Meals structure our days, especially socially. Some of my fondest memories are of being handed a spatula and told to make pancakes while my grandma regaled my parents and friends with stories during our post-church brunch. Even in college, my roommates and I would have roommate dinners—we’d light some candles, put on Sinatra, and uncork the wine, feeling fancier than our decrepit student apartment warranted.
But over the last year, I've noticed I enjoy my meals less. It's not the quality of the food. Nor have I lost by taste or appetite for food. It wasn’t until I took a step back and examined my day that I was able to put a finger on what felt different. At the end of the day, I'd come home to my apartment and begin to prep dinner: I’d fry my chicken, prep my vegetables, and sometimes even garnish my dish. Then, plate in hand, I’d proceed to my living room, where I’d plop down in front of the TV, pick something on Netflix, and enjoy my home-cooked meal—alone.
Alone. For the first time in my life, I am consistently eating dinner alone. The consistent communal dining experiences I had in my family and then in college are now behind me. And while I have a roommate, it’s rare that we are both home and dining at the same time. Dining with another person, or group of people, wasn’t something I realized I was missing until I was without it.
Although there are still some nights where I find myself eating spaghetti to Gossip Girl reruns, I’ve found several ways to beat the lonely-dinner blues.
Bring your book to the table
If you’re able to read without getting sauce on the pages, you should grab a book instead of turning on the TV. For me, reading for pleasure is something that usually ends up at the bottom of my to-do list (aren’t we all looking to find more reading time?), so dinner has become a perfect time to catch up on reading. It’s not rude if you’re eating alone, right? I’ve found that this butternut squash pasta pairs well with a good book on a cool fall night. Invite your favorite characters to dinner with you, and take your meal (and your reading) at a slower pace.
Obviously, the simple answer to a lonely meal is to invite someone to dinner, but schedules are crazy, and pinning down a time to serve a friend your latest Pinterest meal find isn’t always feasible. When my dinner plans fall through, and I’m groaning at the thought of eating alone, I turn to a video call. My college specialty was preparing this chicken piccata, and video calling allows me to continue sharing my favorite meal with friends, even if we are in different time zones.
If you have people you’ve been meaning to call, use dinner prep and eating time to your advantage. I’ve seen long-distance couples pick a recipe together, prop their phones up, then prepare the meal on each end. Then, they’ll move into the dining room and eat together, just digitally. Even though they’re not physically in the room, a friend can make meal prep (and eating) less boring.
Make something with heart
Another way to make dining for one more appealing is to pick a special meal to make. When I’m feeling low, I’ll make one of my mom’s famous Minnesota recipes, like this chicken poppy-seed casserole, as a comfort food, then call her afterward. Even though I enjoyed my meal alone, I still felt connected to the recipe and the important person in my life who passed it down to me.
Try asking your parents, grandparents, and friends for their favorite recipes. It’s your best friend’s birthday? Tell her you made her favorite chocolate chip cookies to celebrate, even if you’re miles apart.
Thankfully, you won’t always have to figure out these workarounds! I’ve been blessed to befriend coworkers and strengthen my relationships with college friends, and we often plan brunches, wine nights, and dinners together. Try this easy broccoli quiche for breakfast, this easy Verily recipe for lemon quinoa bowls (seriously my go-to) for lunch, and these garlic lemon zoodles for dinner.
It’s comforting to now find myself equipped to deal with those dinners alone in my apartment. Even when it’s just me, there are ways to hold family and friends (even fictional ones) close by, while keeping Netflix at bay.
Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed these tips for brightening your everyday meals, you’ll love Verily Yours—especially Verily Table, a weekly newsletter with meal suggestions, podcasts to listen to while you cook, and thoughtful questions to discuss or ponder around the table!