Eating alone: When adult children aren’t speaking to parents
By Sheri McGregor
When adult children aren’t speaking to parents, holidays can be especially painful, partly because of lost mealtime traditions. Recently, several parents have told me they will be eating alone. Most aren’t looking forward to the experience, yet they’re planning ways to make the best of their solitary dining experience.
These parents’ plans remind me of a poem called Table For One. I can’t remember the exact words or who wrote it, but I do remember the care with which the loner served himself. The specific lines escape me, but the feeling remains, the way it moved me to see another way of daily life that, at the time, was so foreign to me.
Wanting to share the self-care embedded in that haunting poem, I searched for the poem but found only others by the same and similar titles. I also found lots of talk about eating by oneself—most of it telling people we shouldn’t. That’s not so helpful when adult children aren’t speaking to parents, which sometimes creates other family divisions. But eating alone isn’t all negative news. Dining solo, whether for the holidays or every day, has its positive points.
When adult children aren’t speaking to parents: Eating your way
Many parents tell me they’ve come to value the quieter holiday times. They may cook a full-on meal for themselves, enjoying the traditional recipes they love and leaving out the ones they don’t. Dominique, a widow with one daughter who is estranged, says, “I don’t miss having to make her favorites.” With a laugh, she adds, “I don’t miss the big cleanup while she sat on her tuchus either.”
Barbara has come to enjoy her right to choose the menu, too. She plans to cook a turkey breast in her crock pot this year, adding sweet potatoes right in with the bird. “It’s what I want and it’s healthy,” she explains. She’ll toss a green salad and also enjoy dessert—but keep the splurge sensible. “I sliced and froze a pumpkin cheesecake. I’ll thaw a piece and save the rest for special treats.” Her plan is a far cry from the over-stuffing that’s so often a part of family gatherings. Eating alone allows for better portion control, some studies report. And when you’re the chef, pushing away from the table doesn’t disappoint the cook.
Eating alone: The adventure
When adult children aren’t talking to parents, eating alone can become routine. For some, throwing something on a paper plate and nuking it in the microwave, eating fast food, or munching while watching TV can become the norm. But mindless eating is associated with cardiovascular disease and weight gain. Avoid that by making solo meals self-care. Some parents tell me they light candles, set the table up nice, and drink from a crystal glass. They know that eating—alone or in groups—is one of life’s pleasures.
Whether you use cloth napkins or paper ones, mindful eating (link) helps you savor your food. Eating can be such a rich experience when we consider textures, flavors, and how different foods make us feel. Lately, my favorite breakfast is organic oatmeal with a sliced banana and a dollop of plain yogurt. Sometimes, I’ll add a handful of blackberries, raisins, or sprinkle cinnamon over top. With the right attitude, food is like medicine—only fun.
Eating alone: Sad or stimulating?
One mother of three estranged sons says she’s spent holidays in restaurants by herself in the past. “I didn’t enjoy those meals,” she says of the awkward feeling of sitting alone with her gaze lowered in shame while, all around her, families made merry. This year, having finally admitted the truth of her sons’ brutality toward her, she says, “I’m done.” No more hoping, wishing, and chasing. This life is hers to live.
She reserved a table for one at a nearby Inn and plans to go with an open mind. By holding her head high, maybe she’ll notice others who are on their own, and therefore feel less alone. The odds are she will see others who have ventured out alone. In 2020, one in nine Americans spent the holiday season all by themselves. If nothing else, without the distraction of eating companions, she can share a few words with and brighten the plight of the server—who will be spending the holiday at work.
Another woman, whose two daughters want nothing to do with her, will dine at a farm-to-table restaurant she has been wanting to try. The restaurant, which serves local and in-season foods, is owned by a local couple whose son is a culinary genius. They made a point of advertising to solo eaters for the holidays. “They have family style tables with benches,” she says. “Along with the award-winning food, I’m looking forward to seeing who they seat me with.” Never mind that the chef went to high school with her daughters. “If he or his folks recognize me, I’ll tell the truth about why I’m alone,” she says. “It’s been almost six years, and I’m tired of covering up for abusers, even if they are my flesh and blood.”
In my books, I help parents to recognize and leverage their unique brand of resilience, partly derived from their own history, for the issues that crop up in estrangement. DeeDee, a retired military officer who now has two adopted children who are estranged, provides a good example. In her career, she spent many holidays by herself. Although usually invited into others’ homes, she says, “It often felt better to be alone than in someone else’s crowd.” DeeDee recalls the year she was stationed on the island of Guam as most memorable. “I bought a plane ticket and flew to Saipan for the weekend.” Once there, she rented a car and drove all over the island exploring the WWII sites. After a long and interesting day, she ate a solo Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel. She says, “It’s all about mindset.”
Before the pandemic, one father who’s estranged from his two sons took a steamboat dinner cruise each Thanksgiving. He says he was always surprised to see other lonely ones. After two years off, he’s looking forward to this year’s event. “Mostly, the singles like me all eat while looking at our tablets and phones,” he says. “We’re alone but we’re also together.” This year, he plans to try striking up some conversations. “The pandemic lockdowns taught me how important face-to-face small talk really is. I’m rusty like so many people are, but we can’t spend the time we have left isolated and living in fear.”
Eating together, even alone, all around the globe
In my work with estranged parents and through this site, I count myself blessed to hear from lovely people all around the world. Some have exchanged friendly emails with me from time to time over the years, and food is frequently a way to connect. One woman living in Japan sends me gorgeous photos of interesting and appetizing foods, served on colorful dinnerware at her table set beautifully for one. Another mom shares YouTube videos where cooks demonstrate making easy, healthful foods. One woman writes me from her cozy home in the countryside, telling me about her simple, yummy creations: whole grain toast drizzled with honey, toasted, slivered almonds atop creamy bananas, or organic, ready-made soups.
We all have to eat, and some of us alone. Let’s share ways we enjoy meals, even when we’re on our own. Leave a comment to this article about where you’ll go or what you’ll cook. How do you make eating enjoyable? Healthy? Fun?
As an alternative, find a poem, essay, or other creative work that relates to solo dining. Provide the link, and share what you liked about it, how you can relate, or why the words, art, music, or other creative work moves you. I’ll start: Like the father mentioned earlier, many people learned to eat alone because of the pandemic. Some people hunched over a door-dashed meal or smeared peanut butter on bread and called it a day. Others learned new recipes in cooking classes delivered via Zoom to people from far flung regions. In this essay, called “Food for Thought,” the writer savored not only her food but her memories, which touched me in their honesty, innocence, and joy. (I especially liked the part from childhood and the Seder.)
When adult children aren’t speaking to parents, they tear a ragged hole in traditions that once brought the family close. We can come up with new ideas, and I am always thankful for your comments. Your innovative perspectives and caring can help another parent to feel less alone. Bon appetit.