Though I long thought of myself as an extrovert, more recently I’ve been appreciating how much being with other people energizes me. I am not self-conscious going to the grocery store or park or concert alone, but being with another person makes even the most mundane errands more enjoyable. I also just finished college, where you have the constant option of being surrounded by people the moment you step out of your dorm room. Now that I am back in my parents’ suburban house, spending time with people other than my family requires a bit more effort and planning.
According to some parenting book my mom read in 1995, it is important for families to eat dinner together regularly. My mom really took this to heart. When I was little, my dad walked to work at an office park a half mile from our apartment. Though he worked late hours, he would come home for dinner before returning to work in the evening. When we moved across the country this was no longer possible, but every night everyone who was home ate dinner together, sitting down at the kitchen table. This sounds very Leave It to Beaver- esque as I write this, but it became our routine. It helped that my mom is a teacher and was able to be home in the afternoons and evenings, but routines easily perpetuate themselves.
I don’t want to idolize the family dinner table in a sanctimonious way. It’s just that this routine was really positive for me. This dinner routine made sure that I was eating enough, even when anxiety gnawed away at my stomach. It marked the close of the day, the transition into finishing up homework and preparing for the following morning. It even helped the whole family stay organized since we had this nightly check-in.
My freshman year of college, I was on a meal plan that allowed me unlimited entrances into the only dining hall. I never ate dinner in my room, always meeting up with friends. This dinner routine was extended to include lunch; I would grab a midday meal with friends going to and from class. I even had a breakfast group that would meet 30 minutes before our 9 am lectures and eat yogurt and bagels in silence while reading the paper.
Later in college I shared an apartment with two other girls. Most of my friends, however, were a year younger than me and lived across campus, so eating dinner together in the dining hall before an evening class or after a rehearsal was an easy and nice way to spend time with them. Some nights were quieter than others, if people were stressed out or tired. Thursday night meant egg sandwiches. Knowing that I would reliably see certain people gave the week some much needed structure, and I knowing that I would have these social times made me feel more confident and secure.
The nights I cooked alone in my apartment felt weird. Part of this is because I am not a very good cook, so cooking for myself usually meant spaghetti. (Later on in the semester I started splurging on ravioli with my extra dining dollars). Even with a playlist blaring in the background, cooking by myself feels lonely and sad. Sometimes a housemate would be roasting vegetables next to my marinara and that felt more positive. But when Saturday night is a big question mark and you’ve got a a small pot of water boiling on the stove, cooking alone does not feel good.
As I slowly make plans to move out of my parents’ house, the prospect of cooking alone every night seems daunting and unpleasant. I know about the tips and tricks to make it easier, like preparing a big batch on Sunday afternoon to eat throughout the week and then just cooking some quick vegetables that night. But to then sit and eat that meal alone every night, without someone to check in with about the day, seems dismal.
At first I’ll have roommates of course, ones that I hope will cook and eat with me. But the way that modern society is organized dictates that true adulthood begins when you live on your own. This should be promptly followed by finding a partner and living with them. This totally erases the joy I have found in dining several nights a week with friends. I am learning about how the unit of the family is most productive for modern consumer capitalism and why and how this system of living has been put into place. But knowing and beginning to understand this does not make the prospect of eating alone any easier.
Instead I just have a lot of questions about how I will make this work. Will I live close enough to friends or family that we can eat dinner together a few times a week? Will this push me to couple up faster that I would have? Will communal living formats become popular in the city I live in? How often do adults casually eat at each other’s houses? How much will becoming a better cook make eating alone easier? Will I settle into a routine of eating while watching the news as a substitute?
This week my mom is out of town and my younger brother and I have been cooking and eating dinner by ourselves. It’s been really important to me that we make something substantive and then sit down at a set table and eat together. It adds structure to the end of the day and makes sure that we’re not just mindless munching chips for three hours. Thinking about the routines and isolation of modern adulthood is making me appreciate the effort we put, and my mom has put, into these simple meals together. (My brother has even saved up jokes or stories from throughout the day to share at the dinner table). I’m also appreciating how easy it was to spend time and share meals in college, when we didn’t have to drive to meet up on our residential campus. And it’s motivating me to find a way to create an adult life that is more centered around friendship, especially since one of the easiest ways to strengthen those relationships is to share a meal together.