Going out to eat alone can feel awkward or intimidating for some. You have no one to talk to and nothing to do apart from people watching, scrolling through your phone or reading a book at your table while you wait for your food to come out. But for many of us, learning to eat alone at a restaurant is a valuable skill. Whether you’re on a work trip or you’ve moved to a new city and don’t have anyone to grab a meal with, you don’t want to have to sacrifice the delight of visiting a new restaurant just because you can’t locate a fellow diner.
Perhaps that’s why the internet is now rife with advice on how to get more comfortable with eating out alone. Sit at the bar, bring something to read, don’t assume that anyone is judging you—all smart and useful advice. I, for one, started eating out at restaurants alone when I was solo traveling and the thought of a sad club sandwich from the room service menu just felt too bleak for me to handle. Over the years, I’ve learned to love it. Sometimes, I even prefer it. And I think it’s great that people are gaining the confidence to go out on their own and not wait for others to do the things they want to do.
And yet… there’s a part of me that can’t shake the feeling that the weirdness people feel when they go out to eat alone is justified. Eating is a communal activity; eating alone, especially at first, feels off on an instinctual level. To me, it seems like just another example of the rabid American individualism that has pervaded even the most intimate corners of society, turning even eating, even sex, into solo activities much of the time.
For me, the main appeal of eating alone—of doing anything alone, really—is the fact that there is no compromise required. In the case of dining, I and I alone get to choose the restaurant, decide what on the menu sounds good enough to order, and choose exactly how much I want to eavesdrop on the first date at the table next to me. Nobody’s going to judge me if I order a third glass of wine. And when the meal is over and I leave the restaurant, it feels like the whole night is at my fingertips. Walking around a busy part of town? Grabbing an espresso? Reading at a late-night coffee shop? It’s all on the table.
And in a world where it feels like we must always be on the go, eating out alone feels like one of the few times when we really get to stop and just be present. No TV blaring in the background, no mandatory clacking on a laptop to get some work done: just me and my food. Though it can feel awkward at first, learning to embrace my aloneness and not feel uncomfortable with it has been an invaluable lesson, and it’s made me more willing to go places I’ve never gone before on my own. It’s undoubtedly a real pleasure and one I think everyone who can should cultivate.
However, the fact that solo dining has become so ubiquitous in the last few decades demonstrates a worrying shift in our culture. It’s not groundbreaking to point out that Americans have grown increasingly isolated from each other despite what I observe to be a real craving for community. And although many young people may have given up the mammoth expanses of grass that separate so many Americans from their neighbors, those of us in big cities have traded that lawn for the expanse of the empty dinner table. The IFT reports that, according to 2020 numbers, 46% of meals Americans ate were solo meals, including more than half of breakfasts and almost a quarter of dinners. In 2015, the Washington Post called eating alone “the most American thing there is.”
It makes sense: Americans move a lot. Numbers from 2007 estimate that the average American will move 11 times in their life. Considering the state of the job market in 2022, I’d be surprised if that number hasn’t jumped drastically. We’re living farther away from friends and family, and many find that making friends in adulthood is difficult. Even those who do stay in their hometowns around people they love have found new reasons to keep to themselves with the increasing cultural and political divides ravaging the country. Plus, it makes sense for food corporations to exploit this phenomenon: The less we’re sharing meals with loved ones, the more likely we are to grab a convenience meal or stop by a fast casual chain for dinner on the way home.
Plenty of studies have shown a correlation between eating alone and common health issues, like heart disease, metabolic syndrome and mental health issues. Plus, I think most of us—even those who love solo dining—would agree that eating meals alone on a regular basis can feel lonely and isolating. Food is a source of connection and warmth and a willingness to share and accept, and we lose all of that when we eat alone.
After four stressful years of the Trump administration, Democrats and progressives were eager to take over control of the government and make the changes the American people so desperately need. But over a year into Biden’s presidency, and it’s become increasingly obvious to many that the large systems at play do not have the ability (or perhaps the will) to institute the real, widespread changes we need at a political level, let alone a cultural one.
Rather, many community leaders are turning to smaller-scale changes to build more connected, empathetic and effective communities. Luckily, reimagining food culture can literally start at our own tables, and I don’t mean that in an abstract, “we can all make a difference” way. I literally mean that extending an offer to host someone for dinner can help us break down our boundaries—social and culinary—to foster better models of sustenance.
Fortunately, there are better ways to eat and share food. I wrote about the hostel as a source of inspiration for interconnected eating with strangers, and many cultures around the world value meeting up with friends to eat several nights a week instead of a couple of times a month. And though I’ll never fully surrender my love for solo meals, I hope we can use these examples to create better day-to-day eating habits that center food as a force of connection and community building that can prepare us for the changes the world has in store for us.
In times when our isolation and solitude function as a foundation of control and capitalism, sharing a meal truly is a political act.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.