Eating alone isn’t good for you – but you do get to read at the table

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Research shows that eating on your own at home is a prime indicator of unhappiness but it does have its plus points

Some advice never goes out of fashion. Live Alone and Like It: The Art of Solitary Refinementis a cheery little volume that was first published in 1936, and remains in print today. Written by Marjorie Hillis, an editor at American Vogue, and a bestseller in its time, it was aimed at a new generation of women who, whether by design or default, suddenly found themselves living the single life in tiny flats and rooms in cities in both the US and Britain. I don’t live alone, but I look at it quite often. It’s one of those books that, in certain moods, works on you like a really good cocktail or a blast of exactly the right music: an antidote, if not to despair, then to the existential angst that dogs us all every now and again.

Hillis covers everything: soft furnishings, what to keep on your drinks trolley, the matter of boyfriends and whether they should stay or go. But it’s the chapter about eating alone I like best. Among its pages, you won’t find any dreary recipes for one; though she rightly regards corned beef hash as a very fine thing indeed, she would rather leave that sort of stuff to stodgier, less inspiriting writers than herself.

You will, however, find plenty of other advice. Dress up for dinner, she says – or don’t, if you want to wear your pyjamas. Be sure there’s something in the fridge besides three-day-old leftovers (one-day-old leftovers, on the other hand, are supremely delicious).

Make full use of, and don’t ever despise, cans (tinned crab is good, gussied up, and so are tinned peaches, especially with raspberry sauce). Above all, remember that proper nourishment equals strength, mental and physical. Feeding yourself is more important even than taking off your makeup.

Back in the 21st century, the evidence mounts that eating alone is a bad thing. A survey published last month based on research carried out among 8,000 British adults found that doing so is more strongly associated with unhappiness than any factor other than mental illness; other studies have suggested that solitary dining is both a risk factor for depression, and that those who do it often are at increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Such stories tend to get widely reported, and no wonder: a lot more of us eat alone now than in Marjorie Hillis’s day, just as a lot more of us do everything else alone (television, sex, you name it). In 2018, even those who live with other people can be isolated, running on their own timetables, shutting the rest of the world out.

None of these findings seem particularly surprising to me, and not only because it’s pretty obvious that cooking only for yourself can seem, at the end of a long day, like far too much effort (thus, we slump on our sofas and eat junk).

Everyone knows that there aren’t many things lovelier or more affirming than eating supper with someone you love; when my grandpa died, it was mealtimes that made my granny most miserable. But then again, I’ve never minded eating alone, at least at home (it’s a different story if you’re talking about restaurants, which aren’t always exactly a pleasure for the single woman).

This is when I get to eat all the things that other people hate (chicken livers, mostly). This is when I’m allowed to read at the table. This is when I can take as little time, or as long, to scoff whatever happens to be on my plate.

Admittedly, there’s now an element of luxury in this for me. Peace and quiet. No one else to please. The sense of a pause opening up. But even in the years – they were quite long – when I did live alone, doing so never seemed to be too bad, perhaps because, like Hillis, I’ve always been a great one for the rituals of dinner. Napkins, candles, all that. Small things, carefully deployed, can make the quotidian not only softly comforting, but quietly radiant, too: a favourite mug, a beloved knife, that slightly chipped dish you found in some market. Taking one of the few old bits of china I’ve inherited out of the cupboard somehow makes me feel connected, even when I’m entirely alone.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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