Eating Alone

     Sitting at the end of a crowded lunch table with my brother on our first day, barely able to hear myself think over the din at our new high school cafeteria, I first tasted a new dimension of eating alone.  Although the cafeteria tables’ fold-down benches were weighed down with the plenty of students of similar size and age, I didn’t connect with any of them: I certainly wasn’t eating with them.  My brother and I were not about to share that moment too readily–he was hardly my dining companion. The crowning moment of that comically sad, lonely meal came when our table filled up; the PALS arrived. The Peer Assistance and Leadership team, clad in matching red shirts announcing their role as friends of the friendless, sidled up beside us. Oh crap, I thought. My place on the bottom of the high school food chain was as sealed as the bottles of preserved peaches in my grandmother’s pantry. I had never felt so desperately, definitively alone at the table.

     Eating alone means different things to different people. When we say ‘I am alone,’ we mean different things. The phrase is descriptive: we are by ourselves, and yet the words when used have an emotional trajectory. They imply loneliness (a negative state), vulnerability (a limitation), or solitude (a sought condition). Isolation, limitation, and desired separation, can be either physically or emotionally alone at the table (as was my first meal at a new high school), and have a direct impact on just what we eat alone .That is, if the meal is even at a table; or desk; or in bed. This is probably the point where I should confess to eating a napkin-wrapped sandwich or even a bowl of oatmeal in the car while I drive to class- it has happened. And I appreciate the lack of audience to witness the gracelessness of those meals.

    Eating alone is just a fact of life. I appreciate the lack of judgement for the meals I eat alone. But the truth is as M.F.K. Fisher once declared: “People are alone. Everyone has to eat alone.” While we don’t all take our meals alone everyday, a few times a week, or as for Siamese Twins, never; most of us will spend time eating alone no matter how we feel about it.

      However, what some of us eat alone hardly qualifies as a meal. In a simple and unscientific survey, I recently asked a few people what they eat when they are alone and why. Real meals are not something a lot of people confessed they can’t bring themselves to do when it is just them. They merely mitigate hunger by whatever they can scrounge: leftovers, peanut butter sandwiches, or as one respondent said, “The. Most. Random. Crap.”  Take-out was another common answer. Many people, my own husband included, would rather eat in the car or take their food home, as it slowly sags, steaming in styrofoam to-go containers, than sit in a restaurant, at a table, alone. For them eating out is awkward and lonely, they only sit-down or dine-in socially. Whether staying in or picking something up, the isolating loneliness of eating alone keeps many people from eating the same kind of meal they would eat with others.  The usual explanation was: “I don’t enjoy putting forth effort to cook a nice meal unless it is being shared with and enjoyed by someone else.” Not everyone feels that way.

    In recent years I have had more frequent occasions to travel and dine alone and I have been growing rather fond of the time I’ve had to cook, dine, and eat alone. This last week was one of them. For a plenitude of reasons I ended up with five days on my own, alone at my grandparents house so I could work on writing project (one I’m certain I’ll be telling you more about later). In those many meals alone I noticed a few things about myself and considered about eating alone in general.

      Here it is: whatever you choose, you choose it. Eating alone forces a deliberate, independent choice different from the ones we make when cooking for others or being fed by them. Yes, we may pick the menu or decide what we’ll eat from the common table, but we do so under the scrutiny of others. Knowing others are watching, and maybe judging your craving for peanut butter dipped pickles might make you think twice about indulging with an audience (my sister has confesses to only eating them solo).  Beyond what you choose to eat or not eat, singular dining deliberateness extends to the freedom to choose what to make of the experience.

    Lone eaters have the freedom to eat in the Green Eggs and Ham manner—in a box, with fox, here or there, really you could be eating anywhere, though some of the most common are really just over the kitchen sink, in front of the computer, or in bed. What better time to pander to an inclination to eat dessert first, make a meal of nothing but perfect pommes frites or go all out on a lobster dinner for boil for one.

