Skip to main content

The meal as a performance: food and meal practices beyond health and nutrition


The proportion of elderly people in the population is increasing, presenting a number of new challenges in society. The purpose of this qualitative study was to investigate how elderly persons with motoric eating difficulties perceive and perform their food and meal practices in everyday life. By using Goffman's concept of performance as a theoretical framework together with Bourdieu's thinking on habitus, a deeper understanding of food and meal practices is obtained. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 14 elderly people (aged between 67 and 87 years) and meal observations were carried out with 11 of these people. Participants were found to manage food and meal practices by continuously adjusting and adapting to the new conditions arising as a result of eating difficulties. This was displayed by conscious planning of what to eat and when, avoiding certain foods and beverages, using simple eating aids, but also withdrawing socially during the meals. All these adjustments were important in order to be able to demonstrate proper food and meal behaviour, to maintain the façade and to act according to the perceived norms. As well as being a pleasurable event, food and meals were also perceived in terms of being important for maintaining health and as ‘fuel’ where the main purpose is to sustain life. This was strongly connected to the social context and the ability to enjoy food and meals with family members and friends, which appeared to be particularly crucial due to the impending risk of failing the meal performance.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      The meal as a performance: food and meal practices beyond health and nutrition
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      The meal as a performance: food and meal practices beyond health and nutrition
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      The meal as a performance: food and meal practices beyond health and nutrition
      Available formats
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Maria Nyberg, Food and Meal Science, School of Learning and Environment, Kristianstad University, SE-291 88 Kristianstad, Sweden E-mail:
Hide All
Acreman, S. 2009. Nutrition in palliative care. British Journal of Community Nursing, 14, 10, 427–31.
Andersson, I. and Sidenvall, B. 2001. Case studies of food shopping, cooking and eating habits in older women with Parkinson's disease. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 35, 1, 6978.
Bauer, J., Biolo, G., Cederholm, T., Cesari, M., Cruz-Jentoft, A. J., Morley, J. E., Phillips, S., Sieber, C., Stehle, P. and Teta, D. 2013. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the Prot-Age Study Group. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 14, 8, 542–59.
Belasco, W. 2008. Food. The Key Concepts. Berg Publishers, Oxford.
Berg, G., Sarvimäki, A. and Hedelin, B. 2006. Hospitalized older peoples’ views of health and health promotion. International Journal of Older People Nursing, 1, 1, 2533.
Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Carlsson, E., Ehrenberg, A. and Ehnfors, M. 2004. Stroke and eating difficulties: long term experiences. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 13, 7, 825–34.
Coyle, C. E. and Dugan, E. 2012. Social isolation, loneliness and health among older adults. Journal of Aging and Health, 24, 8, 1346–63.
Dunér, A. and Nordström, M. 2005. Intentions and strategies among elderly people: coping in everyday life. Journal of Aging Studies, 19, 4, 437–51.
Eckel, E., Schreiber, J. and Provident, I. 2012. Community dwelling elderly women and meal preparation. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Geriatrics, 30, 4, 344–60.
Edfors, E. and Westergren, A. 2012. Home-living elderly people's views on food and meals. Journal of Aging Research, Article ID 761291, 19.
Ekberg, O., Hamdy, S., Woisard, V., Wuttge-Hannig, A. and Ortega, P. 2002. Social and psychological burden of dysphagia: its impact on diagnosis and treatment. Dysphagia, 17, 2, 139–46.
Elias, N. 2000. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.
Elsner, R. J. F. 2002. Changes in eating behaviour during the aging process. Eating Behaviours, 3, 1, 1543
Eurostat 2011. Europe in Figures: Eurostat Yearbook 2011. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg.
Fjellström, C. 2009. The social significance of older people's meals. In Raats, M. M., de Groot, L. and van Staveren, W. (eds), Food for the Ageing Population. Woodhead Publishing, Cambridge, 95109.
Fjellström, C. and Mattsson Sydner, Y. 2009. Måltidens Sociala Betydelse – Ett Äldreperspektiv. Nordisk Nutrition, 2, 1011.
Fox, R. 2016. Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. Social Issues Research Centre. Available online at [Accessed 29 April 2016].
Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, New York.
Goffman, E. 1990. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin, London.
Graneheim, U. H. and Lundman, B. 2004. Qualitative content analysis in nursing research: concepts, procedures and measures to achieve trustworthiness. Nurse Education Today, 24, 2, 105–12.
Gustafsson, K., Andersson, I., Andersson, J., Fjellström, C. and Sidenvall, B. 2003. Older women's perceptions of independence versus dependence in food-related work. Public Health Nursing, 20, 3, 237–47.
Gustafsson, K. and Sidenvall, B. 2002. Food-related health perceptions and food habits among older women. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 39, 2, 164–73.
Holm, L. 2001. The social context of eating. In Kjaernes, U. (ed.), Eating Patterns: A Day in the Lives of Nordic People. Sifo Report 7, Statens Institutt for Forbruksforskning, Lysaker, Norway, 159–98.
Hughes, G., Bennett, K. M. and Hetherington, M. M. 2004. Old and alone: barriers to healthy eating in older men living on their own. Appetite, 43, 3, 269–76.
Jacobsson, C., Axelsson, K., Österlind, P. O. and Norberg, A. 2000. How people with stroke and healthy older people experience the eating process. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 9, 2, 255–64.
Kullberg, K., Åberg, A. C., Bjorklund, A., Ekblad, J. and Sidenvall, B. 2008. Daily eating events among co-living and single-living diseased older men. Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, 12, 3, 176–82.
