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Table for One

An exploration of the dining habits and companions of Americans.

Who are you having dinner with tonight? Perhaps you mustered the courage to ask your crush on a date? Or maybe your meal is more family stock-photo-esque, complete with smiling children eating all of their veggies without question. Or are you having dinner by yourself? Before you go off tweeting about being #ForeverAlone, you should know that eating alone is becoming more and more common.

In 2003, the tens of thousands of people who took part in the American Time Use Survey — a representative sample of Americans aged 15 to 85 — reported that they ate 32% of their meals alone. As the survey-takers continued collecting data over the years, that number rose to 35% in 2015.

A three percent increase doesn’t sound like that much. But it does translate to the average American eating alone one extra day per month. And, as you might guess, that extra day is not distributed evenly throughout the population.

Frequency of Dining Alone by Age

Frequency of Dining Alone

Generally speaking, as we get older, we eat alone more and more frequently. But there are a few interesting things worth noting here.

First, look at this dip for people in their 30’s. These folks were eating noticeably fewer meals alone per month than people just a decade younger than them.

I also noticed that once people hit 70 years old, they experienced a steep upward trend in solitary eating. Though, these data are from 2003 and a lot has changed in the 12 years between that survey and the most recent one from 2015.

Once I added the data from 2015, the patterns really caught my attention. It looks like millenials and baby-boomers finally have something in common. Both groups have begun eating alone more frequently than people their age did back in 2003. On the other hand, the dining habits of the other age-groups remained relatively unchanged.

I decided to slice the population into five age groups: 15 - 19, 20 - 30, 30 - 50, 50 - 75, and 75 - 85. These correspond to roughly alternating groups of no change / change in dining habits. Looking at the data this way, you may notice that these curves seem to follow the archetypal family life: living with parents, moving out, starting a family, having kids, empty nests, and growing old together. I wanted to see if there was more to this hypothesis.

To figure it out, I added data that reports with whom people share their meals. I hoped that this would help me figure out if the patterns observed from lone-diners do, in fact, match up with this quintessential American lifestyle. Below, you’ll see the change in dining companions for each age group from 2003 to 2015.

Percent of Meals Spent with Companions by Age

As expected, teens share most of their meals with parents, siblings, and friends. In fact, the number of family meals experienced by the youngest survey-takers is on the rise. This trend is echoed by a similar rise in people around their parents’ age (31-50 year olds) sharing meals with their children. It’s possible that these bonus home-cooked meals are a result of children “leaving the nest” later than they used to.

Looking at the twenty-somethings and 50-75 year olds, I saw that both groups did eat alone more frequently than in 2003, but possibly for different reasons. The twenty-somethings dined less frequently with their spouses or children and more frequently with their unmarried partners. This is likely a reflection of the changes in family-timing in America. Today’s young people are getting married, and having children later than their predecessors. They’re also more likely to move in with their partner before marriage.

The 51-75 year olds appear to be having a different type of relationship-change, at least according to their dining habits. The decrease in dining with a spouse almost exactly mirrors the increase in meals spent alone. While we can’t know for sure, it’s possible that this is a reflection of people that remain unmarried. Divorce is another possible explanation, though, by all accounts, divorce rates are at a near 40-year low.

Depending on your view of the world, these changes can be welcome or scary. In my book: as long as you’re happy with how things turned out, congratulations to you. It is, though, a matter of fact that Americans are not only more alone, but also feel lonelier. The feeling of social isolation against how one would like to have is both hard and a health problem, possibly on par with smoking and obesity. Having a partner to share your life is of course not the only way to have company, but it is the most common one.

An optimist by nature, I couldn’t help but look for a silver lining in the data. It took a while, but I eventually found it. People aged 75 to 85 didn’t eat alone more often now than they did in the past. Despite more of them being divorced or staying single altogether, this age group dines with their spouse 5% more now than before. In the 12 years between these surveys, the average American’s life expectancy has risen by two years. Those years are the reason. They give us more time to spend with our significant others. And that, for those who chose it, is a very good reason to smile.

Code and design by Amber Thomas

Methodology: All of the data used in this essay came from the American Time Use Survey in which thousands of Americans report what activities they did during a day in their life. For practical reasons, people can only report doing one thing at a time. A “meal” is considered a chunk of time when the person reported 110101 - Eating and drinking. If a person was multi-tasking,(e.g. grabbing a sandwich while walking to work), their activity may not be considered a meal. In the aforementioned example, that activity might be reported as 180501 - Travel related to working and would not be included in this analysis. On average, people reported Eating and drinking about twice a day. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes all data on their website.