    I am among the number that enjoys dining alone. Yes, I love family dinners, entertaining and cooking with my children, but when I’m unaccompanied, and unburdened of the daily pleasure and constant need to feed the bottomless bellies in my family, I welcome the reprieve. Without the distraction of conversation or social politeness I become a much more mindful eater, so long as we aren’t counting the hurried meals I’ve sometimes eat on the way to class. I don’t worry about eating too slow (what I always do when talking at the same time) or eating too fast (what I do with my kids); I do whatever pleases me best.  Those moments are for communion not with others, but with my self. I eat what I really want, and need.

For those meals, I most often cook simply, but savory little meals. Slick a medium hot skillet with a drizzle of oil, and toast a whole, peeled clove of garlic, slowly, so not to burn it, but to cook the sides of the garlic until deeply golden brown. The oil will infuse with the golden garlic that will be used to carry flavor through the dish. Add chopped greens, with the stems minced to speed cooking time, (I favor chard, but kale, beet and spinach others are nice here are well) and saute them until tender. Pile a thick mess of them on to a slice of toast, and top with a soft poached egg and sprinkle of fresh herbs (thyme, chives, or parsley are good) or a dusting of smoky paprika, flaky sea salt and just-ground pepper. Or lid the greens with grated gruyere or smoked, aged cheddar and another slice of good bread and make my favorite version of a grilled cheese sandwich. Simple, rich, and satisfying food. Pull up with a good read and tuck in.

    Perhaps it is the stolen moment that tastes so delicious, or maybe it is the food.  But after a week of that pleasure on repeat I was happy to be with others again, eating alone for longer than I have before made me so grateful to dine with companionship, a good conversation, and even cutting up food into bite-size pieces for my kids, the extra mess of cooking for others, the clatter in the kitchen and the bustle at the table.

    I’ve been isolated and left alone, I don’t like that.  I’ve been forced alone, snatching meals alone on the go, and then there are those welcome moments of reprieve.  While I love it on occasion, it is the communion with others, the shared table that I love best, but I don’t doubt I will again welcome the reprieve of eating alone when the chance comes around again, except for those meals in the car, I’ve willing to let that indignity go. . .

How about you? What is your experience with eating alone?

About Sandra

(Blog Editor and Prose Board) recently moved back to California by way of north Texas, Baltimore and San Francisco. She loves sunlight, color, and intense dark chocolate. She devours cookbooks like novels and writes a bit at www.section89.com.

13 thoughts on “Eating Alone

  1. I enjoy both. It’s such a pleasure for me to eat my lunch alone while the kids are napping – I can enjoy my food and maybe read or even just think about things that don’t involve my children for a little bit. And when my husband is out of town on business, I love feeding my kids oatmeal and then making something special for me to eat after they are in bed. It is divine. Eating as a family is nice when the boys aren’t whining about how they ‘really just don’t like this kind of chicken’ or are constantly getting up and down – so like once a week. And socially it’s nice as well, to sit and chat and eat with people; I even like planning and prepping a meal for a large crowd.

    But when forced to eat alone, it is not so fun. Especially when you’re the new kid or somebody nobody seems to care to talk to. Being or feeling ostracized is never enjoyable.

  2. I have always loved cooking and pride myself on preparing most of our food myself, for me and my family. For years we ate almost all of our meals together as a family. Then I got divorced about 18 months ago; now I work full-time and my kids are gone at least one night a week. I’m learning to like eating by myself. Sometimes I eat leftovers, sometimes I cook something simple like eggs or a sandwich. I’ve also started getting take-out much more often than I did in the past, because getting a quick meal for one person a few times a month really isn’t a budget-breaker for me and often worth the savings in time and dishes. I still don’t like fast-food, and I still don’t like to eat alone in public. Restaurant meals seem to be a group occasion and I feel weird by myself–I’d rather take my food home and just eat it there.

  3. I’m quite accustomed to eating alone as it’s a normal part of the college experience. I get my group dining experience once a week and enjoy the leftovers for many meals to come — there’s no one to tell me that eating the same edamame salad three lunches and dinners in a row is wrong. However, eating alone means the leftover birthday cake takes much longer to get rid of, both in my fridge and off my hips.

