We’ve all eaten alone at some stage, sometimes for necessity sometimes for choice. Often when it is a choice, it is something that can bring a lot of joy. There is something very luxurious about being able to devote your full attention to a particular dish. However, sometimes, eating alone can be the loneliest of experiences, especially if the establishment is far from fine dining.
Eating with people is the very foundation of our social interaction. Growing up we are taught the importance of interaction with the family around the dinner table. To many, the idea of eating together is sacrosanct. That’s the way I was raised. You had to make it to the dinner table every evening and if you didn’t, you had better have had a good excuse.
As children we accepted it as a fact of life, we ate together and that was the way of the world. As teenagers, we tried to assert our independence and fought for the chance to carry the food in to watch the football or traipse in late at night to wolf down leftovers before bed. But eating together was always impressed on us as vital. It was the crucial ritual that held the family together, and even in my teenage rebellion, I knew that it was. Knowing that there was always a place for me at the table gave me the security in myself to find the independence I so craved. I can see it now very clearly.
Between 2014 and 2018 it is reported that restaurant dining alone in New York has increased by 80%. Some of that can be explained by the increase in travel, people going to other cities on business and eating alone the evening before a meeting. But it is also that we are becoming more and more disconnected from society, retreating into our own private world, increasingly connected online.
Yet that ritual of eating together has been chipped away at over the last few decades and more and more people are instead choosing to eat alone. We are also increasingly losing the tradition of cooking for ourselves and eating together. Food delivery services are booming and much of their use is for single meals to be consumed alone. Within families, both parents often have to work in order to pay the bills, this makes them time poor and as a result the tradition of preparing and consuming food together has suffered.
People are eating out in restaurants more than ever, which is good news for restauranteurs and the industry, however more and more people are eating alone, which may not be so good on a human level. According to The Hartman Group’s Food & Beverage Occasions Compass 2014 data 46% of all adult eating occasions are alone. Which is a staggering amount.
Marc Luxen, (above), author of the excellent book The Cook, The Diner and The Mind, The Psychology in the Kitchen and at the Table, explains that the tradition of eating together has been under sustained pressure for many years.
“You see after the Second World War, women were encouraged to leave the kitchen. They were told that women who stayed at home in the kitchen were dinosaurs, that they were far too important to be cooking for other people. So, you had a generation of women who were very proud of the fact that they couldn’t cook. My mother was one of them, and that took a huge toll on the tradition of the family meal time”.
In fact, according to Luxen, it was a deliberate ploy by the food companies to try to dismantle the culture of communal eating. People are told that they can eat what they want, when they want.
“Up until very recently the focal point of every family has been sitting around the table eating. It has been very hard to break, but to a certain extent the food industry has achieved it. In certain countries more than others and that’s a triumph on their part.,” he says.
“For the food industry, it’s better to say that anyone can eat whatever they like when they like. Just shove it in the microwave, sit in front of the television, eat in the car… Whereas we used to always have a lot of structure in how we ate, and we are careful not to over eat.
“Look at the French paradox, they eat a lot of fatty food, but they’re not fat, because of the very structured and controlled way in which they eat - small portions and eating slowly, talking between courses, so you feel satiated sooner.
“What the fast food industry wants is for you to eat alone,” continues Luxen, “in front of the television shovelling food into your mouth, and afterwards you still feel hungry.”
And yet there is strong evidence to suggest that eating alone is detrimental to our health. Analysis of a survey of about 8,000 adults by Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research suggested eating alone has a stronger link to being unhappy than any other factor except mental illness. Research published by Obesity research & Clinical Practice showed that those who dined alone twice a day were more prone to symptoms such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and many showing pre-diabetic signs. All of this data was compared against those who dined alongside others, which overall showed significantly lower signs of any symptoms.
Of course, there remain questions about these data and analysis. We know that loneliness is detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing. Do people eat alone because they are alone? Can these negative effects be contributed more to social exclusion than eating alone? There must be some cross over, eating together creates social bonds, it’s one way to ensure we spend less time alone.
How and what we eat goes to the very core of what makes us human. There is evidence to suggest that it is our very eating habits that allowed us to evolve into the most successful species on the planet.
When you look at human physiology, there is not much advantage for Homo sapiens wandering the plains of Africa. About 300,000 years ago early humans domesticated fire, which not only gave them a tool for protection, light and heat, but allowed them to cook their food. It opened up a lot more food stuffs to their diets such as wheat, rice and potatoes, it allowed then to cook meat, which could be stored for longer periods. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between humans learning to cook and the shortening of the intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain.
Others support the theory that it was humans use of stone tools that allowed them to access the nutritionally rich marrow in the bones of scavenged carrion that saw their brains increase in size relative to their body. The use of these stone tools also adapted our hands, accentuating the apposable thumb, which is why our hands are so different to those of primates today.
So, fire allowed us to cook and cooking allowed us to eat and eating allowed us to evolve into who we are. What is the significance of eating together?
Until very recently, human societies were made up of very small groups of people. It wasn’t until the Agricultural Revolution that humans banded together into towns and cities, before that we lived in groups of not more than one hundred people, often much smaller, and these people knew each other intimately. Their very survival depended on co-operation and strong social bonds.
Hunting is a high-risk activity with a high chance of failure, it depends on cooperation to have any real chance of success.
“All other primates eat food on the spot because otherwise it gets stolen from them,” explains Luxen.
“Males and females gather the same food. We are completely unique in that men do the difficult and dangerous hunting with a high risk of failure and women prepare the food… you find it in every human society.
“It needs to be done together, through cooperation, so you need a social structure, otherwise it would be too easy for males to simply steal the food of women and children. So that was probably the beginning of social order, of relationships and even families. Based around how we share our food.”
“Now people want to get back in the kitchen, and I say this in my book, men should be in the kitchen, women should be in the kitchen, children, everyone. Because we are creatures of the fire. Cooking is in our genes and our whole social structure is based on us eating together.”
Maybe we simply don’t have the time to sit down and eat together every evening as we used to, but despite the phalanx of factors pushing us to dine alone, that desire to come together around food remains indominable.
“Just look at the extreme interest in food on social media or in cooking shows like Chef’s Table on Netflix. The average American spends a lot more time watching cooking shows on television than they do actually cooking. That’s very fascinating. It’s still a primal urge. It’s something basic in our psyche, cooking is deep in our psyche,” says Luxen.
“The feeling of cooking for people you love and sitting down to eat it together, and feel the bonding, is the most human thing we can do. It’s what brings us together and keeps us together. Maybe we need that now more than ever. We lose it at our peril.”