What is the Problem with Eating Alone?
Food has never been so easy to access, and yet it has never seemed so difficult to get food on the table. Never in history have we spent so much time alone, been more independent, and yet we’re often paralysed by being alone and will do anything to distract ourselves. Our eating habits in the Western World today threaten the whole world’s climate and often our own health, and yet are being adopted across the globe by those who can afford it. Never has it been more important we become conscious of what and how we eat.
We eat alone, according to a study by the Hartman Group, 46% of all adult eating occasions, and so the habits we adopt when eating alone must be taken seriously. A significant factor in the rise of eating alone are the advances in food preparation technology and we will look into how these advances have changed our fundamental approach to food.
Impact of Food Preparation Technology
Food preparation technology has made the physical process of preparing food in the developed world very easy. Machines sow and harvest crops, fertilisers and pesticides make sure harvests never fail, and factories can process anything to any level of completion you want, whether it’s just fruits and vegetables that have been washed and sorted, or wheat that’s been milled into flour, or microwavable chilli con carne. We don’t have a problem preparing food, we can access as many calories as we want or need with ridiculous ease.
Yet we do have a serious problem with preparing and eating food. People aren’t motivated to cook, yet are not satisfied with buying and eating pre-prepared meals. They’re often looked down upon, when infact they provide you with the calories you need, and the nutrition (if you’re careful). But somehow that’s not the answer, as Frances Short say’s in Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in Everyday Life,
'Rather than being discussed for its potential to emancipate…Ready meals, fast food and microwaves are seen to threaten the social order.’
We seem to be looking for something more than physical sustenance from our food. There are things we expect from preparing and eating food, that we don’t get when we eat pre-prepared meals. If we find what they are, and find a way to put them back into the process of making and eating food, then we can continue to enjoy the benefits of technological innovation, while also satisfying the rest of our human needs.
From the purely physical standpoint, it doesn’t matter if noone cooks. What matters is everything else that we lose alongside it: the care and attention we pay to our food, the sense of achievement at making a meal, the time spent focusing to relatively easy tasks that allow our brain to relax and the importance of a specific meal time. It is these psychological needs that we need to put back into preparing and eating food.
Psychological and Social Benefits
Modern food preparation technology has striped us of the need to spend large amounts of time with our food, but what have we unwittingly lost when we took away the need to prepare food from our daily lives? When humans had to prepare food themselves with manual labour it built into their everyday lives significant amounts of repetitive, physical, mundane labour that allowed them to let their brain relax and process.
Studies show when you’re engaged in activities like that your mind is free to make creative, associative links. Mark Fenske gives an example we’re familiar with in the 21st century: taking a shower,
“Shampooing hair and lathering up doesn’t take a lot of cognitive focus. Other parts of the brain can start to contribute. And that’s really critical for innovation.’’
Knowing this we can be consciously open to building structures into our lives to gain the psychological benefits of repetitive, physical labour enjoyed by our ancestors.
Meal as an Event
Another important benefit of preparing food yourself is that it takes time and planning to make food, so you don’t just eat on a whim. Once the food preparation has started, you know what you’re going to eat and when. In the context of groups it provides an immediate, motivation for everyone to gather together, and when you’re alone to stop what you’re doing, when the meal is ready. As we hear in Fast-Forward Family: Home, Work, and Relationships in Middle-Class America, edited by Elinor Ochs,
‘The consumption of pre-prepared convenience foods, many of which are packaged as individual meals, stand alongside busy schedules as a root factor in undermining dinner as a family event’
We don’t need to prepare a meal to stop what we’re doing, or cook to have a logical reason to eat though. We do however need to stop what we’re doing, and eat for a logical reason.
As an event, a meal is a moment in space and time, set apart, within which we can develop rituals. The simple phrase ‘dinner time’ denotes you stop what you’re doing and focus on your food. Once you’re done, you can continue with the rest of you’re life, but you’re aware of a distinct pause in your rhythm. This distinct moment of time can happen, or not happen, with any type of food, but can be easy to skip out when you’re alone and eating something quick or preprepared. It’s time to make ‘dinner time’ normal, even when we’re alone.
