More than ever before, we are a nation of loners. Statistics show that today half of U.S. residents are single, and one-third of households have only one occupant. Those are the highest numbers in U.S. history.
Those figures suggest one of the main reasons eating alone is no longer the slightly embarrassing social taboo it once was. In fact, eating alone is becoming the new norm. Recent research, summarized in a new report from the Food Marketing Institute, finds 46 percent of adult eating occasions — that includes meals and snacks — happen alone.
Specifically, the research showed that 53 percent of breakfasts and 45 percent of lunches were solitary. Dinner was more social, with 24 percent of those being eaten solo. Data from the NPD market research group in 2014 put that number at 34 percent.
Certainly, there’s more societal pressure and emphasis on eating dinner with others. In fact, there’s a whole movement around the idea of regular family dinners, supported by research showing the benefits. It’s reported, for example, that adolescents who ate family meals five to seven times a week were twice as likely to get As in school as those who ate family dinners less than twice a week. And young adults who ate regular family meals as teens were less likely to be obese later in life.
But, of course, for all those single-person households, family dinners may not be an option. Meanwhile, another shift that’s driving more solo eating is the trend away from an allegiance to three meals a day. These days, we eat at our desks, or walking down the street, or while we’re driving. More and more often, what we’re eating is some kind of a snack, rather than a meal with a center of the plate and two sides. NPD’s Snacking in America report showed that people eating alone are driving the growth in snack foods being consumed at meal time. It also revealed that the most common motivator cited for those snacking decisions was whether an item came in a single-serve package.
Perhaps not surprisingly, how we are eating also has effects on what we are eating. Research has shown that people tend to eat less when dining alone. In light of the nation’s widespread obesity problem, that might be a good thing. When it comes to the elderly, however, who are in danger of malnutrition for a variety of reasons, including diminished appetites, that is not such a good thing. The European Prospective Investigation of Cancer has shown that older single adults ate 2.3 fewer vegetable servings per day, and widows or widowers living alone ate 1.1 fewer vegetable servings per day than their married or cohabiting counterparts.
Research also says that people living in single-person households are more likely to eat out and less likely to cook when they do eat in. One restaurant in Amsterdam has responded to this trend by offering only tables for one.
Restaurant home-delivery options grow ever more popular; prepared single-serving meals from grocery stores are projected to grow at twice the rate of restaurant sales over the next 10 years. And when these solo eaters do cook, they will be looking for smaller packages of food — something for food manufacturers, product developers and retailers to keep in mind as they look toward the future.
Bopp is a freelance writer from New York City.