Lamberg-Allardt, C., Brustad, M., Meyer, H. E. and Steingrimsdottir, L. 2013. Vitamin D – a systematic literature review for the 5th edition of the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations. Food & Nutrition Research, 57, 22671, 131.
Leopold, N. A. and Kagel, M. C. 1997. Dysphagia – ingestion or deglutition? A proposed paradigm. Dysphagia, 12, 4, 202–6.
Lorefält, B., Ganowiak, W., Wissing, U., Granerus, A. and Unosson, M. 2006. Food habits and intake of nutrients in elderly patients with Parkinson's disease. Gerontology, 52, 3, 160–8.
Lundkvist, P., Fjellström, C., Sidenvall, B., Lumbers, M. and Raats, M. 2010. Management of healthy eating in everyday life among senior Europeans. Appetite, 55, 3, 616–22.
Maitre, I., Van Wymelbeke, V., Amand, M. and Vigneau, E. 2014. Food pickiness in the elderly: relationship with dependency and malnutrition. Food Quality and Preference, 32, part B, 145–51.
Mattsson Sydner, Y., Sidenvall, B., Fjellström, C., Raats, M. and Lumbers, M. 2007. Food habits and foodwork: the life course perspective of senior Europeans. Food, Culture and Society, 10, 3, 367–87.
McLaren, S. M. G. and Dickerson, J. W. T. 2000. Measurement of eating disability in an acute stroke population. Clinical Effectiveness in Nursing, 4, 3, 109–20.
Medin, J., Larson, J., von Arbin, M. and Wredling, R. 2010. Elderly persons’ experience and management of eating situations 6 months after stroke. Disability and Rehabilitation, 32, 16, 1346–53.
Medin, J., Windahl, J., von Arbin, M., Tham, K. and Wredling, R. 2011. Eating difficulties among stroke patients in the acute state: a descriptive, cross-sectional, comparative study. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 20, 17/18, 2563–72.
Medin, J., Windahl, J., von Arbin, M., Tham, K. and Wredling, R. 2012. Eating difficulties among patients 3 months after stroke in relation to the acute phase. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 68, 3, 580–9.
Neely, E., Walton, M. and Stephens, C. 2014. Young people's food practices and social relationships. a thematic synthesis. Appetite, 82, 5060.
Nimrod, G. and Kleiber, D. A. 2007. Reconsidering change and continuity in later life: toward an innovation theory of successful aging. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 65, 1, 122.
Nyberg, M., Olsson, V., Pajalic, P., Örtman, G., Andersson, H. S., Blücher, A., Wendin, K. and Westergren, A. 2015. Eating difficulties, nutrition, meal preferences and experiences among elderly – a literature overview from a Scandinavian context. Journal of Food Research, 4, 1, 2237.
Perry, L. and McLaren, S. 2003. Coping and adaptation at six months after stroke: experiences with eating disabilities. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 40, 2, 185–95.
Punch, S., McIntosh, I. and Emond, R. 2010. Children's food practices in families and institutions. Children's Geographies, 8, 3, 227–32.
Reckwitz, A. 2002. Toward a theory of social practices: a development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5, 2, 243–63.
Routasalo, P. E., Savikko, N., Tilvis, R. S., Strandberg, T. E. and Pitkälä, K. H. 2006. Social contacts and their relationship to loneliness among aged people – a population-based study. Gerontology, 52, 3, 181–7.
Sidenvall, B. 1999. Meal procedures in institutions for elderly people: a theoretical interpretation. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 30, 2, 319–28.
Sidenvall, B. and Fjellström, C. 1994. The meal situation in geriatric care – intentions and experiences. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 20, 4, 613–21.
Sidenvall, B., Fjellström, C. and Ek, A. C. 1994. Cultural conceptions of daily planning of meals in geriatric care. Vård i Norden, 14, 2/3, 1115.
Sidenvall, B., Nydahl, M. and Fjellström, C. 2001. Managing food shopping and cooking: the experiences of older Swedish women. Ageing & Society, 21, 2, 151–68.
Sobal, J. and Bisogni, C. A. 2009. Constructing food choice decisions. The Society of Behavioral Medicine, 38, 1, 3746.
Sobal, J. and Nelson, M. K. 2003. Commensal eating patterns: a community study. Appetite, 41, 2, 181–90.
Tan, B. H. and Fearon, K. C. 2008. Cachexia: prevalence and impact in medicine. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 11, 4, 400–7.
The Swedish Research Council 2002. Forskningsetiska Principer Inom Humanistisk-Samhällsvetenskaplig Forskning [Research Ethics in Social Sciences]. Available online at [Accessed 23 April 2016].
Wallin, V. 2015. Mat och måltider vid livets slut: patienter och närståendes erfarenheter av ätsvårigheter . Licentiate thesis, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm.
Warde, A. 2016. The Practice of Eating. Polity Press, Cambridge.
Westergren, A., Hagell, P., Wendin, K. and Sjödahl Hammarlund, C. 2016. Conceptual relationships between the ICF and experiences of mealtimes and related tasks among persons with Parkinson's disease. Nordic Journal of Nursing Research, 0, 0, 18.
Westergren, A., Karlsson, S., Andersson, P., Ohlsson, O. and Hallberg, I. R. 2001. Eating difficulties, need for assisted eating, nutritional status and pressure ulcers in patients admitted for stroke rehabilitation. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 10, 2, 257–69.
Westergren, A., Lindholm, C., Mattsson, A. and Ulander, K. 2009. Minimal eating observation form: reliability and validity. Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, 13, 1, 611.
Wylie, C., Copeman, J. and Kirk, S. F. L. 1999. Health and social factors affecting food choice and nutritional intake of elderly with restricted mobility. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 12, 5, 375–80.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed