Have family dinner, even in front of the television

In a seemingly endless cycle of bad news, we were looking for something a little less depressing to talk about, and the Companionship Diet program from Home Instead caught our attention.

The Companionship Diet is a program designed to bring seniors and their loved ones or caregivers together to create and share a meal. Home Instead compiled some reasons this is important: U.S. seniors who eat most of their meals alone are more than twice as likely to be lonely, and the majority of lonely seniors were missing at least one key nutrient in their meals. Sharing a meal, on the other hand, meant seniors were more likely to eat healthier, receive proper amounts of nutrition and have better mental health.

If any of this rings a bell, it’s because similar — and more in-depth — research has been done on the benefits of shared family meals on children. The Family Dinner Project has a laundry list of upsides: Better academic performance, higher self-esteem, greater sense of resilience, lower risk of substance abuse, lower risk of teen pregnancy, lower risk of depression, lower likelihood of developing eating disorders, lower rates of obesity, better cardiovascular health in teens, bigger vocabulary in preschoolers and healthier eating patterns in young adults.

For adults (aka, the people  likely making the meal), benefits include better nutrition with less fast food, less dieting, increased self-esteem and lower risk of depression.

The key factor to all of the above is the connection — the act of coming together and talking.

But connection is one thing we’ve been short on for a while, especially since the pandemic.

Pre-COVID, busy lives made it hard to sit down for a family dinner with the people in your own house, let alone with a loved one who doesn’t live with you. In the aforementioned interview, Fishel noted that family dinners were less common among low income households, likely due to stressors such as extra jobs or limited access to healthy food needed for a nutritious homemade meal.

Of course, during COVID, it isn’t always safe to gather.

We think there’s a compromise.

Fishel insists  dinners in front of the TV promote obesity, but if dinner (or lunch, or breakfast) in the living room while your favorite show is on is the only time everyone can sit down together, then have dinner in front of the TV. The emotional connection that comes from sharing a meal is arguably the most important aspect. After all, you can talk through the commercials.

As for the senior in your life, if they don’t live with you, try a videocall, so you can be there without being there. If your senior is technology-averse, try a regular phone call on speakerphone at meal times, so they can still have conversation while they eat, or arrange a picnic while the weather is still nice.

Humans are social creatures, and we’ve been short on (safe) opportunities for socialization and companionship. Making a concerted effort to have family meals is one small way we can recover some of the connection we’ve lost over the last year and a half.