Both popular wisdom and expert advice suggest eating together is important. It fosters healthful food practices, promotes virtuous social relations and is a source of sensual pleasure. Eating alone, on the other hand, is associated with loneliness, isolation, anomie and consequently dangers of unmediated excess (obesity) or abstinence (malnutrition). Yet a large number of meals are taken solo in contemporary Western societies. If eating together is so important, why don’t we do it more often?
A recent quantitative survey of the British population and a set of qualitative interviews with members of working households together provide some evidence of the phenomenon of eating alone: what it is like? when does it happen?, who does it? And why? The data come from projects around the social organisation of eating and its relationship with working patterns. I argue that there are practical reasons for eating alone; that, paradoxically, eating alone may better enable us to enjoy shared meals; and that there are intrinsic satisfactions to the lone meal which are popularly overlooked.
First, some background. The survey shows that around one third of British meals recorded are eaten alone. Most of these are weekday morning and afternoon meals, which are half as likely to be shared as evening meals. Household members are by far the most commonly named companions (present at four out of five meals). This means that those living alone, as might be expected, eat alone more often – three-quarters of their meals compared to only one quarter of those living with others – and the most sociable eating events for these ‘solos’ are midday meals taken during the week. These large differences between one-person and shared households mean that the rising numbers of solos (now a third of households in Europe and North America) may explain lone eating as much as any secular changes in family eating practices.
Nevertheless, it is clear that things could be quite different. In Spain eating alone is less common, with the big difference being midday meals (38%, 18% and 19% of the population eat alone at the three named meals of the day). In the Nordic countries roughly one-third of people in 1997 ate morning meals alone, and around a quarter each of the afternoon and evening meals (Holm 2001). Nordic and Spanish breakfasts are about as sociable as the average British meal! Patterns of employment would seem to explain some differences. Spanish employees commonly take protracted lunch breaks at home, interrupting two daily periods of work, while in Nordic countries shared meals in work canteens are more normal. Other key factors relating to employment might include commuting times, the prevalence of dual earner households, proximity of non-household family members, and degree and type of flexibilisation. Household size, food preferences and cultural differences around food and family no doubt also play their part. Comparing the time at which people eat across national contexts also reveals that Britons’ meals are widely spread over the course of the day, with peaks at midday and with evening meals more pronounced in France and Spain – implying a degree of destructuration of British meal times at the population level. However, these aggregate figures tell us little about individual routines and experiences of shared and lone meals.
Survey findings confirm that lone meals are easier to prepare than shared meals as they involve little or no cooking, and many are bought prepared directly from shops. This chimes with interviewees’ widespread dissatisfaction about the experience of cooking for one. Meals taken alone are also short-lived – half of them taking less than ten minutes to eat. Lone meals are more likely to be sandwiches, breakfast cereal (not just at breakfast), soup, and eggs; compared with, the nearly always, sociable occasions where roasts, curries, stews and fry-ups are served. However, those who live alone are more likely to cook for their lone meals (and are less resentful of doing so). They also spend longer eating them, suggesting at least two different forms of eating alone depending on domestic circumstances.
Analysis of eating experiences from qualitative interviews allow for more colourful interpretation. In line with our survey results, people commonly report morning meals as solitary affairs conducted in a hurry. This is explained by a context of early starts due to long commutes, kids who need somehow to be transported to school beforehand, and the staggered work routines, which dual-earner families deploy to coordinate these journeys. Anthony, a freelance teacher in Preston, devours a yoghurt standing up at 6am while his partner, who starts later, lies in. Charlotte a therapist from London, feeds then drops her (rather fussy, she admits) child off at school, then scoffs her toast in the car on the way to work. Bridget, a part-time local government administrator, has four different types of breakfast to prepare, as well as eating hers, and on the days she works four different destinations to reach, all before 9am.
