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

Aug 13, 2015
Originally published on August 27, 2015 9:54 am

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 increased from 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 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Considering how much time we spend dating online, shopping online, pretty much everything else, we are increasingly alone, and that's especially true when it comes to eating. A new report from the Food Marketing Institute documents just how many meals we eat on our own. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: There was a time when people did not own up to eating alone, but those days seem to be gone - long gone if you ask millennial Sophie Moscop (ph).

SOPHIE MOSCOP: Well, I eat breakfast alone. When I was working, I ate my lunches alone and if I was working late enough, I ate dinner alone at my desk.

AUBREY: It may sound lonely, but Moscop is in good company. The Hartman Group, a market research firm, finds in a survey that for American adults, 46 percent of all eating occasions - that's meals and snacks - are undertaken alone. Here's Hartman's CEO, Laurie Demeritt.

LAURIE DEMERITT: So almost half of all of our eating is being done in isolation from other folks.

AUBREY: Wow, that's a lot. Were you surprised?

DEMERITT: We were surprised. When you look at that number, it seems pretty astounding.

AUBREY: So what's behind this? Most significant is the fact that more people eat alone because more people live alone. Single households now account for 27 percent of all U.S. households. And another reason for many people - meal time has given way to continuous snacking. People don't take the time to sit down and eat. They just grab and go. That's what Sophie Moscop and her mother, Susan (ph), were doing when I met up with them at Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Where are you guys headed?

SUSAN: New York.

AUBREY: And so you're waiting for your train?

SUSAN: Yes.

AUBREY: And you've decided to have a quick meal?

SUSAN: Yes because we missed lunch completely.

AUBREY: Forget knives and forks or a sit-down meal. They had plastic containers of sushi - on their laps.

So what's on your plate here?

SUSAN: I have two kinds of sushi - a cucumber roll and a shrimp tempura roll.

AUBREY: Demeritt says as the grab-and-go culture goes, the fixed thinking about three square meals a day and what foods you're supposed to eat when is becoming passe.

DEMERITT: Maybe a smoothie and a bar represents lunch today.

AUBREY: And there's evidence that people eat less when they eat alone, which could be a good thing. But there are other changes going on too. Laurie Demeritt says even when we do have eating companions, we may not be talking to them. Instead, many of us are on our mobile devices.

DEMERITT: We might be in a room with other people but we were in this semi-alone state while we consumed the food.

AUBREY: Sort of alone together, if you will.

DEMERITT: Exactly.

AUBREY: Across the train station, I talk to a group of 20-something business consultants who are sitting at the same table eating burgers and dogs from Shake Shack as they wait for a train.

BROOKS PALLEN: I do not like to eat alone. It's a nice time to be social.

AUBREY: That's Brooks Pallen (ph). He says when he was a kid, there was an expectation of eating together.

PALLEN: Family meals, yeah. Pretty much, like, seven nights a week, it's everybody sit down and do it at the dinner table.

AUBREY: But looking around this table, it's not exactly the same picture. These guys are tethered to their phones. Pallen's colleague, Frank Tsao (ph), says mealtime can be a good time to catch up.

FRANK TSAO: You could be, you know, messaging people on your phone. You could be social networking.

AUBREY: Which also means if you're eating alone today, it does not mean that you're on your own or that you're lonely. So what's been lost or gained with these changes in our eating habits? Well, as my teenage son might text, IDK. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.