Survey research tells us that many Americans eat alone. This may be due to any number of factors, but it often means less than optimal fueling and nutrient intake for the day. It may also result in either insufficient or excessive daily calorie intake and/or an increased consumption of less healthful ingredients such as saturated fats and sodium.
Many adults live alone on a regular basis or sporadically. This might be due to living arrangements, work responsibilities and travel, or other commitments outside the home. Some adults multi-task work and eating, as do students or athletes who try to squeeze eating into a busy academic or training schedule. This can result in the intake of grab-and-go foods that may not be the healthiest options. It can also lead to large gaps between eating episodes.
Families with children often find it difficult to achieve family meals together due to numerous conflicting activities. This can lead to skipped meals, increased intake of fast foods, living on granola bars, or individual family members eating alone.
Some people who live alone are affected with depression which can interfere with planning and preparing healthy meals and snacks. Unfortunately, inadequate food intake tends to worsen mood. In addition, a surprising number of adults do not know how to cook beyond the basics so may hesitate to prepare meals for themselves. Others may have lost interest in preparing meals for themselves now that their family is no longer at home.
What are the bottom-line concerns when individuals eat meals alone? If meals/snacks are skipped (long gaps between eating episodes), brain and body fueling can suffer. Besides leading to less efficient brain function, as noted, low fuel to the brain can also negatively impact mood.
Eating gaps can also mean less energy for the rest of the body as well. It can trigger physical fatigue, reduced interest in exercising, and possibly a drive to overeat/make less healthy choices when we do eventually eat.
Skipping meals/snacks also means fewer opportunities to take in needed nutrients. These are important for growth and development in children/teens, reducing the risk of chronic diseases and other medical problems, supporting the immune system, maximizing recovery from physical activity, and for achieving/sustaining optimal health.
So, what can be done by individuals feeding themselves or those caring for family members who may be eating alone? A little pre-planning can go a long way. Look a little ahead and see what scenarios might come up in the next few days that could benefit from some forethought.
One action step might be to create lists of healthy, easy food ideas for each type of meal or snack. For instance, write down several possible lunch ideas. Check online or ask friends/family for ideas. There are numerous healthy, easy, delicious recipes and meal ideas out there. Then add the needed foods to the grocery list each week.
Keeping a high inventory of healthy foods in the house means these are always available. Stock up on less perishables for the cupboards, refrigerator and freezer. Consider making some healthy meals in bulk that can be used over several meals. Some can even be frozen for later use. One-dish meals that contain a protein source plus vegetables plus a healthy starch can be quite handy for both lunches and dinners. These are also great for family members who need to eat at different times.
When planning meals and snacks, include a variety of flavors to improve motivation to eat in a timely fashion. Even basic meal ideas can taste quite different depending on the seasonings. For instance, a chicken and veggie stir fry can be flavored with a wide variety of herbs, curry powder, cumin, Chinese five spice, tomato sauce, various mustards, salsa, barbeque sauce, or other additions.
If you are away from home, grocery store salad bars can be an option. Some sandwich shops offer lean, lower sodium protein fillers, lots of veggies, and whole grain bread products. If the sandwich is large, save half for another meal.
If you are traveling by car for extended periods of time, pack some less perishable portioned healthy meals/snacks. Another option is to take a cooler for items needing temperature control. Frozen one-dish meals can be packed and eaten at room temperature once they thaw.
When away from the home, some restaurant meals may be warranted. Consider going online to find those with healthier options. Many have the nutrient information available. If you have no way of keeping leftovers in a safe temperature range, order only what you feel is an appropriate amount. Many restaurants offer half portions (which can save you money as well).
So, rather than having you or your family members fall prey to sporadic, less healthy meals and snacks when eating alone, consider some action steps you can take to improve fueling and nutrient intake.
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and is Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).