Many people feel self-conscious eating alone in public. The fear of looking like a friendless loser is fuelled by websites depicting solo diners as isolated or pathetic, such as the Tumblr site table-for-1, or the Facebook group Seeing Old People Eating Alone Makes Me Sad, which has nearly a million members.
Food journalist and author Mark Bittman, whose column The Minimalist runs weekly in The New York Times, says he was unaware of the stigma until he posted an article on his website by fellow Times writer Suzanne Lenzer called "On Eating Alone."
"It was our most hit post of the month or even of the last several months," Mr. Bittman says.
An expert at soloist dining, he offers the following tips for making the most of a meal on your own:
Tell a different story
Change your own assumptions about people who are eating by themselves. Some may be single people who don't feel like making a meal for one, while others may be business travellers. "To be honest, I look forward to travelling because I can eat alone," says Mr. Bittman, who is often on the road promoting his books, including the kitchen staples How to Cook Everything and Food Matters: A Guide To Conscious Eating.
Consider this: Maybe all those sad-looking elderly people just want someone else to cook for a change.
Focus on the food
Without dining companions, you have the luxury of making the experience all about the food. "There's no sharing, no discussion, no negotiating over the order," Mr. Bittman says. "You're basically doing what you want to do, negotiating only with yourself."
Order three appetizers and no main, if that's what you feel like. Add a side of bacon to your vegetarian entrée. Eat your dessert first.
Bring a book
Don't feel bad if you can't manage without a prop, such as a laptop, BlackBerry or book, Mr. Bittman says. "For me, the pleasure of being alone is reading while eating. Most of the time, eating involves conversation and being social, and it's rude to read in front of someone else. So I like to do it when I can."
Insist on good service
Perhaps you'd feel most comfortable sitting at the bar or tucked into a corner at a table for one, but if the offered seating comes with cold drafts, kitchen clattering or server neglect, don't be afraid to demand better. "You can get really great service, but you have to be up front about what you want," says Mr. Bittman, who doesn't find it necessary to chat up the wait staff to ensure he gets their attention or to fill the conversational void.
"I don't flirt. I don't talk. I just say, 'Please bring me this.' "
If you see people you know, don't feel obliged to accept an invitation to join their table. You'll know you've crossed a threshold when you can say: "No, thanks. I'm treating myself to a quiet meal alone" - and mean it.
*And don't do this
Assume others pity you. They're more interested in the dessert menu.
Special to The Globe and Mail