What could be more sociable than the act of sharing a meal or a drink?

For years, I’ve been researching and writing about one particular variety of eating alone – dining alone in restaurants. I have found that people are often very self-conscious about dining solo. They think other people are thinking mean and dismissive things about them when they do. Those fears, it turns out, are overblown. Other people are just as likely to be catty about the couple they see at the next table.

In my research and casual conversations, there are always people who say that they refrain from dining on their own but not because they are worried about what other people would think of them. Instead, they say that they just don’t want to. Meals are supposed to be sociable events, they say. It’s boring to go out to dinner by yourself. And yet…

A new report of Americans’ 2013 eating and drinking habits across all venues (not just dining out) comes to a stunning conclusion: When we are eating or drinking, well over half the time, we are doing that alone.

Here are the specifics:

  • 60 percent of the time, people eat breakfast by themselves
  • 55 percent of the time, people eat lunch by themselves
  • 32 percent of the time, people eat dinner by themselves
  • More than 70 percent of the time, people eat between meals by themselves
  • Across all the different times when people are eating or drinking, nearly 60 percent of them occur when people are alone.

[An important caveat: The market research group who put out the report, NPD group, offered just a two page summary. I don’t know the details of how the study was conducted.]

I don’t know if 2013 marked the first year that the act of eating became a predominantly solitary activity. Maybe that first happened a year or several years ago. In the big sweep of history, though, I bet it is something truly new and unique.

The report offered no hints as to why this is happening, but it is easy to generate possibilities. First, the number of single people, and the number of people who live alone, has been growing for decades.

But with such high rates of eating alone, it can’t be just single people or solo-dwellers who are driving the trends. In research that is at least indirectly relevant, marriage researchers have found that in 2000, married couples were less likely to eat together than they were in 1980.

Growing time pressures are a likely culprit. Meals with other people are probably, on the average, more leisurely than meals enjoyed alone (though they surely do not have to be). Anecdotally, solo diners seem to be served more quickly than people dining with others.

Perhaps also relevant is how easy it is to entertain ourselves when we are on our own. Personally, I don’t mind daydreaming or thinking through something I’ve been trying to figure out while I’m eating. But for those who prefer external distractions, our gadgets make those oh so easy to access.