One thing the past few years has taught us is the value of breaking bread with family and friends. Holiday meals, casual barbecues, Sunday suppers and milestone dinner celebrations were sorely missed during the height of the pandemic.

My friend Nancy and I were talking recently about one of her family traditions, and it struck me that she knew the value of gatherings right from the start.

When she first got married, Nancy created a scrapbook of sorts that cataloged special meals at her house. She began with a title for the event, be it a birthday, a themed dinner with friends or a special celebration.

She wrote the menu on one page, noting the items she made and ones others brought. During the meal, she passed the book around and asked each person to write their name on the facing page as well as any special message they wanted to convey.

She did this for shared meals in her first marital home and when she and her husband hosted a special family gathering to introduce their weeks-old adopted son to friends and family.

She continued the tradition when they moved to a new home and filled book after book with chronicles of their special gatherings. She continued after her husband’s death, recording girls’ nights and celebrations for her son.

Last weekend she told me she pulled out the books to look at and they brought back such wonderful memories. She read messages from friends she had not seen in years, from her late husband and other friends who had died, and from her son as he grew from a boy to a man.

She remembered long-forgotten recipes that had fallen out of rotation. She reflected on the relationships she had built over the years and the emotional boost a good dinner party or barbecue with friends and family could bring.

Anthropology tells us the sharing of a meal and conversation brings about feelings of belonging. Even before the pandemic we saw too many people eating alone, not receiving the emotional benefit of a shared meal.

According to the Atlantic article “The Importance of Eating Together” by Cody C. Delistraty, “Americans rarely eat together anymore. In fact, the average American eats one in every five meals in her car, one in four Americans eats at least one fast food meal every single day, and the majority of American families report eating a single meal together less than five days a week.”

Here at Senior Concerns, we know that of the 2,000 meals we deliver to seniors each week, almost all are eaten alone. We’re wondering why our country’s mental health is suffering, and this may be one of the reasons.

Eating alone can be alienating, separating us both physically and mentally from conversation and connection.

While shopping at the grocery store or running errands, I see friends, and invariably we say to one another, “We have got to get together soon.”

And then COVID numbers spike, and in my effort to stay safe so I don’t get sick and put our adult day program in jeopardy, I delay hosting that dinner party. I then miss that emotional boost.

As we rethink our plans, mealtime celebrations with friends and family should be toward the top of the list. And consider Nancy’s idea of chronicling the gatherings so that your emotional boost can be relived over and over.

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