    Eating alone days at a time makes me very much look forward to cooking for a crowd. For me, there’s a time for both. Each makes me look forward to the other. I enjoy the conversation, but my introverted nature begs for some time alone where no one can protest eating the same thing for a few days in a row before I feel like cooking for others again.

  4. For the first couple of weeks after my wife died, the only time I left the house was to go somewhere to eat. It didn’t have to be anywhere fancy, let alone nice. As often as not, I would have lunch at the food court at one of the local malls. Sure, I was alone at the table or booth, but there were other people there, too, doing what I was doing.

    I’m still all alone, but don’t need the company so much any more. Sometimes I’ll go all out, with something like grilled salmon and veggies, and sometimes it is much more basic, like ramen or cinnamon toast. Of all the things I miss in my widowhood, one that surprised me the most is how social eating really matters. There are still days where I need to go out to eat, even when I have a meal planned and ready to cook, just so I’m not eating alone.

  5. I almost never eat my lunch with my kids. It’s such a pleasure to get them all fed and the little ones down for naps, and then put together a meal for myself and eat it in perfect solitude.

    Before I had kids, I worked at a job that required some travel. I was in some fantastic cities, and had a nice food budget, so I ate at some great restaurants all by myself. It was a little awkward at first, and I got invited to the tables of random strangers (and had glasses of wine sent to mine), but I got to the point where I didn’t feel like I had to hide behind my book.

    That said, the idea of going to a restaurant with a book and a chance to people watch also sounds like a total pleasure.

  6. In high school I always felt sad for someone if I saw them eating alone in public (or alone at the movie theater where I worked). That changed when I was 19 doing an internship at a law firm in Washington, DC. My lunch breaks were a great chance to decompress alone or text with my boyfriend while I ate. I didn’t mind having a small table at Subway to myself and stopped feeling bed for people who ate alone in public.

    At home, I cherish breakfasts by myself. I like to read, check blogs, or just enjoy silence before my son wakes up. Lunch is usually a “working lunch” where I am trying to get my son to eat or talk with me. I generally do not like to have dinner alone, or rather, without my husband. Dinner alone because he is working late is not fun, but a rare indulgent night where I get to take myself out is fun.

  7. I teach fourth grade. When I drop them off for recess, I LOVE to go back to my quiet, darkened classroom and eat lunch all by myself. I can relax. I don’t have to be in charge of anyone. No one asks me any questions. I assure my co-workers that I’m not shunning them–I just need my “alone” time for that twenty minutes.

    But I love eating out with friends or family and talking and laughing and sharing bites. So, I guess it all depends on what I need right then. I’d be very sad to be reduced to eating alone because I didn’t have anyone to share my meal with…

  8. I eat alone often; most all the time. I prefer to cook meals for groups of people. Cooking for myself has no pleasure.
    I don’t mind eating out alone, which happens often when I travel. However, I have noticed that the service you get from the waitstaff is much, much lower quality compared to when you are in a group, even a group of two. That fact about eating alone bugs me more than anything.

  9. I live in a house of picky eaters, so eating alone is pure luxury for me: at home, I can cook something I really love, without having to worry about who won’t eat what; at a restaurant–well, I can go to a one that serves food the rest of my family wouldn’t touch–with no fussing, no “when will dinner get here,” just lots of quiet and allowing myself to taste the food, instead of rushing bites so I can take someone to the restroom.

  10. even if another person is also at your table sitting a few feet away you are eating alone unless they are inter-acting with you and sharing that common experience. I eat alone most of the time although my husband sits a few feet away. and It is lonely at my table.

  11. jennifer,

    Your comment reminds me that there is often a difference between being lonely and being alone. I feel your sorrow.

  12. When I’m eating by myself I can read a book or browse the web and not be rude, right now I’m browsing while eating a raspberry shake.

  13. I enjoyed reading this. As a youth I thought it would be so lonely to eat in public alone. Now as a busy mother, I enjoy the moments to eat and read alone, even in public. Reading about your homemade alone meal has made me hungry. I will have to head to the kitchen now…

Comments are closed.