Think for a moment about the last meal you ate alone. What did you eat? Cheese pizza? Pepper steak? Taco Bell? Popcorn? Now answer this question. Would you have eaten the same thing if you weren't dining solo? This is an issue explored in a new book by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin entitled: What We Eat When We Eat Alone: Stories and 100 Recipes.
I found this book while pursing the bookstore. It is filled with unusual combinations of food that people confess to eating while dining alone. It includes such things as fried Spam and grape jelly, ice cream with sea salt and mashed potatoes with brownies bites (Eeek!). While aware of the oddity of these combinations, the individuals couldn't seem to get around the comfort and soothing it provided. Some confessions were not so strange and actually sounded quite good (yes, if you are curious, it's worth flipping threw this entertaining book).
Three things can be summarized from this discussion. #1 Our taste buds are incredibly unique and don't always follow conventional wisdom (see above). #2 When alone and free from the fear of anyone judging us, we are able to engage in anything that provides us with pleasure and comfort. #3 There is no standard formula to what provides each person with calmness and soothing.
The last point is an important theme in the book 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. The non-food related behaviors and activities you do for comfort are not always conventional. The trick is to find what is truly soothing to you. If you find yourself repeatedly comforting yourself with food and have a hard time finding other pleasurable things that can calm and soothe you just as well, you aren't alone.
According to food researcher, Brian Wansink, eating alone is a positive. People tend to eat less and therefore cut down on the mindless eating associated with social eating (grandmothers who push food, restaurant dining, using food to celebrate). In fact, a study by Redd and DeCastro found that you are likely to eat approximately 60% more when you are in a group.
Madison & McFarlin's book suggests another perk of eating alone. It frees you up from the formality of dining. You can eat sitting on the kitchen floor or on your bed -- anywhere you feel comfortable. You can use a fork or your fingers. Also, you don't have to compromise on your taste. Maybe you love Chinese and your spouse can't stand it. I'm reminded of a time that I found fast food wrappers hidden in the bottom of the trash can upon returning home from my book tour (done by a person who shall remain nameless). While the advantages of eating alone may be true for healthy eaters, there is a very different dynamic that occurs for people who have eating problems.
For the anorexic clients I work with in individual therapy, eating with friends and family is essential. Dining with other people helps them to remember that food is pleasurable and gives these individuals perspective on "normal" amounts. For people who binge on large quantities of food, they often do so in secret. Anything that you do in secret is often linked with shame, which is so common with chronic eating disorders. A binge eater may even turn down lunch dates or prefer to eat by themselves. This kind of isolation only gets them deeper into the disorder. If you know someone with problematic eating, invite them to dine with you. Help them avoid being alone with their eating disorder (which often orders them to eat or not eat unhealthy things).
Whether you are a healthy eater or not, many of us struggle to eat by ourselves and cringe at the thought of a table for one at a restaurant. You may even say, "What is the point?" if you have to cook a meal for yourself.
So, eating solo has many draw backs and perks. It could be a welcome freedom that is comforting or a dreaded event. The next time you are eating alone, think about the following questions. Do you relish your alone time or are you someone who can't wait to set up a dinner date? What would people think about the foods you nibble on in private? And the big question -- when you are alone, do you use food to comfort yourself? Rest assured that you can put away the spaghetti with peanut butter on top and find other healthy ways to comfort yourself.