The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The most American thing there is: eating alone

(Flickr user Jim Pennucci)

In 1985, The New York Times published a snippet of comforting news for self-conscious solo eaters. "Dining alone," the newspaper reassured readers, "is no longer viewed as odd." At the time, eating spaghetti and meatballs by yourself wasn't exactly the norm. A second article, which ran only seven months later in the Times, chronicled the stigma of solo dinners.

Thirty years later, thanks to a range of social and cultural trends, eating alone has become less of an occasional exercise than a fact of life. Nearly half of all meals and snacks are now eaten in solitude, according to a new report by industry trade association the Food Marketing Institute. The frequency varies by meal — people are more likely to eat breakfast by themselves than lunch or dinner — but the popularity of solo dining is, no doubt, on the rise, and has been for some time.

"Even the foods that people are gravitating towards when snacking are the kinds we tend to have by ourselves," said Darren Seifer, an industry analyst at market-research firm NPD Group.

Indeed, a 1999 survey found that the number of people who ate alone at least part of the time tripled between the 1960s and 1990s. By 2006, nearly 60 percent of Americans regularly ate on their own, according to the American Time Use Survey. Today, that number is even higher.

Breakfast has undergone the most significant transformation. Roughly 53 percent of all breakfasts are now eaten alone, whether at home, in the car, or at one's desk, according to the latest report.

Lunch meanwhile is nearly as lonely these days. Some 45 percent of midday meals are had alone, according to the report.

Dinner is the only meal that is still largely communal. Roughly three quarters of all suppers are still eaten with others today. But even that is changing.

"Every meal is becoming a more solitary affair, even dinner" Seifer said. "People are eating alone at home and out."

One of the clearest reasons for the shift is something that has been happening to American households, gradually, for decades: They have been getting smaller. Over the more than 40-year span between 1970 and 2012, the percentage of households that contained a single person grew from 17 percent to 27 percent, according to Census Bureau data.

"Only 13 percent of households had one person in them in the 1960s," said Seifer, who credits marriage and family trends with the rise of the single person American household. "People are either delaying marriage or putting off the formation of families after they get married more and more these days."

All in all, Americans have been less enthused about settling down than ever before. The share of never-married Americans is at an all-time high, according to The Pew Research Center. One out of every five people over the age of 25 in this country has never been married. For comparison, the number was one in 10 back in 1960.

People are also eating alone because they're pressed for time.

The death of the family breakfast, which has particularly hurt the demand for orange juice and milk, is perhaps the best example. Working adults, strapped for time, are eating breakfast on the go. Look no further than the success of fast food breakfasts, which have prioritized portability, for evidence. And that's if they're eating breakfast at all: Americans have been eating breakfast less often for some 20 years running.

Lunch has lost its luster, too. A 2012 survey found that 65 percent of working Americans either eat lunch at their desks or eat lunch not at all.

What exactly the rise of the solo meal means for society is unclear. There are confusing suggestions, for instance, about how eating alone might affect health — the practice has both been associated with smaller portions, which could bode well for a country in need of some downsizing, and less nutritious diets, which does not.

There are also various cultural adaptations that are helping those who eat alone to cope with the experience, especially when out at restaurants. Solo diners, so often enveloped in some kind of technology, show up by themselves but occupied.

"It’s almost rare now that a single diner will walk in without some type of device,” said Mark Politzer, Georgetown Four Seasons restaurant Bourbon Steak’s general manager told the Washington Post in 2011. "It’s really changed the experience for single diners. It’s less awkward for them, but they’re more engaged in work or whatever else they’re doing on their device than in having a conversation with us or focusing on the meal."

Catering to the growing pool of solo diners will likely require more than observing that a device can help ease the discomfort of sitting by oneself. Some restaurants, realizing this, have already made strides to connect with solo diners. Communal dining and bench-like seating, which José Andrés's Beefsteak features, allow solo diners to eat alone without feeling like they're occupying a table made for two. One restaurant in Amsterdam, meanwhile, forgoes the option to eat with others entirely, requiring instead that patrons eat by themselves.

"At this point, it really does behoove a restaurant to accommodate single diners," said Seifer. "Even just having a larger bar setup could help make the space more enticing for people to come in and dine by themselves."

But for all the hoopla about braving the restaurant world alone, the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners being eaten without companions these days aren't happening at fancy eateries or fast food chains. Most of them, in fact, are being eaten in the comfort of one's home. What that has meant so far is more delivery, which has been a boon for services like Seamless, and prepared foods, like Trader Joes' Indian meals, which are selling exceptionally well.

The food industry understands this, which is why restaurants across the country have signed up to delivery services in droves, and, in part, why companies like Maple, a delivery-only restaurant based in New York City, exist. And the changes are likely only beginning.

"This is the sort of thing that is going to continue for a long time," Seifer said. "There's a chance the rise [in eating out] might slow in 10 years or so, but I don't know. It's certainly not going to go in the opposite direction. That's for sure."