Growing up in a family of six with some large age gaps, very different food preferences, and two parents who didn't care to cook, we went out to eat often—usually several times per week. (In fact, there are a few establishments in my hometown that I've eaten in more times than in my childhood home.) This is probably why as an adult, going to eat at restaurants, new and familiar, is one of my favorite activities—not only with loved ones but also by myself. And I'm not the only one who enjoys the solo dining experience.
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Although at one time eating alone once had a negative perception (perhaps because we sometimes associate being alone with loneliness,) it's now becoming more popular. From February 2018 to February 2019, the market-research firm NPD Group found that Americans ate 45% of their meals alone—a 3% increase from 2013, according to The Wall Street Journal. In that same time 2018 to 2019 period, the firm reported that 23% of all restaurant reservations were for solo diners, which was a 1% increase from the year before.
There are many reasons why people eat alone, including busy schedules and different dietary preferences, but Laurie Demeritt, chief executive of food consultancy Hartman Group, tells the publication that about one-third of people eat alone for "personal pleasure." "A lot of people we talk to say, 'I love eating alone because I can eat whatever I want,'" she says.
And, they can eat whenever they want, says Gloria Dawson, senior editor at Nation's Restaurant News. "In my opinion, one of the nice things about solo dining is that I am beholden to no one and required to dine at no specific time," she says. But where to sit? A seat at the bar may be a solo diner's first choice, but don't be afraid to request a specific seat in the restaurant. "I think solo diners can feel a bit timid, like they’re not supposed to be a bother, but I encourage solo diners to ask for what including the table they want," Dawson says. She also commends restaurants for making single diners feel more welcome than they used to. "Restaurants, or good ones at least, are certainly no longer making solo diners feel uncomfortable about dining alone."
I can attest to eating by myself for all the above reasons. Desk lunches are the norm in my industry, and many people in the editorial space, and other workplaces, are lucky to have 10 minutes to go out and grab food. I'm also a vegetarian, and though I pride myself on being able to find something to eat anywhere I go, it's also nice being able to choose a place or a dish I truly want to eat. And as a former New York City resident, it can not only be difficult to make arrangements with others in a huge, bustling city, but it can also be quite cathartic to sit down to a good meal and a glass of wine, by myself.
However, plenty of us do, of course, enjoy the company of others. "Dinner still has some significance in consumers' lives, in terms of eating together," Demeritt tells NPR. The Hartman Group found that just 24% of dinners are eaten solo, which is far less than the 53% of breakfasts and 45% of lunches reportedly eaten alone.
Of course, as much as I enjoy being a party of one, I love sharing a meal with family and friends. But it's refreshing to see that more people don't view eating alone as being lonely, but rather the new norm.