Jenna Petersen, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor
May 15, 2021
Many people eat by themselves these days. Whether by choice, by chance, because of unwanted singleness, or due to no opportunities to eat with co-workers, our tables are often empty when our stomachs become full.
People often equate eating alone to being lonely when eating.
Here’s a secret: being alone is not the same as being lonely. Being alone means that you do not have the company of another human or animal. Being by yourself means that you may be around a sea of people, perhaps at a concert or a sporting event, but you do not feel connected with anyone there. One is a state of physical proximity, and another is a negative emotional experience due to perceived quantity or quality of social interactions. I have been alone and content, such as when reading a book or painting. On the other hand, I have experienced loneliness in groups when I feel like I do not match the group’s norm, not only personally but also professionally. Maybe you’ve been there, too.
You may feel like the most lonely person in the world when eating by yourself. Our world is increasingly isolated and disconnected. Despite feeling that persistent loneliness when eating by yourself, you can take steps to change your longing for the company of another person during that time.
In order to help you thrive while eating alone, I want to highlight two benefits of eating alone, as well as four practical tips for how to maximize your time while eating alone.
Benefits of eating alone include: (1) reflecting on your day, and (2) praying closer attention to your food.
First, you have the opportunity to reflect on your day. Reflecting on our experiences might happen briefly while driving between commitments or walking into buildings, but more often than not our minds are caught up in the next thing. Self-reflection is often cast-aside for more “important” activities. Take time when you are eating alone to count up the positives of the day. Process through difficulties or disappointments. You have quality time with yourself to think when it’s just you and your meal. I know sometimes our thoughts can spiral into negativity when we are by ourselves, but you can challenge yourself to still see this as an opportunity. Choose to count our blessings in some small way during those meals.
When eating alone, you can pay closer attention to your food. Mindful eating is extremely difficult. Those of us who live busy lives are often distracted while eating, which reduces true enjoyment of meals. It’s hard to not be distracted when eating a meal with other people, even if it’s just one friend. Your meals by yourself are a time to relish each bite. Soak up the flavors, aroma, and texture of your food. Deeper enjoyment of these small nuances can lead to significantly more satisfaction in a meal.
In addition to the benefits listed above, seven practical tips to thrive in any eating experience, and especially when eating, include: (1) set the table, (2) ditch the electronics, (3) make it special, (4) find the joy, (5) see beyond the moment, (6) check your emotions, and (7) try cooking a new recipe.
It may seem like a luxury, but setting the table is an important part of eating a meal, whether alone or at a party. It helps create a nice environment by setting your table with nice dishes, napkins, cups, and silverware. If you do not own any of those items, it might be time to invest in them. Take small steps in this direction, if you find this suggestion overwhelming. Maybe the first step could be using a bowl or plate instead of eating out of a pot or pan.
Ditching electronics during a meal might feel like a total waste of time, but I can assure you that it is not. When you eliminate the distractions of social media, messaging, and news on phones, you can be more present when eating. When you find ways to be entertained besides movies, shows, or sporting events on televisions, you will learn to not miss them. Finally, don’t you use these types of electronics more than enough on a daily basis? Most people use screens at a staggering rate–on average, 12 hours a day, according to public health expert Nicole Roberts on Forbes.com. Take a break from the constant influx of information streaming from electronic devices. Maybe start with 15 minutes off the screen during a meal by yourself, and perhaps that time will slowly increase to 20, 25, or 30 minutes per meal. You will find that eating itself does not take as long as you perceive that it will. You can also become more used to the pattern of closing your laptop, turning off the TV, or silencing the cell phone so that you can enjoy moments of solitude without the pressing needs of the outside world. Your overall health and well-being will thank you.
How do you make eating by yourself “special”? Well, there are a few ideas that come to my mind. Some people put on relaxing music, such as jazz, instrumental hymns, or classical orchestral works. These examples might seem foreign to you, but I think that you will be able find something out there that is primarily instrumental to enjoy. Music without words from a song that you have never heard will give you a special experience. It will help you tune in to the beauty of the song without trailing off into other thoughts. Music can impact our moods. Soothing or upbeat music can be helpful at different times of the day. Another idea that I have for you is to light a candle, use greenery, or decorate your table setting in another small way. By making a different table setting every so often, you can enjoy eating by yourself in a new way instead of feeling caught in a rut of the same routine.
Finding the joy might seem unattainable in a short, small meal by yourself. I understand that you have been going at a million miles an hour and don’t need one more thing to add to your to-do list. You might be feeling overwhelmed by all of these suggestions to thrive while eating alone. Perhaps this suggestion will be the simplest, most basic way to attempt to eat by yourself in a new way. Find the joy in your meal instead of being inwardly irritated at having the same lunch for the fourth day in a row. Find the positives of your food. There has to be something about what you chose for a meal that makes you happy. What is it? Identify that and let it be especially happy for those first few bites. Give yourself permission to audibly say “mmmmm, yummy” or smile. It is okay to acknowledge and express joy! Find the joy. Find the pleasure. Find a different way to recognize what is great today.
When you are eating alone, you have the unique opportunity to see beyond the moment. You can go to farther places in your thoughts that you ever might have considered before. Let yourself dream, even if it is only for a moment. Look down on the 10,000-ft view of life. You might come up with some amazing ideas that involve helping other people, bettering yourself, creating something new, or starting a new hobby. It might be helpful to jot down those ideas before you forget them! See beyond the moment and dream.
In eating alone, some of us struggle to avoid feeling lonely. Check your emotions–loneliness, sadness, irritation, happiness, elation, fear, anxiety, anger, or poor self-image. Seek to meet your needs for these deep emotions outside of eating food. Sometimes, emotional eating is okay. If you constantly eat out of a state of loneliness or sadness, however, this pattern is important to break. Try to address your emotions in ways besides eating, such as journaling, taking a walk, drawing, or talking it out. Learn how to cope with your emotions with kindness. Checking your emotions can help you identify when you are emotionally eating, even if it doesn’t change right away. Give yourself time and space to feel those emotions about eating by yourself. In processing them, you may identify how they impact your eating pattern and be able to work through them with a professional.
Finally, it can be fun to try a new recipe if you are eating by yourself. People often have a hard time cooking nice meals for just themselves. If that is you, it might be a stretch to make a meal; cooking a new recipe would be a very new experience for you. I can’t promise that the experience will be enjoyable for everyone reading this post, but consider this: (1) you can cook whatever you want, (2) if it all goes wrong, you only have to worry about yourself, and (3) you might just find your favorite new recipe. Attempting to make a new recipe when eating alone has more benefits than drawbacks. I think your tastebuds will thank you!
I hope these suggestions help you thrive while eating alone! If you regularly eat by yourself, give one of these a try in the coming week or month.