbors and pals. The club takes turns at each other’s homes, either cooking for the group or bringing in prepared food to share.
If you enjoy leftovers, by all means share this fact with family or friends who regularly make large meals. Even when busy lives prevent them from inviting you to join dinner, you can benefit from their cooking. Many families make larger meals than they can actually eat, and end up with leftovers, but never consider passing them along to an elder. They may think of it as unseemly or insulting to offer someone leftover food, but, in fact, leftovers often make perfect-sized, home-cooked meals. If you cook or bake, consider offering to make a trade. Once a month, you could bake cakes or cookies, or make a pot of soup, in exchange for more regular, meal-sized shares of the family dinners.
On nights when the social and family aspects of dining are absent, you still need food to live. Plan ahead for times when you aren’t motivated to cook. For example, cook in advance and put meal-sized portions in to the freezer for easy suppers. Frozen, pre-cooked meals are easily cooked in a microwave oven in a matter of minutes. Even “TV dinners” increasingly feature healthier, low-sodium food. Experiment with a few to see which brands you prefer, and then stock up. Making some food preparations in advance can ensure you have something convenient to eat.
If you find that you are often eating poorly or skipping meals, consider getting some regular help with grocery shopping and cooking. Enlisting family members is the first step, but they may be too far away or too busy to feasibly take on the task. If so, personal assistants can be hired to grocery shop and cook for you several days each week. Financial support may be available for the help, depending on your income and needs. (For example, “In-Home Support Services” is a program that provides help with cooking, shopping, transportation, and other daily activities for those without financial resources to hire help.) In many areas, senior programs like “Meals on Wheels” deliver nutritious food right to your doorstep.
The ebb and flow of social involvement might impact your motivation to cook or, even, to consume food, but you still have nutritional needs. Part of aging well and staying healthy is taking care of your body, and that means you have to feed it. Find ways to ensure that good food is available to eat, and look for ways to create new traditions for sharing meals.