It's an unfortunate reputation for a nation to have, but sadly it's true that solitary dining is on the rise as being the norm in the United States.
Americans are eating alone more than ever. In 1999 a survey showed that the number of people eating alone had tripled over the past three decades, and by 2006, 60 percent of Americans ate alone on a regular basis. That number is even higher now.
There are a number of reasons, as outlined by this article in the Washington Post that calls eating alone “the most American thing there is.”
People live in smaller households. Marriage and family trends have changed drastically over the past century, with more people delaying marriage and having kids much later in life. Those families, too, are smaller than they used to be. Between 1970 and 2012, the number of single-person households has increased from 13 percent to 27 percent.
People are busier than ever. With adults in a mad scramble to drop kids off at school or just get to work, breakfast is eaten on the go, if eaten at all: “Roughly 53 percent of all breakfasts are now eaten alone, whether at home, in the car, or at one’s desk.”
Families with kids are so involved in extra-curricular activities in the evenings that it’s hard to sync up schedules and find an hour to sit down for a meal together.
Even lunch is a solitary affair, with approximately 65 percent of lunches eaten alone at desks by working Americans.
This is sad. Mealtime is so much more than a designated time for nutrient intake; there’s a lot that goes on when people, particularly families, eat together – perhaps far more than we often realize.
When family members eat separately, kids lose out most of all. Sometimes meals are a family’s only opportunity to connect and hear about the day’s events. Children benefit from family meals by learning good table manners, having their nutritional intake monitored, being exposed to new foods, learning the art of conversation, and being held accountable to chores, homework, and other tasks.
Solitary diners are less likely to spend time on making a good meal if they’re the only one eating it; I know I felt this way when I lived alone during my university years. And yet, cooking from scratch on a regular basis is so crucial – for our health, our budgets, for supporting the local food system, sourcing fresh, seasonal ingredients, establishing healthy habits that will stand us in good stead for the long run, and for teaching the next generation how to cook.
Eating alone means more pre-packaged frozen dinners and shortcuts such as take-out or delivery. It can mean the absence of formal dinner times and a tendency to scrounge steadily for food throughout the day, which is known to lead to greater calorie intake overall.
Restaurant owners report that a growing number of solitary diners use devices to keep themselves company. Says Mark Politzer of Bourbon Steak restaurant in Georgetown:
“It’s really changed the experience for single diners. It’s less awkward for them, but they’re more engaged in work or whatever else they’re doing on their device than in having a conversation with us or focusing on their meal.”
Solitary diners have been using devices of various sorts to keep themselves company for decades, but in the past it was a book, a crossword, or a newspaper. Checking email and social media feeds on one’s phone while eating does not help anyone to disconnect or take a break, and can fuel work-related stress.
Ideally, a meal should be a time to recharge, both physically and mentally. If you live alone, you can create opportunities for communal eating – with housemates, neighbours, friends, family, and work colleagues. If you have a family, then embrace the built-in community that you’ve already got! Schedule the upcoming year’s extra-curriculars in such a way that you can eat together, or get up a few minutes earlier so you can share breakfast.
Keep in mind this lovely quote from J.R.R. Tolkein: “If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”