Shortly after we climbed out of the primordial ooze and started roasting beasts we found smaller and weaker than ourselves, humans sat around the fire and ate together. But now, new research shows we're eating more and more meals all by ourselves.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Julie Jargon has the details from a report from the NPD group, which finds:
People eat breakfast by themselves 60% of the time and eat lunch alone 55% of the time.
She notes: "NPD conducted a one-time study of consumers and does not have historic data showing whether the trend toward solitary eating has accelerated." But we can all assume it has:
The market research firm says a big driver of solo dining is the changing nature of the American household. Unlike the prior norm of families and couples sharing homes, it's become more common for households to consist of just one person. In fact, 27% of all American households–the highest level in history– now comprise only a single person, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1970, just 17% of households were made up of one person, and the share of households made up of married couples with children was 40%. By 2012, that number had halved to 20%.
It's worth thinking about it this way, as well: In 1970, there were fewer one-person households, but there was no Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram. Having a meal together was an intrinsic part of keeping up with friends and family. Now it's possible to have hundreds of followers on Twitter and spend your days eating meals by yourself — possibly while scrolling through feeds on your smart phone and looking at what your friends have been up to. The TV dinner was invented in the '40s; we've just been focusing on smaller screens lately.
Jargon writes that solo diners are a challenge for grocery stores and food marketing companies, who have traditionally packaged items in larger quantities or even "family-sized." She adds: "It's also a challenge for restaurants, particularly casual dining chains that aren't as attractive to solo diners in a hurry."
Eating alone remains a source of anxiety for many people. A quick poll of my coworkers revealed that the prospect of eating lunch alone in a restaurant wasn't a big deal, but the idea of eating dinner alone in a restaurant made some feel uneasy. (The general consensus was that eating dinner at the bar of the restaurant is a lot less anxiety-inducing.) The research shows:
The one meal for which people are still congregating is dinner, with just 32% of dinner meals eaten alone.
I live alone, and eat alone quite often. Usually it doesn't bother me at all. Dining out alone, I often take a book or magazine or journal. Today at work, I ordered food with a coworker, and when it arrived, we split it up and then both ate alone, in front of our computer monitors. In the same room as a bunch of other people doing the same thing. Recently I went on vacation by myself to an all-inclusive resort. Being on the beach alone all day was heavenly; being in the dining area alone at dinner time felt a little stressy. Food was served buffet-style, but there weren't a ton of two-top tables, and somehow the awkwardness of me standing around with my plate looking for a place to sit felt very teen-movie-obligatory-sad-cafeteria-scene. For whatever reason, breakfast and lunch were not as distressing. When I was in screenwriting school, I had a professor who told us he thought the perfect living situation would be in a boarding house: You're surrounded by an interesting, random group of people who are not your family; you come down and see them at breakfast, have some light chitchat, all separate and go about your day, and then come home and argue about issues at the dinner table before heading up to bed (alone).
Dining with company — whether it's one other person or a group — can feel natural, civilized, comforting; there's almost something savage about wolfing down tacos while staring glassy-eyed at the TV (though that remains of my favorite rituals). But having a long, leisurely, boozy, sybaritic meal with a group of friends is a true delight. That said, it does seem as though — as the Columbus Dispatch puts it — Eating alone is the new normal. How it will change the way groceries are sold and restaurants are set up remains to be seen.
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