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The Unseemly Secrets of Eating Alone

July 6, 1995

Mary Parraga rarely cooks. Most evenings the 25-year-old graduate student eats cold ham on pita bread or munches on a few pretzels and drinks a glass of milk. She eats alone in front of the TV. ``It’s more comfortable than sitting at the formal table by myself,″ she says.

Young singles, who are far more likely than their parents to live alone before marriage, are turning the tables on traditional dining. Some are content with a bowl of cereal for dinner as they watch TV; others roam their apartments with a pint of ice cream or eat takeout in bed.

Food used to be for sharing, but many young consumers now view mealtime as a dreary necessity. They rarely shop for staples or cook at home. And, in a multitasking world, many feel they are wasting time unless they combine eating with another activity, says Saul Katz, a food anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Demographics may be speeding the demise of formal dining. About 23.6 million people lived alone in 1993, up 15 percent from 1985, according to the Census Bureau. Households made up of singles ages 18 to 34 accounted for about 58 percent of all one-person households.

Food marketers take the fast-growing group very seriously. ``They’ve got the discretionary income, and they’re often looking for unique food experiences,″ says Audrey Guskey, a marketing professor at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University.

But reaching the ``home alone″ set isn’t easy. Many young consumers expect an impossible degree of convenience from packaged foods. They demand healthful food but don’t have the time _ or the cooking skills _ to prepare meals from scratch. Most of all, they don’t want to be reminded that they’re single.

Single-serving packaged foods, like soups, desserts and frozen entrees, seem perfect for one-person households. But marketers are finding they have to emphasize convenience rather than individual portions. Ads for Pillsbury Co.’s Pappalo’s individual pizzas feature young people but never show them eating alone. Campbell Soup Co. scrapped its Soup for One line two years ago after single consumers failed to respond. ``It’s a lonely name,″ says Kevin Lowry, a Campbell spokesman.

Singles say they want more ``grab-and-go″ foods, according to Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Network Inc., which tracks consumer behavior. But she notes it’s hard to conveniently package some foods commonly eaten by young singles. ``It’s hard to grab a bowl of cereal on your way out the door,″ she says.

Even when foods are consumed at home, feasts must be movable. Allison Tokheim, 27, usually eats breakfast while standing in front of her bathroom mirror. ``I take a bite, put it down, brush my hair, take a bite, put it down,″ says the Chicago communications consultant. Henry Leonard, 24, a merchandise manager in Shreveport, La., often eats his dinner lying down. ``I have my bed tray and I eat and I go to sleep,″ he says.

Indeed, the dining room is ``increasingly the least used room in the house,″ says Dr. Katz. Jean Williams, a writer in Chicago, doesn’t eat at her dining room table unless she has company. The 26-year-old eats sitting up in bed, or at the kitchen counter or in front of her computer. ``I have this elaborately made-up table with a flower arrangement in the middle. If I sit there, I’ve got to move all that stuff,″ she says.

Other singles bypass the table to be near the television. ``Usually I have dinner with the news people,″ says Alan Tu, 30, a radio producer in Philadelphia. ``It’s kind of like sitting down with your date, but it’s the TV.″ Mr. Tu, who doesn’t own a single pot or pan, says he wishes marketers would develop more products ``that you just add water to.″ Most nights, Mr. Tu depends on a drawer of takeout menus.

He has plenty of company. Since 1989, restaurant carryouts have grown by more than 30 percent, according to NPD Group Inc., a market research firm. In the past year, the segment grew by 5 percent, driven partly by the new mealtime traditions of young singles. To compete, more supermarkets are starting in-store restaurants with carryout service or selling prepared, single-serving meals.

Donyale Pina, 26, a social worker and part-time graduate student in West Hartford, Conn., says she gets carry-out food because she has little time to cook or shop, but she likes to ``eat at home and be comfortable.″ For Ms. Pina, comfort means dining on the floor, near the TV.

Many singles have meals delivered or get takeout because eating alone in a restaurant signals to everyone that they’re, well, alone. ``I don’t like knowing that other people are sitting there feeling sorry for me,″ Ms. Tokheim says.

Some singles avoid single-serving foods for similar reasons. The small packages ``remind you that things are kind of passing you by,″ says Mr. Tu, the radio producer. ``I always tell myself one day I’m going to have a casserole.″

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