From grazing on snacks to dining solo, a third of Britons now regularly eat every meal on their own. Is this fuelling the loneliness epidemic or providing hidden health benefits?
Eating alone has become a defining feature of modern life: the breakfasting commuter; the household members with conflicting schedules; the widower who receives few visitors. Almost a third of British adults are eating alone most or all of the time, according to the latest Wellbeing Index, compiled with data from more than 8,000 people for Sainsburys by Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research. Similarly, a Mintel survey of 2,000 UK consumers aged 16 and over has found that one in three are regularly eating every meal alone. In London, the figure rises to almost half.
Much of this solitary munching takes place behind closed doors. Single-occupancy homes are the second-most-common household size in Britain and a record 35% of over-16s are single, according to the Office for National Statistics. This is why, in 2018, Tesco announced plans to stock more than 400 single-portion products including burgers, steaks and vegetables.
As a nation, we have also become less self-conscious about solo dining. The bookings website OpenTable recently reported that reservations for one have increased across the UK by 160% since 2014. Bar seating and communal tables are increasingly popping up in restaurants.
While destigmatising solo dining in all its manifestations is liberating, our new dietary habits steer us into uncharted territory. Until now, eating in groups has been a universal human ritual. Not only is it practical (many hands make light work and also reduce our vulnerability to predators) but meals have, traditionally, been used to meet our fundamental need for connection with others. It wouldnt be making a giant leap to link eating alone with the current loneliness epidemic. One might also wonder if it is only a coincidence that this new phase is happening at the same time as rising obesity rates.
On a micro level, deciding what to have for dinner after a long day can be a challenge. Eating alone has not only hugely changed how and what we eat but also how we talk to ourselves about eating, says Bee Wilson, the author of The Way We Eat Now. Theres a constant mismatch between a sense of how we should be eating and how were actually eating. The multi-generational family meals of the Dolmio television ads are presented as the ideal, she says, but how many of us eat like that in real life, except for at Christmas? The default number that cookbook recipes serve is still four or six, but at least recipe writers have had to meet demand for meals you can throw together in minutes. Many of us are time-poor now, but when you are cooking for one you have to do the washing up as well. In 2010, Jamie Oliver wrote a book of 30-minute recipes, only to eclipse this in 2012 with a book of 15-minute meals. Some of his recipes even broke the 10-minute barrier in his 2017 bestseller, Five Ingredients, Quick and Easy Food. And behold the rise of the single-portion, five-minute chocolate mug cake, with its comforting, studenty appeal, which can be knocked up from scratch almost as easily as from the shop-bought mixes and is perfect for one.
Increasingly, ready meals are aimed at single households but, as with any form of eating, theres probably huge diversity in the ways people eat when theyre alone, says Wilson. One way that younger generations are squaring the circle of eating alone, enjoying food but not being enslaved to the kitchen is through the rise of meal prepping, she says. Meal prep does not simply mean preparing meals. Rather it is a hashtag for an Instagram craze (10m posts and counting) for a borderline neurotically health-conscious version of batch cooking. That has been a huge phenomenon, says Wilson. So many young millennials I speak to are going on about that book The Green Roasting Tin you throw lots of delicious vegetables and herbs into a roasting tray, cook up a huge batch of it, then portion it up into tupperware boxes.