How Eating Out Solo for a Week Made Me a Better Human
It's not just about the food. Discover how table-for-one dining can improve your mood and your midsection at the same time.
A decade ago, when I was in college and basically friend-free (#coolkid), dining out alone was a common occurrence. I'd take a magazine, enjoy my soup and salad in peace, pay my bill, and leave fairly satisfied.
But somewhere in my mid-20s, I realized how much I valued communal meals. There's something incredibly powerful about sharing good food, wine, and memories with friends old and new. Plus, I'm generally overbooked and we all need to eat, so why not pull double duty and connect over brunch, lunch, or dinner?
Said shared experiences, however, might not be so kind to your waistline: Research published in the journal PLOS One reports that we tend to be influenced more than we might expect by our companions. Translation: If my marathon-training partner orders a side of fries in lieu of a salad, I'm more likely to do the same.
"When eating out alone, it's all about you. When eating out with family or friends, your options tend to mimic those around you. For the most part, that means that dining alone tends to be healthier, as your order, portion consumed, and amount of beverages chosen are not influenced by anyone else," says Erin Thole-Summers, R.D.N., an independent nutrition consultant in Des Moines, IA. (See also: How to Eat Out and Still Lose Weight)
With that in mind, I set out on a one-week quest: Opting for a table for one at least once a day for a week. (No book. No phone. No distractions.) Here's what I took away from the social experiment.
Location: A wine bar.
Lesson learned: Don't bail.
To kick things off in a painless way, I planned to order dinner alone at a wine bar after happy hour with friends. My plan was to enjoy a glass and conversation, then give my pals a hug, sit back down and order an entrée. Easy enough, right?
I thought so until it came time for my pals to depart. I sat back down, looked around and realized every other table was occupied by either a couple on a date or a group of friends catching up over a bottle (or two) of rosé.
At that moment, I became super self-conscious. And surprisingly for this self-assured single lady, I became a bit anxious too. It could have been the fact that the server, figuring I was ready to settle up now that my friends had left, tried to bring me my check. But more likely, it was the fact that I felt a bit abandoned, a bit lonely, and a bit in the spotlight as the only solo diner in the establishment.
But why? I'm certainly not alone in being, well, alone. According to the United States Census, the number of one-person households is skyrocketing. Between 1970 and 2012, the number of singles living solo grew from 17 percent to 27 percent of all households.
Mid-credit card hunt, I thought of how I was the one who pitched this experiment to my editor. I thought of how empowered I felt when I bought my house on my own. I thought of how liberated I felt the first time I donned a pair of my signature sequin-covered pants after my post-break-up wallflower phase last winter.
I took a deep breath, tucked my credit card neatly back in my purse and ordered the special of the day. When the stunning seared salmon arrived at my roomy table, I had no regrets.
Location: The overcrowded healthy hot spot.
Lesson learned: You might make a new friend.
The next night after a jam-packed day of work, I stopped by a bustling restaurant I'd been meaning to try for months. Since it tended to draw lines, I felt bad dragging others there with me to jostle to the counter to order and then wait for a table to open up. Dining alone, though, meant that I was delaying no one but myself.
Lucky for me, moments after I placed my order, a table of two post-spin class diners cleared out and I slipped in at their two-top. My delicious and half healthy (Greek salad), half not-so-much (baked fries) arrived. And not too long after, so did a stranger. "Hey, mind if I join you?"
We didn't talk much besides a "nice to meet you!" and a "hey, thanks for letting me join you," since he had headphones in, but something about having another person across the table made me feel a bit less alone. That must be why one Japanese café seats solo diners with stuffed animal hippos. Yes, really.
Location: A chic French bistro.
Lesson learned: Entertainment can come from something besides your phone.
Instead of grabbing a takeout salad at the supermarket on my walk home from work, I decided to wander the neighborhood until I felt drawn into a restaurant. As soon as I heard the thumping bass and drum beat emanating out of a dark and cozy French bistro, I knew that was where I wanted to land.
At this point in the experiment, I was ever so slightly more comfortable asking for a "table for one, please" instead of "just one!"
It didn't strike me why our society has such a negative association with solitary dining until I stumbled upon a thoughtful essay by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. "From day one we learn to eat in the company of others, and we figure out fast that the kids who eat alone at school are the kids who don't have anyone to eat with. Socially, eating alone is not a sign of our strength, but of a lack of social standing," he says.
