We call it a crisis of loneliness. In France, it’s a crisis of manners. In China, it’s a crisis of family,” Dr Mukta Das tells me. “Every nation around the world has this idea that eating together is better, and that eating alone is against the norm.” An anthropologist at Soas University of London, Das is fascinated by the shift of eating from a predominantly communal, convivial activity to something we now frequently experience by ourselves.
There are 8 million single households in the UK and in 2019 the Wellbeing Index revealed almost a third of British adults are eating alone “most or all of the time”. This shift may well have been exacerbated by lockdown, during which those who lived alone necessarily ate alone – but it was in motion long before, says Das, thanks to the “transformation of our family-oriented culture into something more individualistic”.
She continues: “The declining marriage- and birthrate, the rise in divorce, the demands of office life, people living longer – these are the socioeconomic and demographic forces that have enabled this change, prompting a sense of crisis in most cultures which place family meals at the top.”
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it just being me and my food
How much does eating alone shape your experience and enjoyment of that meal? The pandemic has often intensified our relationship with food. Those who locked down with family or friends may have eaten three meals a day in company; those shut in alone ate every meal alone. In both instances food and drink often became the focus of the day.
As the situation wore on, recipes written with the solo cook in mind started appearing – perhaps most memorably, Nigella Lawson’s cookie for one. “I loved the process of choosing a recipe, taking time over presentation. I’m from a large family,” a friend who locked down alone confides. “Eating has always been a big part of our being together. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it being just me and my food.”
In Das’s opinion, what lockdown did was to change the way people feel about eating alone; “to feel like it can be healthy and nourishing to be alone sometimes.”
There can be a stigma attached to eating alone even now, says food historian and author Bee Wilson. “Most of the images we see of people enjoying food still depict big family gatherings. I worry that this can accentuate the feelings of loneliness that people can have when eating alone.” To illustrate her point, Wilson describes eating alone for the first few months after her divorce, on the nights her children were with her ex-husband. “It felt so eerie and sad at first to be making food only for me. There is a huge difference between occasional and habitual eating alone; between whether the solitude is enforced or chosen.”
The term “single” covers all manner of situations, from parents and widowers to housemates who pass like ships in the night, and whose milk, bread and cheese are all labelled. One person’s homemade meal, complete with self-baked sourdough will be another’s KFC, or yet another’s something-on-toast.
My grandmother was widowed just before the first lockdown. All at once, a woman who had spent 71 years cooking for and eating with her husband was left cooking and eating alone. Something-on-toast became her go-to dish; what was the point, she said, in making more effort. It’s a sentiment many of us will probably have felt at some point in the past 18 months, but one that’s particularly difficult for older people. According to Age UK, around one in 10 people over 65 were malnourished or at risk of being so because they were lonely or couldn’t get to the shops. “As you can imagine, this has been magnified many times over since then,” says Lesley Carter, project lead for Age UK’s malnutrition task force
At play is not just financial poverty, Carter continues, but “poverty of enthusiasm and ideas. Though many have a tablet or computer, they cannot really use it to search for unfamiliar ingredients, find recipe inspiration or shop online.” The novelty of restaurant kits, the relief of Deliveroo – even the comfort of banana bread was unavailable to my grandmother. While younger people use social media to “share” food or be inspired, her generation grew up in a world where food was not “content”, but the medium of communication; where regular, home-cooked family meals were the norm.
Though my grandma has continued to observe her and my grandad’s lifelong afternoon tea ritual, she only bakes a cake if people are coming round. Otherwise, it’s Sainsbury’s own – a concession I found depressing until I read Lawson’s thoughts on eating alone in her latest book, Cook, Eat, Repeat. “For all that we’d like to think otherwise, the kitchen is still a much more freighted area for women. The joy to be got from feeding others is not to be minimised, but – perhaps counterintuitively – there is less ego involved in cooking for oneself, and that’s enormously liberating … You’re cooking to please yourself, no one else, and you neither have to second-guess your guests’ tastes nor apologise for your own.”
Lawson is talking about cooking here – but her principle applies to eating alone more broadly. Romanticising the notion of family meals is all very well, Das points out, but “in most households around the world women take on most of the food prep – so there is freedom, when they are on their own, in not having to cater to others: in having the choice as to whether they go out to eat, cook or buy ready-made food”. Das’s words are borne out by my grandma, who informs me her favourite cake really is Sainsbury’s apple turnover, and by the experience of Signe Johansen, author of Solo: The Joy of Cooking for One, who was struck by the number of female readers who messaged her “to say how nice it is just to think about what they want, not everyone else”.
