• Barb Mayfield

Can family meals lead to longer and healthier lives?


Something we took for granted in 2017: A family meal with multiple generations.

In celebration of Family Meals Month in September, I would like to revisit and update a post from three years ago. It opened with some sobering statistics regarding an “epidemic of loneliness” in our country. Consider these statistics from the last decade:

  • More than one-fourth of all American households consist of people living alone. (1)

  • More than one-fourth of Americans regularly experience loneliness. Don’t assume these are the same people who live alone – same percentages, but different statistics. (2)

  • Loneliness and living alone increase the risk of premature death by 26% and 32% respectively. (3)

  • More than half of American adults eat alone for most eating occasions. (4)

  • Having strong human connections increases longevity by 50%. (5)

Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, with social isolation necessary for limiting the spread of COVID-19, getting together each week with my now 90-year-old mother for a family meal as pictured above is no longer allowed. Even worse, due to an outbreak of COVID at the assisted living facility where she now lives, we cannot visit at all. This lack of social interaction is proving to be a hazard to the mental and physical health of all of us, but especially hard hit are seniors.

If isolation and loneliness are making us less healthy and shortening our lives, we need to find ways to form stronger human connections. Sharing meals has been considered an opportunity for social interaction from the beginning of recorded history. In all cultures throughout the world, food and eating connect people.

Did you know? The word companion is derived from compaignon, an old French word which means “one who breaks bread with another.” This word comes from the Latin com meaning “together with” and panis meaning “bread.” Are you missing breaking bread with friends? Who can you eat with during the pandemic? If you live alone, can you “Zoom” or “FaceTime” with extended family or friends during a meal?

The benefits of eating together are numerous – improved diets, healthier weights, greater family cohesiveness, improved academic performance, less risk-taking behaviors – all significantly associated with more frequent family meals.

The barriers are not insurmountable – with a little planning and preparation. Making family meals a priority and being intentional is the first step.

For 10 years, our family gathered to eat together on Monday evenings at the location pictured above – in the dining room at University Place in West Lafayette, Indiana. This is where my mother and mother-in-law both lived in independent living apartments from 2010 - 2020. In the picture you can see me and my youngest granddaughter, Maddie, who is now almost 4, with my mother. The people you can’t see include my husband, my mother-in-law, my two sons, my older son’s wife, and Maddie’s older brother, Isaiah. As often as possible, our daughter, her husband and her two children joined us. Often, my husband’s sister and our brother-in-law joined us. Sharing meals together with extended family was a highlight of our mothers’ week. And on a daily basis they went to the dining room to share meals with friends, which was the highlight of their day. Every. Single. Day.

Fast forward to 2020… Our mothers now live in an assisted living facility. We moved them for a higher level of care and to live within 5 minutes of our home. Daily visits quickly came to a halt in March and haven’t yet resumed. My mother-in-law escaped the COVID outbreak that spread through the facility this summer; my mother had a case with few symptoms and is now recovered. Eleven residents were not so fortunate. Congregate activities have started again and the residents can now eat together in the dining room, in shifts, with only one person per table. These small steps toward “normalcy” have made our mothers SO happy. We are looking forward to the day when we can join them. Let’s no longer take for granted the simple pleasure of eating together!

For more on family meals, visit my resources page for free resources about family meals: https://www.nutritioncommunicator.com/resources

To learn more about…

Family Meals Month: https://www.fmi.org/family-meals-movement

CASA’s Family Day: https://www.casafamilyday.org/

The Family Dinner Project: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/

These initiatives build awareness of the benefits of sharing meals and provide practical solutions to the most common barriers to eating together.

I believe we all need to make sharing meals a priority, not just seniors, not just families, everyone. Even working adults - surveys show that 62% of American workers eat lunch alone at their desks.(6) Even if working from home, take a break. If possible, eat with others in your household. When the day comes when eating with colleagues is possible, take a lunch break together. The break could improve your health, your work relationships, your productivity, and quite possibly - your longevity.

Sharing meals isn’t the only way to build stronger human connections, but it’s a great way! Eat together today – it may help you live a longer, healthier life. Where and with whom can you share a meal?

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkien

1. US Census, 2010

2. Cacioppo, John. Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, 2009

3. Holt-Lunstad, J et al. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015

4. http://www.techtimes.com/articles/13979/20140825/eating-alone-breakfast-lunch-dinner-npd-group.htm

5. Seppala, Emma. Science Director of the Stanford Center For Compassion And Altruism Research And Education, Infographic: The Benefits of High Social Connection, 2014

6. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/failure-to-lunch.html


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