Morning meals are quick because they’re eaten alone by people in a hurry; at the same time synchronising them makes little sense because they’re so short-lived. The possibility of a shared meal under certain conditions, then, is not enticing. At work few interviewees regularly eat with their colleagues. Many of those in offices eat at their desks, and continue working through lunch – two said they would go for walks afterwards to escape the office, preferring to use their break to leave the working environment entirely rather than spend it with others in the same position. Even those who generally eat with colleagues also have important lone meals on ‘off days’, serving an occasional need for ‘down time’. Having a break from one’s colleagues is sometimes described as equally important, or synonymous, with the break from work. Linda, working in an auction house, said she enjoyed the ‘banter’ of workmates but often didn’t feel like it, preferring to sit in her car with a sandwich, listening to the radio. Again, with lunch breaks short in length the implication is that in many workplaces there is little to synchronise with, often no appealing dedicated space to eat, and company one might rather avoid than deliberately engage with! It isn’t just that the pull of a commensal lunch is unappealing, but that a lunch alone is felt to be a better break. However, the survey data and interviews both show that lunches shared sociably with colleagues are much more common for one-person households.
The dynamics of work and the time-space demands of the morning rush create situations where eating together is difficult and hardly worthwhile. The phenomenon seems partially explained by respondents from multiple person households prioritising the evening meal as a family occasion, truncating other eating occasions in the day. Of those living with others, nine out of ten people surveyed eat an evening meal with companions. Yet these occasions rarely conform to the ideal of the bourgeois family dinner, with all the members of the household enjoying interactions over a shared meal around a table. Although generally cooked, and often eaten at a kitchen or dining room table of sorts – particularly important for the nuclear families we talked to – what is actually ‘shared’ differs dramatically. Households with children usually have consecutive meals, with kids eating first, often with one adult – either home-maker or the one working fewer or earlier hours, the other arriving later to eat the same food some time afterwards. Meal content varies too, with some time together being shared but the food differing due to dietary restrictions, children’s tastes, young children’s difficulties feeding themselves, or a culture of preparing one’s own meal that is particularly common at breakfast time. Often meals become shared through a form of bridging – one member sitting with a latecomer, remaining available until the latter concludes their meal. This is regularly facilitated through the television, which can conveniently be ambient and ignored, a source of distraction and entertainment, or a mixture of both, where programmes are interrupted for interaction and chitchat. The sharing of meals with others is thus tenuous, fragile and a patchwork.
Much of the ambivalence about lone eating stems from its being a flexible ‘secondary’ activity (to working, watching television, reading the newspaper). However, it can also function as a valuable escape or diversion in its own right. Eating is elastic, in that it can fit around employment and leisure practices, and yet it holds its own sensory pleasures which are sometimes described as enhanced by solitude. Susan, a teacher, describes the pleasure of a ‘really, really hot’ hot chocolate alone, avoiding family members in the front room and gazing out of the kitchen window into the back garden. Lauren, a freelance journalist, describes the comfort of food alone as a form of self-care: ‘Eating with other people interferes with that kind of pleasure of just looking after yourself’.
While the virtues and pleasures of eating in company have long been trumpeted this, unnecessarily, gives alternatives a bad name. Eating alone, like those other moral suspects, snacking and convenience food, is a multi-faceted and ambivalent activity. It reveals much about idealised food patterns and social relations, and helps us to see that a meal is only ever partially shared. Rapid solo meals may ‘squeeze time’, helping commensal relationships to flourish despite widespread difficulties in interpersonal coordination. Finally, although more normally an activity done in the background and given little thought, when compared to the shared meal, lone eating may also afford particular satisfactions that are less available in the presence of others.
Holm, L. 2001. ‘Family meals’ in U. Kjaernes (ed.) Eating patterns: A day in the lives of Nordic peoples, SIFO Report 7-2001.
Yates, L. and Warde, A. (forthcoming) ‘Eating together and eating alone: meal arrangements in British households’, British Journal of Sociology
Luke Yates is Hallsworth Research Fellow in Sociology and the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) at the University of Manchester. His research interests are in social movements and in everyday practices, particularly eating patterns and living arrangements. He has recent articles in the British Journal of Sociology, Social Movements Studies and Appetite. The work described in this article comes from two projects which look at eating habits, households and employment, using quantitative and qualitative data generated at the SCI, working with Alan Warde, Jennifer Whillans and Dale Southerton.
Photo Credit: Jim Penucci