Eating alone is a very American thing

In 1985, The New York Times published a snippet of comforting news for self-conscious solo eaters. “Dining alone,” the newspaper reassured readers, “is no longer viewed as odd.” At the time, eating spaghetti and meatballs by yourself wasn’t exactly the norm. A second article, which ran only seven months later in the Times, chronicled the stigma of solo dinners.

Thirty years later, thanks to a range of social and cultural trends, eating alone has become less of an occasional exercise than a fact of life. Nearly half of all meals and snacks are now eaten in solitude, according to a new report by industry trade association the Food Marketing Institute. The frequency varies by meal — people are more likely to eat breakfast by themselves than lunch or dinner — but the popularity of solo dining is, no doubt, on the rise, and has been for some time…

Indeed, a 1999 survey found that the number of people who ate alone at least part of the time tripled between the 1960s and 1990s. By 2006, nearly 60 percent of Americans regularly ate on their own, according to the American Time Use Survey. Today, that number is even higher.

Breakfast has undergone the most significant transformation. Roughly 53 percent of all breakfasts are now eaten alone, whether at home, in the car, or at one’s desk, according to the latest report.

Lunch meanwhile is nearly as lonely these days. Some 45 percent of midday meals are had alone, according to the report.

Dinner is the only meal that is still largely communal. Roughly three quarters of all suppers are still eaten with others today. But even that is changing…

One of the clearest reasons for the shift is something that has been happening to American households, gradually, for decades: They have been getting smaller. Over the more than 40-year span between 1970 and 2012, the percentage of households that contained a single person grew from 17 percent to 27 percent, according to Census Bureau data.

“Only 13 percent of households had one person in them in the 1960s,” said Seifer, who credits marriage and family trends with the rise of the single person American household. “People are either delaying marriage or putting off the formation of families after they get married more and more these days.”

People are also eating alone because they’re pressed for time.

But for all the hoopla about braving the restaurant world alone, the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners being eaten without companions these days aren’t happening at fancy eateries or fast food chains. Most of them, in fact, are being eaten in the comfort of one’s home. What that has meant so far is more delivery, which has been a boon for services like Seamless, and prepared foods, like Trader Joes’ Indian meals, which are selling exceptionally well.

The food industry understands this, which is why restaurants across the country have signed up to delivery services in droves, and, in part, why companies like Maple, a delivery-only restaurant based in New York City, exist.

Work stresses and scheduling are part of the equation – in households with couples. The years my wife and I were both working demanded separate breakfasts. She left for work a couple hours earlier than I. Retirement for me made it easier for the two of us – and now that she’s retired, as well, we’ve managed to build a new schedule that allows for “convening” even when we’re not sharing the same tastes.

The “take-it-home” meals for one are a phenomenon we noticed a decade ago when we were silly enough to think we could afford to shop at Whole Foods. The space they dedicate to attractive take-out was a real surprise. We see the same process on a smaller scale at Sprouts – and just as much dedicated display space at our local Trader Joe’s.

Nothing we ever sample, of course. We both happen to be good cooks.

2 thoughts on “Eating alone is a very American thing

  1. Mr. Creosote says:

    “Blue Zones: What the Longest-Lived People Eat (Hint: It’s Not Steak Dinners)” Scientific American, April 6, 2015 http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/food-matters/blue-zones-what-the-longest-lived-people-eat-hint-it-8217-s-not-steak-dinners/ “…controversy persists, especially when it comes to recommendations about diet. This is in part due to the inherent complexity and difficulties in performing human nutrition research …But probably more detrimental to getting straight answers about nutrition is the money that’s at stake any time changes come up that might shift people away from the Standard American Diet. {See links}

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