Eating by yourself is just fine

How to Eat Alone (and Like It)

Table for one? It’s not as bad as it sounds. Here’s how to dine by yourself and enjoy every bite.

By Jess McHugh

  • Oct. 30, 2019

When the ancient Roman politician Lucius Lucullus noticed his night’s menu looking dull, he gave instructions to his cook to prepare a lavish, multiple-course feast. When the cook asked what type of guests to expect, he responded with indignation: “Dost thou not know that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?”

For Lucullus, meals were more than a social exercise: They were a ritual in personal pleasure. Greek dignitaries, for instance, described their shame at how much money Lucullus had spent on a dinner for them. “Some of this expense, my Grecian friends, is indeed on your account; most of it, however, is on account of Lucullus,” he said.

For those of us who never refer to ourselves in the third person and often eat a cold egg roll standing over the sink for dinner, Lucullus’s attitude can feel more than a little foreign. Somehow all of the romance of food, drink and their various joys seems to go out the window when we go from eating with another person to dining with ourselves. And much of the advice available on eating alone amounts to “bring a book” (I have several hamburger-stained books that attest to this being a bad idea). Yet, there is a freedom in eating alone, even if we need a little help to relish in it: no discussions of what we should order, no small talk, no sharing.

In her book “Serve It Forth,” the 20th century food writerM.F.K. Fisher described watching an elderly man eating alone with an almost religious reverence. He slowly consumed half an avocado sprinkled with powdered sugar and soaked in Russian kümmel liqueur. “He was at peace, and aware — aware that Lucullus dined with Lucullus for a reason,” she wrote.

For the past eight years, Amanda Cohen, chef at Dirt Candy in New York City, has done Valentine’s Day a little differently at her restaurant. Instead of the usual odes to coupledom, Ms. Cohen created a solo diner’s tasting menu for the holiday. In the years since she started the tradition, a kind of community has formed, with regulars who come in alone but soon get to know the staff and other guests.

“Make the most of it. Engage with your server; don’t be afraid to ask for things,” she said. “I want your experience to be just as good as if you’re two people, three people, four people, or if you’re one person.”

Psychologists have long tried to understand why the amount of time you spend alone does not necessarily correlate to how lonely you feel. In a study by the BBC in collaboration with academics from several universities in the United Kingdom, researchers found that some people who spent very little time alone reported high loneliness, whereas others who were often alone did not always report high loneliness.

Megan Bruneau, a therapist and executive coach who has written about loneliness, has an idea about why some people thrive with alone time. “They’re more able to sit with the discomfort of passing emotions, and thus they don’t fear them as much,” she said in an email. “They’re more attuned to their own needs and practice self-care and self-compassion as necessary.”

It all comes down to knowing your needs and coming up with coping mechanisms that work best for you, according to Ms. Bruneau. For some people that might mean sitting quietly and savoring each bite, but for others that could be phoning a friend while eating or even — that most taboo dinnertime activity — eating in front of the TV. As Ms. Bruneau put it, “Sometimes we need a little AGT” — “America’s Got Talent” — with our BLT.”

While “solo dining” might conjure up images of a corner booth at a cafe or a bar stool at a local restaurant, the ultimate solo dining experience is eating home alone. It’s when we’re home alone — with no one watching what we’re eating, how or where — that our quirks, eccentricities and guilty pleasures come out.

Samantha Widder, now a graduate adviser for the food studies program at New York University, spent several months during her own graduate studies gathering accounts from 150 people of their food habits when eating alone. Responses showed a wide spectrum of food experiences, representing the joys, stigmas and even fears around eating alone. (One respondent said he would eat only soft food when eating by himself, for fear he would choke.)

“I was thinking that I was going to find more of a celebratory tone, and there was more shame than I expected,” Ms. Widder said.

People described eating frozen food, takeout leftovers in bed, cold cuts slathered in mustard, and in more than one case an entire box of crackers with an entire block of cheese.

“Personally, I find that if there’s no one around then I can almost celebrate those habits and those things,” Ms. Widder said, citing a love of processed food. Whether people felt fear or freedom, shame or pleasure seemed to come down to their own attitude.

For her part, Ms. Widder said she found a certain comfort in the ubiquity of eating alone in a place like New York City. After all, if you’re eating old pickles out of the fridge in a Brooklyn apartment, chances are that more than one neighbor is, too.

If dining alone still carries stigma and anxiety for many people, drinking alone might be the last frontier. But as Victoria James, a New York City sommelier and the beverage director at Cote, explained, treating yourself to a quality cocktail or a glass of wine can play a part in the richness of the experience. “I think that the best way to savor a beverage when you’re alone is just sort of have that recognition; toast to yourself,” she said. “I think it’s a really beautiful thing. So first and foremost, celebrate that moment.”

One of the challenges in dining alone is that so much of the best wine in a restaurant can come by the bottle. If the wines by the glass aren’t what you’re looking for, Ms. James suggested speaking to the server or sommelier to see if they have other bottles open for tasting. In many states, including California and New York, diners can take home an unfinished bottle of wine. Ms. James encouraged diners to spring for a bottle, have a glass or two and then use that bottle as a way to revisit the experience over the next few days.

Mindfulness practice has entered mainstream culture in recent years, often as a way to reduce stress and boost self-awareness. The practice of mindfulness when it comes to food lends itself perfectly to eating alone, according to Lynn Rossy, Ph. D., president of the Center for Mindful Eating. When eating alone, it’s easier to focus simply on the food: its colors, texture, taste, smell. For Ms. Rossy, mindful eating takes place before, during and after a meal. It’s about deciding what you’re hungry for, whether it’s summer-ripe tomatoes or rich pasta, and focusing only on the act of eating.

“Mindfulness in general, just that act of bringing your attention back to one thing over and over — and just eating,” she said. “That trains us to have more attention and focus. We all could use a little more attention and focus in this world we live in.”

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