In June 2014, one of the Hartman Group’s very interesting consumer research online reports, Hartbeat Vista delivered an astonishing fact: 47% of all eating occasions in American today are solo experiences – that’s right; almost half the time we’re eating alone. This statistic has wide ranging impacts, from the physical (individual health including weight) to psychological (family, community, home life and design), which makes understanding these impacts all the more important.
This solo eating phenomenon ﬂies in the face of the advice given by many social and nutrition scientists and by Oldways’ Healthy Eating Pyramids. Rather, the Pyramids include eating with family and friends as a lifestyle attribute that contributes to good health and well-being. At least Americans may be consistent. Perhaps it’s the same people who don’t eat their fruits and vegetables. Less than half of the American population eats the recommended number of vegetables and fruit every day. (From vox.com: 40 maps that explain food in America. Source: Calculated by ERS/USDA based on data from various sources (see Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Documentation). Data as of February 2014.)
But what does it mean that almost half of all eating occasions in America are solitary, and, now knowing that so many people eat alone, what could be done to improve the health of the nation?
Cookbook author Deborah Madison and her artist husband Patrick McFarlin were so curious about what we do when no one is looking that they wrote a book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone.
The book grew out of Patrick’s habit of questioning chefs and food writers about their solitary practices when they were traveling as part of Oldways’ overseas cultural food symposiums. When Patrick handed Deborah his drawings of crazed cooks in their kitchens, she was compelled to join him in asking others about their solitary eating habits.
It’s fascinating and fun. Deborah and Patrick discovered a wide range of solo foods of choice, ranging from peanut butter and jelly (or unusual combinations) to chocolate sundaes with extra chocolate to pork loin to ham and cottage cheese to extraordinarily complicated ethnic meals. Check out the book in the Oldways bookstore.
Technology makes it easy to eat alone. However, are we really alone when we’re eating in front of the TV or a computer screen or texting on a mobile phone? Not really. Instead of eating with family and friends, technology is the connector, providing the “company” lacking in a solo dining experience. You only need to think of Joaquin Phoenix’s over-the-top fascination, obsession and connection with Scarlett Johansson’s voice in the movie, Her, to get an exaggerated view of this reality.
Books and magazines and iPads and mobile phones are the companion of choice for most when dining out alone. In the many articles I found online about eating alone at restaurants, the requisite reading material was included as often as the advice to “sit at the bar.” One exception I found was a restaurant in Amsterdam, Eenmaal. (Eenmaal is moving to Antwerp and to Brooklyn soon.) It is the world’s ﬁrst one-person restaurant and is self-described as an “attractive place for temporary disconnection.” There is no wi-ﬁ.
Dining connections or the advice to eat meals with family and friends are rooted in tradition and have implications for physical and mental health. People eat more slowly when there’s conversation at the table, and, research shows that by eating more slowly, digestion is improved and a feeling of fullness or satiety comes more quickly; therefore, fewer calories are consumed.
In addition, on the social side, human beings are wired to connect. In Scientiﬁc American, scientist Matthew Lieberman’s research shows that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. We need to connect and the connections create pleasure, conﬁdence and knowledge. Families that eat together stay together. Timi Gustafson, RD, summarizes research results in the Huﬃngton Post, writing that the dinner table is a place for children to learn and observe manners, the art of conversation and the skill of problem solving. The dinner table is one place where children are taught to be part of society, part of a family.
Despite the many beneﬁts of eating with family and friends, solo eating is not going away, and will probably grow in popularity. Solo meals at home, whether in the “company” of technology or not can be beautifully prepared meals or junk food feasts. No one will ever know about your secret gluttony or techno food pleasures, or if you’re a closet Julia Child.
If almost half of dining experiences are solo, those of us concerned about health and wellness should perhaps focus on inspiring what we do when no one is looking! In addition to connecting through technology while dining alone, it’s time to value and connect to the food and its preparation. Food quality isn’t only about the actual food. Rather it’s the care and connection to food + the actual food that makes the experience one of quality.
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