Even nicer than that, of course, is not thinking about cooking at all, and simply going out for dinner with no one but yourself for company. The chef and restaurateur James Lowe believes there are more female solo diners than male in his restaurant, Lyle’s. “That’s what I’d say, on balance,” he tells me. It’s a gender split that would have been rare in previous decades. “Being in a magnificent restaurant with a good book, you get to a level of real comfort,” says Elli Jafari, the managing director of the Standard hotel in London and a regular solo diner. “I think everything tastes better, when you’re alone and your thoughts are in a good place.”
The general increase in solo diners is indisputable: up 160% in four years in the UK, according to Open Table. This figure dates from 2019 but they note that “restaurants are increasingly accommodating for parties of one across the globe”.
Where once solo diners were treated with pity or annoyance by maître d’s, who saw a “table for one” as a loss of potential revenue, now they are welcomed with as much relish as group bookings. “I think there has been a shift in attitudes,” says Lowe. “You get more guest interaction with a solo table, which improves their experience and makes us happy.” If they’re alone, they’re there for the food, he observes. “They are saying they don’t need the entertainment of others. They are saying they chose our restaurant, and they’re here to enjoy it for themselves. It’s a real compliment.”
For Lyle’s, which joined the world’s 50 best restaurants list in 2017, the rise in solo diners has been inextricable with the rise of “food tourism”: ticking top restaurants off a bucket list. It’s a niche activity and a privileged one but it does point to another advantage of eating alone: the ability to indulge in restaurants and dishes that companions might not like, or might not want to splash out on. It’s why Jafari only orders oysters if she’s out by herself. “When friends are grossed out by oysters,” she says, “it takes away the joy.”
Being alone means you can be more assertive in the decisions you make
It is this snatched, illicit pleasure that Erchen Chang captures so perfectly in the artwork that gave birth to Bao, the acclaimed group of Taiwanese restaurants which Chang runs with Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung. It depicts a lone man snaffling a bao, side on to the observer, an almost imperceptible smile on his face. This image has informed their entire brand: “We see the solo diner as something to cherish,” says Chang – so much so that they are soon launching a set menu designed for solo diners, and a journal dedicated to people’s perfect solo meals or activities. “The lonely man looks sad at first – but when you look closer, he isn’t sad or ashamed. He is hiding his bao because he’s enjoying it. He is using the time to reflect and enjoy himself.”
At home, much of my recent cooking has been inspired by “Something to eat solo”, a chapter in Crave by Ed Smith, published earlier this year. The book is organised “by flavour, to suit your mood and appetite” and in devoting a section to eating alone, Smith says he wanted to “counter the cliched assumption that ‘you can’t be bothered to cook for yourself’ – because if you are going to cook for yourself, and can afford to, you might as well make it joyful. A dinner party might not appreciate you splashing out on burrata from the local deli, but you will.”
It’s why, as she wrote in the New York Times, Lawson never buys caviar when eating out, or serves it to others, but will occasionally buy a tin for herself. Her approach, and Johansen’s, counters a long-held assumption of mine: that company always enhances one’s experience of food. Being alone means “you can be more assertive in the decisions you make”, says Johansen. “I can use a whole tin of anchovies, or four cloves of garlic.” You can indulge in bizarre combinations such as banana and bacon or dry, buttered Weetabix, two of the 50 weird combinations unearthed by a study of 2,000 adults that Ocado commissioned last year. As Johansen says: “When you’re alone, you can do what you want.”
With those words ringing in my ears, I turn again to Crave. Soba noodles with sesame dipping sauce sounds delicious. I double the amount of noodles, my appetite for them being bottomless, add more garlic and throw in some peas because I love peas with almost everything. I eat watching Bridget Jones’s Diary: a film which, growing up, reinforced my fears of being alone. Jones’s solo meals consist of neat vodka, old cheese and dry muesli. Taking the time to cook something to meet my own needs and idiosyncrasies feels almost like a rewriting: a move away from the so-called crisis of loneliness towards being simply, serenely alone.