Woman eating aloneEating by yourself used to be a sad affair. Sitting alone in front of the television with a single serving of macaroni and cheese and a pile of peas, people were not proud. 

A meal eaten alone meant social isolation and separation from a cultural norm that called for meals to be focal points of both eating and connecting. To be alone was to miss out. 

Gradually, eating alone has become an occasion for catching up with email, social media or a good book. Rather than lament time spent alone, people are starting to embrace and even feel empowered by it. More than half of breakfasts are eaten alone, 45 percent of lunches and 24 percent of dinners. 

Eenmaal, a restaurant in Amsterdam, even celebrates the trend by offering only tables for one.

Eating alone is at the confluence of several shifts in the way people live, the most obvious being the rise of single-person households. But even in multi-person households, 39 percent of the time when people eat, they eat alone. (The figure rises to 47 percent when one-person households are included.) 

Other modern realities and values that have helped make eating alone more enjoyable: 

  • Autonomy, including choosing when, where and what to eat
  • Productivity
  • Everyone in the household working, and no central person to shop and cook
  • Digital connections 

As Debbie, age 50, in New York City explains: “We used to eat together, but times have changed. Now I just want to keep reading and learning. Before, there weren’t so many distractions, but now I feel so privileged to be able to learn.” 

eating alone graph

Source: “Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors 2013” report, The Hartman Group 

In fact, 43 percent of consumers say they enjoy eating alone to catch up on other activities — and Millennials are more than 50 percent more likely to use alone occasions for getting things done. 

The hitch is finding food to eat alone. In multi-person households, 28 percent of meals eaten alone actually consist of the same food. There might be a pot of stew that everyone dips into, or something in the refrigerator that they help themselves to at different times and eat in different rooms of the house. 

For the other occasions, people find their own food — and those meals present a major market opportunity. Some retail delis and food manufacturers sell pre-portioned salads and entrees, and some frozen meals have become delectable alternatives to the expense of eating out and the tedium of cooking for one. 

But the amount of food that’s available for single-person eating occasions falls far short of meeting the market’s needs. People are not looking to get back to the family dinner table, and many have no interest in regularly cooking meals for one. 

To meet their needs and those of people snacking and looking for meals to grab on the run, food manufacturers should consider creating products that are easy to scale up and down. Consumers also want high-quality ingredients that can stand alone or be mixed and matched for meals of different sizes. 

Many retailers are doing a good job with prepared foods, and they should make it easy for customers to find and navigate that area. They should augment and rotate standard fare with more flavorfully exciting dishes, which taps consumers’ desire to explore and to treat themselves — which can be as simple as giving a slight twist to something people already like. 

Restaurants already win a large slice of the lunch business and have carved out a breakfast niche, but they could grab even more market share by offering smaller sizes for snacks, many of which people eat alone and on the go. 

modern eating coverTo learn more about the new consumer affinity for eating alone and what types of foods and beverages they’re looking for, check out The Hartman Group’s 2013 report, Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors

Questions or comments? Email Blaine Becker: blaine@hartman-group.com.