The lost art of eating alone

Last week I needed to pickup some lettuce at the grocery store. On my way to the cashier, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a table of pumpkin pies. $3.50 a pie, whipped cream not far away. And I thought about it. Thought there's no shame in swapping, I've already achieved so much by pulling the lettuce off the shelf.

But I stayed the course. Paid the cashier and kept thinking about that pie on the walk home. Halfway home I realized: I'm not carrying a grocery bag.

Had I bought the pie, the cashier would have called out, "Sir! You forgot your pie!" But with a bag of lettuce, there's no sense of urgency. When I walked back in the store and picked up the bag, I could feel her thinking, "A week from now, when you're throwing out moldy lettuce, you'll realize this return trip wasn't necessary."

Eating alone is hard to do. If you try to be healthy, there's a stumbling block every step of the way. For example, this salad, it started with the pumpkin pie, continued when I saw I was out of salad dressing AND croutons. At that point the pizza guy pretty much shows up like the genie in Aladdin. Three wishes, but the result is always heartburn.

If I do find the will power to eat the whole salad, the victory lasts for at best thirty minutes before I decide, alright, nice work, time to eat a roll of Oreos and go to bed.

In my situation, Ashley works retail so some nights she has to close at the store. Meaning, I can either battle through the freezer trying to put together a meal that doesn't involve a frozen pizza or I can go out and eat alone. Yes, I could call up a friend, but sometimes you just want to eat. And you want to eat good food but good food means a good restaurant which presents a new challenge: how to eat alone in public without it looking depressing.

The time of day matters. And quick mid-post note, this is my last post of 2015 so my apologies that this thing's gonna run on for awhile, but I'm gonna miss you all until January and I want to make sure you've got enough Medium Rare to get you through a cold December. So if you want to stop here and come back later, hey, that's ok, spread it out!

Anyone who's worried about eating breakfast alone needs to put that fear aside. The person sitting alone with a newspaper and a stack of pancakes, that person is having the best breakfast. No one else in the restaurant is even coming close to that experience. Who would you rather be, the mom who's 2-year-old just smashed his fist on a plate of scrambled eggs or the lady peacefully filling out the Crossword?

Brunching alone is a tough spot to be in. Brunch is the popular table, there is an inherent coolness to brunch. When I picture brunch I picture tables with three or four attractive people recapping their awesome night. And they've got Bloody Marys and Mimosas and I've got a glass of ice water because I couldn't pull the $4 trigger on fresh squeezed orange juice.

Brunching alone is saying, "Well, I didn't have a great night but I still chose to sleep in til 11. And I don't own a waffle iron."

Lunch alone is probably the easiest to pull off. We can bury our faces in the phone and everyone around assumes it's some sort of important work email.

Dinner might be the hardest to pull off. And I think that's a shame. So in the same week of Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving, passing out in a Denny's on Black Friday, all these important holidays of eating food with the ones you love, I want to go the other direction and offer some tips on eating dinner alone in public.

1. Starts with owning the situation

When you walk in the door, the host will ask, "How many tonight?" or the more painful, "Just one?"

Do not let out a sigh. No, "Yeeeeaah, just me." Wamp-wa. Don't go for sympathy, make it seem like dinner for one is normal and anything else would be weird.

So, for example:

Host: Just one?

Response: For sure. Can I get a booth?

2. It's not a matter of what if you run into someone, you WILL run into someone you know

I think that's the biggest fear. What if I'm sitting there and people I know walk in? Won't that be embarrassing?

Case and point, what's the bigger red flag, seeing a married guy eating dinner alone at a fine restaurant or seeing that same married guy eating with a woman that's not his wife. In the second option you wonder, "Is everything going alright in his marriage?" In the first option you wonder, "Is everything going alright in his life? Maybe I should call for help?"

And I get it, every answer that goes through the "I'm eating dinner alone" filter doesn't sound confident. If they come over to the table, "How's your job going?" Great. Translation: Can't be too great if you're eating dinner alone. "How's the family?" Great. Translation: Can't be too great if you're eating dinner alone...

What I do now is expect to run into someone I know. Go on the offense. This way, when they walk through the door, I'm not surprised and I answer their questions with no defensiveness in my voice and no need to justify why I'm out having dinner alone.

3. Don't hide in the cell phone

The cell phone can be a nice eating alone crutch. I'm not eating alone, I'm texting hundreds of friends right now!

But try a dinner without it. I'm not advocating for the full on trendy mindfulness dinner, but something close to it. There is a cool realization point mid-dinner without the cell phone where you realize, wait, being alone isn't that scary or embarrassing or depressing or whatever else could be running through the head. Also, off the grid in airplane mode is kind of nice. And once you're enjoying the dinner, even if the people around are thinking, "Wow, how sad," it doesn't matter. The dinner is still good.

Relax, enjoy the flavors and appreciate that you're not on a couch eating a pumpkin pie for one.

Like I said earlier, this is my last post of 2015. I'm recharging the batteries and hoping to come back strong Monday, January 4th. If you don't want to mark that on your calendar, not a problem, enter your email in the box below and I'll send the next post directly to your inbox. Hope you have a great Thanksgiving, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, happy Boxing Day, happy College Football Bowl Season, happy winter break for college kids, Happy New Year's and let's all enjoy a painful treadmill run on January 2nd.

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