As I dug into my grilled chicken and beet salad with goat cheese toast, I felt more than strong; I felt satisfied. I smiled and decided to treat myself to a glass of French rosé and linger until the band finished their set.
Turns out, Thole approves of this strategy. "One nice thing about eating out alone, once you get comfortable with it, is that you can make it an experience, not a rush order. I urge my clients to take their time to eat, to decompress for the day, and to allow satiety cues to activate," she says. "If you like, enjoy a glass of wine. Drink it slowly and savor the moment."
Location: A beautiful brunch café.
Lesson learned: When you're alone, you pick the time, the place, and the pace.
Come Saturday after a late night out with pals, I wasn't itching to wake up early and I wasn't hungry right away. Rather than rush to meet my BFFs at brunch, I slept in and got ready at a leisurely pace. Around 11 a.m., with a cold brew in hand, I strolled over to my favorite sunlight-washed brunch locale a couple blocks away from where I live.
The smashed peas, toast, and prosciutto entrée kept me full until dinner-and fueled me through a hardcore rowing and kettlebell workout later in the afternoon. So much better than a boozy brunch that would likely leave me popping ibuprofen a few hours later.
Location: My favorite neighborhood farm-to-table restaurant.
Lesson learned: The cheese plate isn't off limits, but survey your stomach before ordering. Do you really want it?
The last time I stopped by the über-local eatery I planned for Sunday night, I'd had my sights set on a well-balanced chicken entrée. ("Lean cuts of meat are packed full of protein that helps build muscle, keeps us full for longer, helps with weight maintenance, and curbs cravings for sugar-packed dessert," Thole says.) But somehow, my friend and I ended up devouring a charcuterie platter, too. No clue how that landed on our table...
That mimicry study is no joke. The more time I had to reflect on this and compare it to the solo dining experience, the more I realized I was often tempted into an extra appetizer, cocktail, or dessert simply because my tablemate wanted another round. Moving forward, I'm going to do a literal gut check-and feel zero regrets about bailing on the next round if I'm already satiated.
Location: A noisy Mexican cantina.
Lesson learned: Everything tastes better when you pay attention.
How often do we tune in, really, to the acoustics and the environment around us as we eat out? Unless something is "off," like the too-loud music or the ugly art, we tend to be a bit oblivious. Before I stopped by a Mexican restaurant for a couple of grilled fish tacos for lunch on Monday, I spoke with Thole and was inspired to pay attention.
"Dining alone can be a one-of-a-kind experience. Without others at your table, it's easier to be aware of your dining atmosphere: the laughter, the servers, the aromas, and most importantly, the flavors," she says.
Right after I placed my order, I put all five senses on high alert and was treated to a symphony of sizzling fajitas, sights of smiles from servers and some older patrons, and the mouthwatering smell of well-seasoned enchiladas one table over.
When my tacos arrived, I dug in and left the dining room more satisfied than I ever had before. (Hooray for not downing the entire basket of chips!) "Slowing down to enjoy every aspect of eating out, specifically in a sit-down restaurant, also slows down your consumption of food," Thole adds. "That means your body can metabolize appropriately and your satiety cues can alert you to when you're truly full. If all goes according to plan, that means you won't leave the restaurant physically uncomfortable!"
Location: The $30-a-plate destination.
Lesson learned: You don't need to wait for someone to make it a special occasion. You are the special occasion.
On the final day of my challenge, as I reflected on the six days prior, I began to wonder what took me so long to go it alone. At some point, I'd begun saving the restaurant experience for a treat I'd "earned" only when I wrangled friends or a date into going with me. All other times, I'd snag a takeout salad or whip up something basic like eggs and toast at home.
"Dining alone usually means choosing foods that are convenient rather than nutritious. Coming from a busy or stressful day with two options in hand: 1. Start from scratch and make a healthy meal, or 2. Visit a fast food restaurant or pour a bowl of cereal, most singles will opt for what is quick," Thole says.
So to celebrate my successful experiment, I followed in the footsteps of many OpenTable users (parties of one are now the fastest-growing table size) and booked a seat for myself and myself only at one of the nicest date night spots in town.
As I took my last sip of wine with my final bite of steak, I pulled out my phone, accessed my calendar and booked a monthly solo dinner outing. Turns out, I make a pretty good dinner date.