Quick notes:

  • The stigma of eating alone is going away — solo dining is becoming the new normal.
  • Solo dining is the result of busier work schedules, changing family dynamics, digital companionship, and personal choice. 
  • Restaurants that cater to solo diners are becoming more popular in the U.S. and around the world.

 

 

Americans now eat almost 50% of their meals alone, as households grow busier and more people make dining alone the new normal, according to data from NPD Group, a market research group.

On the home front, Americans consumed 45% of all meals alone in the 12-month period ended in February 2019. That’s up from 42% in 2013, NPD reports. Single diners eating at restaurants comprised 23% of all party sizes in the 12 months ended in February, up 1% over the year before.

Cultural experts say that the rise of single-person households and hectic family schedules have made solo dining the new normal.

“For many consumers, eating alone has lost its stigma as sad and lonely,” says Laureen Asseo, chief executive officer at Fresh n’ Lean, the largest organic meal delivery service in the U.S. “Instead, they want to relish a solo meal as much as they would any other — and they are ratcheting up their demands for taste, nutrition, and convenience in meals-for-one.”

Consumers who elect to dine alone certainly aren’t apologizing.

“There’s nothing wrong with ‘solo dining,’” says Jake Nomada, founder of the travel website NomadicHustle.com. “As someone who travels the world year-round, eating alone is not only commonplace — it’s expected.”

At first, Nomada felt a bit odd going to restaurants alone and sitting by himself. But he quickly grew accustomed to it.

“Now, I don’t find it odd at all to check out a restaurant all alone — especially with the advent of smartphones,” he says. “I’ll often use the downtime waiting for my food to read a book on Kindle or call friends or family I haven’t heard from for a few weeks.”

“If I’m in a social mood, I’ll try to find a restaurant with an active bar area and sit there instead of in a booth,” he adds. “Overall, I don’t think there’s a stigma to eating out alone these days.”

The power of one

With numbers come power, and now solo diners have busted out of the “dining alone” stigma and want restaurants to catch up to the taste, nutrition, and ambience demands of single eaters.

“There are several forces or drivers leading to increased rates of solo dining,” says Matt Klein, a cultural researcher and consultant at Sparks & Honey, a New York-based tech-led consultancy that helps businesses and big brands understand shifts in culture.

Working lifestyle. As Americans accelerate past the traditional 9-5 working lifestyle and people’s work responsibilities continue to bleed into personal time, work is cutting into family time. “As a result, our eating habits are changing, which means more meals alone or at the office,” says Klein.

Digital companionship. Many people eating alone would argue that they’re not technically “alone,” says Klein.

“For those that opt to dine solo, the company of our smartphone makes the meal more enjoyable and seemingly less lonely,” he notes. “Messages, live-streams, FaceTime or videos of others also eating alone are all digital tools that are making eating alone less uncomfortable. While they are arguably replacing face-to-face communication, immersive online entertainment acts as an effective distraction.”

Family dynamics. Delayed marriages and higher divorce rates are changing the family dynamic as we know it.

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over half of our country is now legally single,” Klein says. “As a result, for many, meals alone are more prevalent than those with company.”

Personal choice. Eating alone, once taboo, has changed as an outcome of all of the above and other forces.

“Consequentially, solo dining is becoming rebranded,” Klein adds. “It’s become less ‘awkward’ and more celebrated as a time for self-reflection and self-care. There’s a digital detox element at play as well, as solo eating has become an opportunity to disconnect from our devices and eat more mindfully.”

How to get comfortable with eating alone

Joy Loverde, author of the book, Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?, says that the social stigma of dining alone is abating.

“In fact, sharing meals is an easy and affordable way to continuously bring new people into your life,” Loverde says. “Today millions of solo agers eat their main meal alone.”

If eating alone is a troublesome issue, Loverde offers strategies that can make the experience more enjoyable.

Solo-friendly eateries: Dine in places that make it easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger (if that is what you desire) or allow you to eat alone without occupying a table for two, Loverde advises.

“Bench-like seating and eating at the bar are a few ways to accomplish this goal,” she says. “You can also frequent restaurants that cater to solo diners. No-interaction dining establishments are becoming hugely popular in the United States and in cities around the world where a lot of people travel alone for business.”

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Take the initiative to share home-cooked meals with friends and coworkers. “As a solo diner, you are literally surrounded by others who are in the same situation as you,” Loverde notes. “Invite other solo diners to your house for dinner. How many people right in your neighborhood or apartment building live alone and are housebound? Bring meals to the homes of people who typically have no one to dine with — and enjoy mealtime together.”

Eat as you learn: Consider taking a cooking class one night a week. “Invite fellow students and friends to your house to show off your new skills as a chef,” Loverde says. “If you are recently widowed or grieving the loss of a relationship, ask your local hospice organization about culinary grief therapy programs. Classes teach grievers how to cook for one. Mealtime is one of the most overlooked parts of grief.”

Carryout: Who says you must eat meals at home? “Go on a picnic — the beach, park bench, outdoor concerts,” Loverde adds. “Eat while sitting in front of your favorite outdoor landmark or at some other aesthetically pleasing site.”

Mix play with dining: “From food courts at the shopping mall to zoos, museums, soccer fields, and baseball stadiums, you can enjoy a meal surrounded by a variety of fun and entertaining activities,” she says.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

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If you’re nervous about trying solo dining for the first time, be sure you go to a good restaurant. Here’s what to look for.