Solo Dining: Is It Harmful or Helpful?

Woman eating alone at outdoor cafe table

Ed Yourdon / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

At the very least, it has altered significantly the way we approach meals.

The latest Wellbeing Index revealed that one-third of Britons regularly eat meals alone. This trend toward solitary dining is reflected in other studies, too. A Mintel survey of 2,000 UK residents found that in London half the population eats alone. To cater to these solo eaters, grocery stores have begun stocking single-portion burgers, steaks, and vegetables. Restaurants are getting used to 'table for one' reservations, with such requests increasing 160 percent in the past five years.

Despite its prevalence, there's something about a lone diner that strikes a person as inherently sad. After all, eating communally has been a universal human ritual throughout history. Amy Fleming writes in The Guardian,

"Not only is it practical (many hands make light work – and also reduce our vulnerability to predators) but meals have, traditionally, been used to meet our fundamental need for connection with others."

So, what effect does dining alone have on us humans? Fleming points out that, on a most basic level, it creates extra work. You put in all that effort to feed one person, then still have to wash up. Batch-cooking is a way around this, but the menu gets tedious when most recipes are designed for 4-6 people, and you don't want to eat the same thing all week long. (This is slowly changing, as more short-order cookbooks are being published.)

Many solo eaters end up 'scrounging' for dinner, assembling a meal from ingredients found in the fridge or pantry. The rise in the sale of dips, such as hummus and guacamole, is linked to this, as they're healthy and easy to eat in a hurry.

And why the hurry? Obviously, busy schedules are a factor, but researchers have found that, when one eats alone, there's less of an inclination to linger over a meal. Fleming writes that the average length of time per meal is getting shorter and shorter every year, and more people are substituting snacks for actual sit-down meals.

Studies differ when it comes to assessing the quality of solo diets. People tend to overeat when they're in group settings, and they're more prone to get off track while following a diet if they're eating with others. In this sense, solo eating is a positive, allowing one to stick to a stricter, better balanced diet regimen.

On the other hand, solo eaters eat fewer vegetables than when they eat with others, and they report indulging in secret food pleasures because there's no judgement. From the Guardian:

"The New Yorker writer Rachel Syme recently triggered a mammoth confessional Twitter thread by admitting that when working from home alone she enjoys 'a pickled beet in between a mini Babybel cheese sliced in half, eaten like a tiny sandwich'. Respondents shared their love of everything from tuna salad mixed with a packet of crisps to sucking bacon grease out of kitchen roll."

There's also a tendency to hang out on one's phone, simply to feel less alone. This I see as a longing for companionship at the table, and an unfortunate distraction from the pleasure of mindful eating and watching the world go by.

I think it's good to have a mix of both in one's life. As a parent to three young children, whose mealtimes are packed with relentless chatter, a solitary meal feels like a rare luxury, a chance to savor food, rather than shovel it into my mouth at top speed. But after a recent week of solo traveling and eating many meals alone (and fighting the urge to look at my phone for company), I can appreciate having human companions at the table – even if they are demanding little people prone to burping and backwashing.

All this is to say, invite the solo dwellers you know to share food, whether they're young or old. The more of a sense of community we have – and that feeling always intensifies over shared food – the better off we'll all be. A person should never feel like they have to eat alone, or have no one to call when they do want company. We can change that today, by reaching out and eating together.