Table for One: The Fine Art of Eating Alone

by August McLaughlin ; Updated July 18, 2017

You arrive home from a hectic workday, famished and exhausted. Why not race off to the organic market for some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, stoneground quinoa, farm-fresh eggs and broccoli? You've been meaning to make that souffle featured on your favorite cooking show, and you can enjoy nutritious gourmet cuisine in ... three hours. Plus traffic.

Of course, that's not realistic. You're busy and that box of Raisin Bran Crunch is ready and waiting. You can pour it, plop down on the sofa and eat within minutes with your favorite sitcom. Or perhaps you thought somewhat ahead and, on your way home, swung through the fast food drive-through -- again.

If these scenarios sound familiar, you're not alone. Americans are eating solo and on-the-run more than ever. Rather than plan your day around balanced meals, you may struggle to squeeze meals in. In some ways, the abundance and convenience of food is an asset, but failing to prepare and sit down for nutritious, balanced meals poses numerous risks. Gaining an understanding of solo-dining pitfalls may inspire you to avoid those problems.

We metabolize all of our experiences, not only the food we eat. When we are single and watching the news while we dine, we absorb that, too. If the news program is about murder and mayhem, that is not a positive pairing.

Darcy Lubbers, certified marriage and family therapist

Countertops, Cars and Couches

With about 50,000 fast food chains in the United States, according to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, it's unsurprising that Americans spend more than $140 billion on fried, salty and super-sized drive-through fodder. In 2007, Americans spent another $7 billion on frozen foods, much of which consisted of ready-to-eat meals and pizzas. This rising popularity of packaged, prepared and heavily processed foods presents a number of risks.

"I don't have hard numbers on the frequency," said registered dietitian Dina Aronson, "but it has definitely become more common in the modern world, as less emphasis is placed on family meals and more people eat on the go, at their desks, in front of the TV and at home solo."

The availability of fast and frozen foods make them "so convenient for a single person," said Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, a registered dietitian and founder of Hispanic Food Communications Inc. "Eating on your own lends itself to developing unhealthy eating habits -- eating too much or not enough, eating in front of the TV or standing and not taking the time to eat properly."

While dining alone, you're also more likely to eat food straight from packages rather than from properly-portioned plates. And reheating, microwaving and can-opening may account for your sole "cooking" techniques.

If your meals lack fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and fiber-rich whole grains, you run the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies, poor digestive health and an increased susceptibility for infections and disease. Many frozen, canned and prepared snack foods contain excessive amounts of sugar and sodium -- traits that can contribute to serious health problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

In a study published May 2008 in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," researchers analyzed the dietary patterns, TV viewing habits and weight of Australian adults ages 26 to 36. Women who watched more than three hours of TV per day were significantly more likely to exhibit severe abdominal obesity compared with women who watched less than one hour per day. Moderate abdominal obesity was prevalent among male avid-TV watchers and uncommon among men who watched little daily TV.

Weighty Emotional Effects

Doing your solo dining on-the-run or amid intense distraction also brings emotional complications.

"We metabolize all of our experiences, not only the food we eat," said Darcy Lubbers, a certified marriage, family and art therapist. "When we are single and watching the news while we dine, we absorb that, too. If the news program is about murder and mayhem, that is not a positive pairing."

As a result, you can experience added stress, anxiety, depressive moods and physical symptoms, such as indigestion, bloating and heartburn. Because it takes about 20 minutes for your mind to send "I'm full!" messages to your body, said Lubbers, eating quickly and mindlessly -- without paying attention to food, your body or its needs -- can also lead to overeating and associated guilt, shame and general emotional discomfort.

A study published in the "Journal of Applied Gerontology" in December 2000 examined the emotional and physical effects eating alone or with others had on 63 retired Swedish women. Researchers found that women who cooked with and for others were far more likely to view meal preparation as a gift, use fresh ingredients and present foods in a visually appealing manner. Widows who dined alone exhibited little joy around meal preparation and eating. As a result, they also showed higher risks for poor nutrient intake -- a scenario that can exacerbate emotional and physical health problems.

Playing Uno Right

Seven Steps Toward Improved Wellness

Load your pantry with healthy staples. Singles often complain that healthy foods "go bad." To remedy this, Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, a registered dietitian and founder of Hispanic Food Communications Inc.suggests stocking up on nutritious foods such as whole grain pasta, rice, powdered milk, beans, nuts and nut butters, with a lengthy shelf life.

Purchase smaller fresh food quantities. "[Another] key to shopping for one is to purchase small packages of foods so they remain fresh," said Melendez-Klinger. Even if the smaller bag of spinach costs more per serving than the on-sale bushel, you'll likely reap more nutrients per dollar and prevent soggy, brown vegetable remnants from overtaking your fridge.

Create a pleasurable dining atmosphere. Who said that candlelight dinners suit couples only? Arriving home from work to a table you've decked with a colorful tablecloth, a candle and flowers can make the notion of mindful eating more inviting.

Turn off your cell phone -- and your laptop, your TV, your iPod, and anything else that's distracting. "If you enjoy music, listen to soft, classical music -- music without lyrics -- while you dine," Darcy Lubbers, a certified marriage and family therapist, said. Doing so can enhance physical and emotional calmness.

Invite a friend. "Sharing food is one of life's joys," said Dina Aronson, a registered dietitian. Cook and dine with another solo diner, or offer to take turns preparing food for each other a couple of times each month.

When you do dine with others, Lubbers suggests engaging in a joint eating meditation. Dine in silence, limiting your activities to eating -- no talking. Afterwards, share your experiences. Doing so can lead to more positive eating habits in the future -- whether you dine alone or not.

Plan ahead. Prepare a healthy entree once or twice each week to last for several meals. Freeze extra portions in single-size containers. If you're not a morning person, prepare a healthy breakfast or lunch the evening before. And don't wait until dinnertime to consider what you'll eat that night.

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About the Author

August McLaughlin is a certified nutritionist and health writer with more than nine years of professional experience. Her work has been featured in various magazines such as "Healthy Aging," "CitySmart," "IAmThatGirl" and "ULM." She holds specializations in eating disorders, healthy weight management and sports nutrition. She is currently completing her second cookbook and Weight Limit—a series of body image/nutrition-related PSAs.