My dear husband recently confided that one of his fears about aging is that he will one day be eating peanut butter sandwiches by himself, lonely and nutritionally deficient. While I think he was trying to tell me that he appreciates my cooking and companionship, he was onto something beyond the two of us. When people eat alone, research shows, they are prone to eat less healthily, to skip meals, and to have poorer moods than those who seek out the company of others. “Commensality”, the sharing of food with others, is good for the physical and mental health of adults, regardless of their age or life stage. The research on the emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits of family meals for kids is well known, but scientific studies also reveal that eating with others is good for the nutrition and mental health of adults.
Over the course of the life cycle most of us will eat more meals with other adults than with our children. Picture a family with two adults who have a child or two. If the adults stay together into old age, those adults will end up having many more meals without children around the table than they had with them. Consider these stages over the course of the life cycle when adults could expect to eat without children around the table: The time when couples are getting to know one another and becoming a couple through marriage or commitment; when a couple may wait to eat alone until after they’ve put the baby in their crib; the time when adolescents are still living at home but not reliably home for dinner. And then there is the longest stage of the life cycle, from the time that kids leave home until retirement, followed by post-retirement until death. What might be expected at each stage of the life cycle that features these adult-only meals?
Newly coupled or married: One of the main jobs of this stage of life is for two people to make a myriad of decisions together that they previously had made separately. Along with deciding where to live and how to spend time and money, decisions about mealtime bring into focus what they each wants to carry forward from their childhoods, and what to leave behind. Will we cook or get take-out? What kind of food will we eat? Will we share the invisible labor of making meals happen? Will we talk at meals or catch up on emails? These early choices about mealtime are part of what will define the new couple.
New Parents: After a day that revolves around nursing or bottle-feeding an infant, many new parents crave the chance to catch their breath without a baby on their chest. Until a child can sit at the table, family dinners may well take place in that brief moment of serenity when an infant is put down to sleep and before he pops up for his own round-the-clock dining experience. Tired new parents may not have much energy to talk about weighty topics, perhaps just glad to have made it through another day. Researchers have found that once parents have toddlers, those who develop a dinnertime ritual feel more satisfied with their marriages. Perhaps the benefit comes about because parents of young children may crave some predictability and routine when the rest of their life is very hectic and fragmented.
Parenting teenagers: During this period, time at the dinner table may feel like a foreshadowing of the years ahead when teens have left home. Statistically, the frequency of family dinners with teens at the table goes down compared to dinner with elementary-aged kids. With many competing demands on their time, many adolescents will forego family dinner to attend rehearsals, soccer practice, or after-school jobs that bleed into the dinner hour. Parents may start to anticipate what it will soon be like to be staring at each other across a suddenly less crowded table.
Empty nest: Many parents find this a bittersweet time—on the one hand enjoying how much more relaxed they can be around the timing and preparation of meals, while on the other hand missing the liveliness of children’s presence and their tales of school and peers. When my children first left for college, my husband and I acted like rebellious teens. We ate at 9 PM, watched TV while we ate (something strictly forbidden when the kids were growing up), and snacked on cheese and crackers so that we ruined our appetites for dinner. Eventually, we eased into a new routine that helped to define our new identity as a couple. We embraced leftovers to cut down on having to cook every night, we read news stories to each other, and we inevitably asked each other, “What do you think our kids are up to?”
In old age: As MFK Fisher, the renowned food writer, noted, “For many old people, eating is the only pleasure left, as were the endless dishes and the unceasing cups of wine to the aged Ulysses.” As we age, we lose some sensitivity to sensations of hunger and thirst, and with less activity, we often have less of an appetite. In thinking about meals, visual cues may be more important than taste and smell, and food memories are the most powerful seasoning of all. When my father was in his 90s, he savored a baked apple that brought him back to his childhood, or a sweet potato pudding that reminded him of his deceased wife.
And if you think of family as anyone who makes you feel like home, then there are even more possible opportunities to eat with adults who could be a close friend, a neighbor, or work buddy. These adult meals with people who aren’t your literal family are just as good for body and soul as any family dinners. So, gather round and enjoy!