Developing your own Rituals
People can and do create there own rituals. Throughout history lots of people haven’t cooked, but have still had significant rituals surrounding the eating of food, for example the very rich, whose food was cooked for them by servants. This can be seen clearly in the aristocracy of Edwardian Britain, brought to life in the TV series ‘Downton Abbey’. The aristocracy didn’t cook but they made a huge effort every day to be in the house when dinner was served and to formally dress for dinner.
They approached dinner with a formality and respect that acknowledged the huge amount of effort that went into making it, and in turn made it meaningful and important for themselves. They could have all taken it into their bedrooms, or eaten standing up in the kitchen, but they chose not to.
Nowadays, when it’s so easy to get food, it’s easy to let meal times pass without comment or thought. Particularily when we’re insulated from the effort put in to make the meal, such as with ready meals. But when we let meal times pass without thought, we’re depriving ourself of the possiblity to decide our own traditions.
Eating alone in general can often be viewed in a negative light, as if you’ve failed somehow to have enough friends. As Susan Cain notices in ‘Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’
“…nowadays we tend to think that becoming more extroverted not only makes us more successful, but also makes us better people.”
This can end up meaning that things done alone are failures before they’ve even begun. In the media, and in the mouths of friends and family, eating alone can be stigmatised as a lonely failures lowest moment, think Bridget Jones crying into her ice-cream and eating pickles from a jar.
There’s nothing intrinsically lonely about eating alone though. Most people do it on a regular basis. It’s a normal part of our modern world where we have the freedom to be independent and alone, and we take it. Once we accept that, and feel no shame about eating alone we can start to build upon our experience.
Eating alone has never before happened on this scale and so there are no traditions in place to guide us, no knowledge base upon which to build our own eating rituals. We learn table manners from an early age, but when we eat alone, we make up all the rules. This gives us huge amounts of freedom but also makes it easy to fall into unsatisfying habits.
Social convention dictates that we make an effort when we eat in a group and human tendency means we often find it easier to make an effort for other people than for ourselves. It often comes naturally to spend half an hour lovingly laying the table with the best china, candles, water carafes, and garnishes, for others, but plonk a lump of pasta and sauce in a bowl and unceremoniously munch it in front of the TV, alone.
However, we can also take charge and teach ourselves how to eat alone, how to care for ourselves and what our own ‘manners’ will be while eating. Without the implicit rules of the social world, our freedom and choice is unrestrained, and everything becomes an option, including ice-cream and frozen peas for dinner. But it’s also an option to have a slow, satisfying meal with yourself. We need to give ourselves the option of having a rewarding lone eating experience.
When you eat alone you have the opportunity to be without distractions. Three times a day, you can take a moment to stop, process information and reflect, without half your mind on social interaction. This chance for greater awareness and thought is why it’s so important that eating alone doesn’t descend into a wasteland of snacks consumed at the kitchen counter, tv series in bed and scoffed lunches between emails.
The potential for lack of distraction often back-fires of course when we’re alone. We can be so uncomfortable with the thought of being alone, we do everything to distract ourself. The inexhaustible internet, on demand TV and Skype fills the perceived gap. Whether mindlessly or consciously it’s easy to never really feel alone and never give yourself space to think. Let’s be brave and risk the possibility that we’re bored by our own company. Let’s step away from our unsatisfying routines and dare to eat alone with no distractions.
The technological advances in food production have brought with them new problems, threatening the psychological needs traditionally fulfilled by manual food production. These issues are brought into the starkest relief when we eat alone.
Without any precedent or social structure we have enormous freedom when eating alone, but if we don’t take steps to structure ourselves it’s easy to be unsatisfied. By becoming more conscious of our eating habits we can contribute to creating the traditions that will satisfy our psychological needs. What will the new lone eating rituals be? Let’s enjoy, question, change, and build upon our lone eating habits.