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‘Why eating alone is brilliant’ by Tony Naylor

Visions of rambling communal meals obscure the pleasure solo dining can bring – olive’s expert Tony Naylor is in praise of the solitary act

Imagine, for a moment, people eating. What can you see? Is it several generations gathered outside a sun-dappled Tuscan farmhouse? Is it an attractive gang bantering over cocktails in a hip diner? Maybe you thought about the perfect Bisto-family eating Sunday lunch together or a candlelit table-for-two in a cute neighbourhood bistro?

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You recognise these scenes, not from your own life necessarily, but because food is invariably depicted as a group activity involving sharing, laughter, good times. Eating is a bonding ritual we rightly treasure.

Nevertheless, all that communal joy airbrushes out those many times we find ourselves eating alone, at home, and the distinctive pleasure of that experience. When it’s addressed, solo dining is often portrayed as depressing, furtive and scruffy. The stock image is of someone slouched on the sofa staring slack-jawed at the TV, microwaved ready-meal in hand. They may be wearing old jogging bottoms. They will definitely look grumpy.

But why the sad face? True, when alone, even ardent foodies tend to slob-out and kick-back. Instead of dutifully cooking wholesome food, we are as likely to eat random items straight from the fridge: olives, a scoop of hummus, sliced ham, gherkins, dubious bits of cheese. But, in a way, is there not something fantastic about such a scattergun buffet?

You wouldn’t want to eat alone every day, with all the bad habits it encourages. Ultimately, a patiently, scratch-cooked meal lifts the soul in a way that a pork pie or frozen lasagne can’t. But particularly for those of us who cook regularly, there is a certain sweet liberation in those bouts of lazy foodie irreverence. Occasionally we all love to indulge in, frankly, crappy comfort foods. Even star chefs are not immune. Angela Hartnett once confided to The Guardian that her go-to snack is tinned tuna and mayo on toast.

For once, then, let us celebrate the positives of such private, solitary dining:


It’s dress down Friday (everyday!)

No dressing for dinner. No make-up. No painful heels. Unless your dog maintains an unusually strict dress-code, you can let it all hang out. But, please, not literally. You hear of people who claim to eat naked at home. To whom I say this: imagine having to explain molten cheese burns, down there, at A&E.


It’s healthier… kind of

Our perception is that left to our own devices, we get disgusting. We wantonly pig-out. olive editor Laura Rowe can eat whole blocks of cheese before dinner. Personally, there’s no volume of ice-cream or chocolate that I cannot eat, if there is no-one around to judge me.

However, the idea that eating alone encourages gluttony is a myth. Several studies have shown (see psychologist Charles Spence’s The Perfect Meal), that we eat larger amounts in company – up to 75% more at a table for four!


Midweek Chinese bonanza

Most of us find cooking for one joyless. Your cooking requires an audience that will share and appreciate your efforts. On your own? Then take a holiday from the hob. That is why God invented takeaways.


Saving the planet… one solitary meal at a time

One of the problems of cooking for yourself is that, unless you are some kind of highly-organised shopping ninja, it feels dangerously wasteful. You have to buy endless ingredients to only use a fraction of them, open a packet for two rashers of bacon and when next will you need half a tin of chickpeas? So, rather than risk that waste, you make a sandwich using no gas or electricity. Get you, eco-warrior.


‘Real’ comfort food

Foodies talk-up shepherd’s pie or fish ‘n’ chips as comfort foods (and they are), but, deep down, we all have iffy meals which speak to a deeper psychological yearning. Left alone, I invariably revert to eating cheese-on-toast, tuna sandwiches, pasta and pesto, scrambled eggs; the meals that I loved as a child and skint student.

I might gastro them up, I might not. It depends what I have in. They will hit that Proustian spot regardless. For the record, I no longer eat out of the pan to minimise the washing-up (we have a dishwasher).


The spice of life

This is the era of small plates and tapas. We all crave variety. A bite of this, a taste of that. Nowhere can this mentality assert itself more freely than in your own kitchen, where, suddenly, the most bizarre combinations of leftovers can look not just appetising but principled.

As you load your plate with harissa chicken wings, potato salad and moussaka (if only you had some panzanella to finish it off!), you’re not only creating a meal that you would never dream of serving to anyone else, you are minimising your food waste.


Random freezer roulette

Personally, I don’t buy ready meals. They are unsatisfying, expensive and no match for the thrills of freezer roulette. To play this game, periodically batch-cook loads of brown stews, ragus, curries, sauces etc., and portion them out into poorly-labelled freezer bags which – halfway through cooking your spaghetti – you realise contain rogan josh not bolognese. You will eat it anyway though, because…


No-one will know, will they?

We all have food peccadilloes. Alone, you can go wild. Do you love warm white wine, fish pie with spaghetti hoops, sausages slathered in tzatziki? Well, tonight, there are no sniffy waiters around, no partners mock-retching in disgust, no colleagues calling you weird. This is your time. You want to spread marmalade on that scotch egg? Knock yourself out.


Written by Tony Naylor @naylor-tony

Image from Getty, Yuki Kondo


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