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Party Of 1: We Are Eating A Lot Of Meals Alone

Communal meals are woven into our DNA. But eating alone is no longer a social taboo.
Communal meals are woven into our DNA. But eating alone is no longer a social taboo.

Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, once likened eating alone to "leading the life of a lion or wolf." This philosopher of pleasures, it seems, was a big fan of companionship. Communal meals are woven into our DNA.

But a lot of us are lone wolves these days when it comes to dining. New research finds 46 percent of adult eating occasions — that's meals and snacks — are undertaken alone.

The data were gathered by the Hartman Group, a market research firm. It's included in a new report from the Food Marketing Institute.

In America and many other cultures, eating alone has long been a social taboo. But that's changing.

Now, "it's more socially acceptable to eat alone," says Laurie Demeritt, CEO of Hartman Group. "There's this true cultural change that we believe is taking place."

One of the drivers of solo-eating is the shift towards more single-person households. According to Census Bureau data, the proportion of one-person American households increasedfrom 17 percent in 1970 to 27 percent in 2012.

And this has helped usher in a new kind of norm. Why take the time to prepare and sit down to a meal by yourself, when you can just grab-and-go?

"A smoothie and a bar [can] represent a lunch today," Demeritt says. And the fixed thinking about three square meals a day is becoming passe.

"There's a more flexible, on-the-go eating style," Demeritt says. We eat in our cars, while we walk down the street, and often, at our desks. And in many cases, snacks are replacing the fixed institution of meals.

Next time you're waiting in line at Starbucks, for instance, notice all the little bento-style boxes of cheese, hummus and meal-like snacks for sale in the cold case.

But if breakfast and lunch are on the go, surely there must be some respect left for the institution of dinner? As we've reported, many Americans aspire to the sit-down, family meal.

Yep, the new data reflect this is still true. "Dinner still has some significance in consumers' lives, in terms of eating together," Demeritt says. Her group's research finds that only 24 percent of dinners are eaten alone, compared to 53 percent of breakfasts and 45 percent of lunches.

But these dinners may not look like a Norman Rockwell painting of a family sitting together. Often, we're still tethered to our devices.

"We might be in the room together, be we're engaged in other activity," Demerritt says. Think of it as a semi-alone state — or being alone, together.

That's not to say that technology will always be the divider when it comes to meals. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, researchers are starting to investigate ways that technologies like Skype, table-top video monitors or even robotic systems can be used to bring people together virtually during meals.

The work, led by Wendy Rogers of the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory, is focused on finding ways to connect seniors to friends and family members at meal times.

Research has shown that people tend to eat less when dining alone than in large social groups. That can be a good thing if you're trying to watch your waistline. But it's a problem when it comes to the elderly living alone or in assisted living. They're vulnerable to malnutrition for lots of reasons. They're too frail to open food packages or screw off tops, they're alone or depressed, they've lost their appetites, or they're not motivated to cook a meal for one.

Technology, says Rogers, can be a means to re-establish a sense of social connectedness and provide the social cues that feed our joy of eating.

"Anecdotally, we know that people are already doing this with grandparents and grandchildren, Skyping to catch up during dinner time," Roger says. "But I don't think it's really taken off yet."

And technology is already helping to bridge the gap among lonely eaters in other, surprising ways.

Witness the rise of the South Korean phenomenon known as mukbang, in which viewers pay to watch strangers binge eat over a live video stream during dinnertime.

In an age when — as in America — one-third of Korean households now consist of just one person, people are simply using new technology to reconnect over a meal, says Sangyoub Park, a sociologist at Washburn University who has studied mukbang.

"Maybe this is the future for us all," Park says. "Everyone is so busy, and you don't want to eat alone. So you go online. ... So even though you don't share the same table, you are eating together with someone else."

Of course, eating alone can also have its upsides. In 1937, the food writer M.F.K. Fisher extolled the virtues of solitary meals, suggesting they can be an opportunity for more mindful eating. And she pointed out, even royals have given it a try — King Louis XIV of France made it a habit to lunch alone.

And that great icon of modern pop culture, Andy Warhol, was ahead of his time when it came to eating alone.

"I like eating alone," Warhol once said. "I want to start a chain of restaurants for other people who are like me. ... You get your food and then you take your tray into a booth and watch television."

Today, that would be texting, Instagramming or watching a vine.

Tomorrow? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy is a senior editor with NPR's Science Desk and the host of NPR's food blog, The Salt. Godoy covers the food beat with a wide lens, investigating everything from the health effects of caffeine to the environmental and cultural impact of what we eat.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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