Enjoying meals with friends and family is one of life’s most simple pleasures, yet these days the idea of siting down at a table to eat a meal at the end of the day with a partner, children or even friends is on the decline.
It’s much more likely that we’ll sit down in front of a screen with a pre-prepared meal in hand, or even a glass of wine and cheese and crackers and call it dinner.
So why is eating alone so bad for us? And what can we do about it if solo dining is our reality?
The continual growth of individual meal serves in supermarkets suggests that there are more and more people in Australia eating alone. While many mothers of small children would love nothing more than to enjoy a meal by themselves, the rest of us aren’t choosing this.
It could be argued that eating alone is likely to help you control what and how you eat, in turn benefiting your diet and your health but alas this is not what the research suggests. Rather, eating alone is associated with weight gain and poorer eating habits for a number of reasons.
Studies have shown that we eat in the same way as those around us. That means that if everyone around us is tucking in, we will too but on the other hand, having others observe what we are eating also plays a significant role in controlling our intake overall.
In food terms, this means you are far less likely to demolish an entire pizza or bowl of creamy pasta when others are watching you. Nor are you likely to share your habit of eating an entire block of chocolate after dinner.
Wanting to conform socially ultimately helps control our food intake, especially if those around us are mindful of what and how much they’re eating.
Eating alone also lends itself to another poor habit – eating in front of a screen. Let’s be honest, who is setting the table for one?
Being distracted during a meal has been shown to impact what you eat after it, which suggests our self-regulation is impacted when we aren’t concentrating on our food. So watching TV while you eat may not encourage you to go for larger portions, but it increases your chances of post-dinner snacking.
The continual growth of meal delivery services also impacts what and how we eat as singletons.
Buying produce for one is expensive, and if you make too much it leads to food wastage. You may be motivated to make spag bol or soup, but seriously who wants to eat it four nights in a row?
The convenient alternative is ordering in, and that tends to be high calorie options such as pizza, Thai or fried foods rather than a healthy salad. Plus, you’ll overeat more pizza than salad, which leads to gradual weight gain over time.
So if eating for one is your reality, how can you make it work for you minus the excessive calories?
First and foremost, try and ditch the screen and sit down to a meal a couple of times each week.
Seek out healthy, single serve meal options that you can prepare quickly minus the extra ingredients and fuss. Good options include pre-made fish or chicken with a few frozen or pre-prepared vegetables with a light sauce.
Limit your ordering in once a week, max.
Seek out a little more meal time company. If you know friends or family in the same situation, book them in for regular ‘family’ meals because not only is enjoying food with loved ones one of life’s pleasures, it turns out those family meals will also help you control your weight.
Susie Burrell is a nutritionist. Continue the conversation on Twitter @SusieBDiet.