Solo traveling is a wonderful, and usually social, experience. Normally one to feel totally confident on my own, my love of freedom and independence often shrivels when up against one insurmountable odd – eating alone. One of the most difficult parts of solo traveling for me has been eating alone, until lately. Now my feelings towards it have changed completely.
Now, I actually look forward to, and even enjoy, eating alone.
How? I changed my mindset.
As solo travelers, even though we get to meet people all the time and many meals are shared, sometimes you arrive somewhere new and haven’t had a chance to meet people yet, or you’re in a less social place, and you end up eating alone. And that’s OK.
It doesn’t have to be an excruciating, lonely experience. This is how I made it into something more positive:
First, Examine Why You Don’t Like Eating Alone
I worked at a restaurant in high school and I remember, a part from it being a profoundly humbling job, that when someone came in solo we were instructed to try to reach the person to tell them directly that their table was available rather than our usual yelling out, ‘Kristin, party of one!’
But why is eating alone so bad? Why did we make the assumption that the person should be embarrassed or didn’t prefer eating alone?
It’s because we carry some shame with the concept of eating alone. Shame that we couldn’t find someone to eat with us. Shame that we’re not likable enough to eat with others – the shame of being a ‘loner’.
I swear most of my issues have followed me from silly embarrassments from middle school. Things we’d all be so much better off forgetting all about, and this is one of them.
You know that you have friends, that people love you, and that you don’t eat every meal alone. Though it may feel like it, not everyone is staring at you and pitying you, judging you for being alone. They’re all worried about themselves, trust me!
As soon as we can let that shame and discomfort go, the whole concept changes completely.
How to Make Eating Solo Enjoyable
Who here was obsessed with Sex and the City? I watched the entire box set like six times, and can vividly remember an episode where Carrie boldly goes to a restaurant and eats alone without a book, without another person, and without any distractions (this was in the pre-smartphone days).
I decided to try that recently in Rome. Normally, I would want to be on my phone, or would bring a book, or anything to distract me from the terrible discomfort of eating alone.
My meal started normally, with me taking out my Kindle and starting to re-read Shantaram, a novel set in India. But before I knew it I wasn’t in the room anymore, I was on the streets of Bombay. But I hadn’t come to Rome so that I could escape it. I wanted to experience it.
Then I thought about how silly my shame was and thought, well screw that! I put the book down and decided to be in the moment.
For the next 20 minutes I observed the copper piping along the ceiling and the way that it added so nicely to the ambiance, the artful way that Italians communicate so much with their hands, and the way the language undulates in a poetic dance. I watched as the bartender poured drinks, tilting each glass until precisely the right moment to turn it upright. I watched a man drink espresso while standing at the bar as Italians do, and marveled that they somehow still manage to sleep even though it was after 6 in the evening.
In that moment I started to really love eating alone. I was experiencing so much of the restaurant. When my food arrived I mindfully ate each bite, thoroughly tasting the flavors – a fine idea when in Italy.
With my nose buried in my book, or much worse, my phone, I would’ve missed all of that. And honestly I wouldn’t have tasted my food. Haven’t you noticed your food tastes better when you’re truly paying attention to it? Somehow it tasted even another layer of delicious when I paid that much attention to the restaurant as well.
I could also appreciate that no one was there distracting me from my observations. Nobody else was coloring my experience with their opinions or thoughts, either. As much as I love and adore eating with friends, both new and old, I started to appreciate the benefits of eating alone that can only come from a solo meal. How else can you be fully immersed in your experience and the environment?
Ways to Make Eating Alone More Social
If you’re not totally buying my suggestion above, or you’d simply rather make eating alone more social, try sitting at the bar if the restaurant has one. Often bartenders are great conversationalists and are used to people sitting at the bar to chat with them. This won’t work as well if the place is super busy, but you can feel it out before you decide where to sit. Additionally, there may be others sitting at the bar who are also solo and might feel like chatting.
I’ve also found that small cafés can be more social too. I remember going to one in the New Orleans’ Bywater district and it seemed like everyone felt like talking. I’m glad I didn’t pick up my phone and start scrolling, because that sends such a clear message that you’re not interested in being social. So again I really encourage you to put the phone down even though the first few moments can be uncomfortable.
Finally, consider finding some people to meet up with for a meal. If you’re not staying in social accommodation, such as a hostel where it’s as easy as going to the common room and seeing who is hungry, you could also look online a bit ahead of time on Couchsurfing meetups or if you’re a female traveler, ask in the BMTM Solo Female Traveler Connect Facebook group for some eating buddies.
But if you do find yourself alone for a meal, give my method a try. Put all of the distractions down and observe your surroundings. Make your meal a more sensory, cultural experience and I promise you’ll look at it all with a different point of view.