How to eat alone and make a new friend... with yourself

Greet the morning with a flat white and everything will be alright. — Pictures by CK Lim
Greet the morning with a flat white and everything will be alright. — Pictures by CK Lim

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COMMENTARY, March 4 — With the Covid-19 pandemic reaching its first terrible anniversary, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that more and more are eating at home to avoid crowds.

This can be a lonely affair especially when there is no one else at home but you, but it doesn’t have to be.

Perhaps you have been won over by the merits of dining alone on occasion, at least without fearing it as though it were a punishment.

Perhaps you surrendered to this new meal arrangement during the recent Chinese New Year when you couldn’t balik kampung for your annual loh sang with family.

Whichever way you have come to the conclusion, you have made peace with the fact that eating by yourself isn’t the end of the world. Which doesn’t make it any easier.

You have accepted the why, but how to go about it?

An ordered approach to tackling dining alone, meal by meal, wouldn’t hurt. We are used to the presence of standard operating procedures (SOPs) in our lives by now; what’s one more?

Let us begin with breakfast. It’s our first meal of the day and we want to start on the right footing. “Greet the morning with a flat white and everything will be alright” might be your motto if you’re a caffeine fiend like me. Or munch on a freshly baked pastry as you write your daily journal.

Munch on a freshly baked pastry as you write your daily journal.
Munch on a freshly baked pastry as you write your daily journal.

The words you set down on paper are yours alone, your thoughts and no one else’s.

This is a welcome respite from the incessant barrage of notifications and false urgency that technology and social media would have us consume on a never-ending basis.

There is time and space for connection with others but this meal, this early in the day, is about befriending yourself.

Some spicy noodle soup for lunch to clear the sinuses and any worries.
Some spicy noodle soup for lunch to clear the sinuses and any worries.

Unlike the hapless protagonist of the Thai series You Never Eat Alone who searches for new dining companions every meal for fear of eating alone, we don’t have to see this quiet time as a calamity but as a gift.

Soon it’s noon. How about some spicy noodle soup for lunch to clear the sinuses and any worries you may have? (And we all seem to have plenty of the latter these days.)

In the book Peace Is Every Step, Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh described how he would take his time to eat as a child — sometimes half an hour for a single cookie! In between tiny bites, he would look at everything around him.

He recalled, “I was able to do that because I did not have much to worry about. I did not think of the future, I did not regret the past. I was entirely in the present moment, with my cookie, the dog, the bamboo thickets, the cat, and everything.”

Black coffee in the afternoon will perk you up for the rest of the day.
Black coffee in the afternoon will perk you up for the rest of the day.

It’s three o’clock and you’re feeling a tad peckish. Black coffee in the afternoon will perk you up for the rest of the day, you reckon. A dark chocolate doughnut — just one! you swear — during teatime may offer food for thought.

You recall that line from “Doughnut Song” by Tori Amos — You’ll never gain weight from a doughnut hole — and you smile. No weight gain from a doughnut hole but no pleasure either. Food can’t be for sustenance alone.

Every bite brings you pleasure as you chew slowly, relishing every crumb.

Dinner calls for a bit of splurging. Perhaps a simple yet luxurious seafood donburi and a nostalgic trip down memory lane, when it was winter and Hokkaido was blanketed with snow. Despite the closed borders, we can still travel in our minds — and our hearts.

A dark chocolate doughnut during teatime may offer food for thought.
A dark chocolate doughnut during teatime may offer food for thought.

For the true blessing of dining alone is that we will get to know ourselves better. We will be kinder to ourselves and forgive ourselves more easily, more frequently. Goodness knows we blame ourselves for enough of the pains of the world. We don’t have to take more upon our shoulders.

Let us care for ourselves.

The late author M.F.K. Fisher knew this well: “It took several years of such periods of being alone to learn how to care for myself, at least at table. I came to believe that since nobody else dared feed me as I wished to be fed, I must do it myself, and with as much aplomb as I could muster.”

And as we learn to love ourselves, as we learn to pay more attention to ourselves, so will we be a better dining companion to others. We will pay better attention to those we love and those with whom we dine with.

Legend has it that Winston Churchill’s mother, the great beauty Jennie Jerome, once dined with two famous politicians — British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his rival William Gladstone — on consecutive nights.

Dinner could be a seafood 'donburi' and a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Dinner could be a seafood 'donburi' and a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

After the two dinners, she remarked, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”

You could easily guess which of the two had more experience dining alone, and who was therefore more comfortable with himself. He had no need to impress anyone and therefore impressed others all the more.

A person who is happy to dine alone makes friends with everyone because he has made friends with himself first of all.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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