I like eating alone. Here’s something I wrote for SBS.
We only have to look at the movies to know that family mealtimes are a big, life-affirming deal. Parents call out ‘dinner time!’ and children lay aside their homework and run (in an orderly manner) towards an actual table with unprocessed food on it. Then they pass the potatoes and talk about their day. Or, if we’re talking a multigenerational family, there’ll be a long table at a rustic farmhouse. People are wearing beige linen trousers, eating heirloom tomato and farro salad and look pleased to see each other.
Pfft, I don’t believe it.
In the real world, families are often too busy to eat together. Congregating around a dining table seems quaint, and work, school and judo/violin/creative movement classes, plus our unique dietary needs (I’m keto, I’m gluten free, I only eat white sugar), take precedence over anything communal. Today, we often dine alone. Or with a device, our faces green from YouTube’s glare.
And amen to that. I say this because eating with family is a lot of hard work.
Let’s start with children.
My own at-home experience shows that dining with minors is like an X-rated horror story. There’s pleading, shrieking, rice grains zipping through the air like shrapnel and usually some kind of red sauce flowing down the walls. To fend off the rabidly hungry children, we offer them broccoli florets (look, little trees!), but the tiny savages won’t have it and inevitably we toss them something crumbed and fried to delay having to call for police back up.
As a parent, I also feel the constant need to set a good example. Extolling the virtues of kale while also trying to conceal the Ferrero Rocher chocolate bulging in my cheek (“it’s an oversized goji berry, promise!”) takes its toll. But come 8.30pmish, when the kids are in bed, you can finally unleash and, unobserved, eat foods that are completely inappropriate for small people.
Want a spring roll wrapped in Wonder White bread? Let me get you the tomato sauce! How about cereal and champagne? Sashimi and sausages? Or something piping hot, filled with tiny bones or riddled with chili? The fridge is your (canned smoked) oyster and no small person can rob you of that joy.
Yes, eating alone is my precious me time (well, that and the occasional solo trip to the supermarket #mumsgonewild). With the cherubs otherwise engaged, I have the luxury of sitting down, using both my hands and eating quietly and carefully. I can even chew.
So that’s the joy of eating with kids summarised, what about the wider family? In short, it’s a gruelling multitasking minefield.
Take Grandma’s 80th birthday – you need to remember names and occupations; mask your disdain for cousin Dudley; have your small talk ready, “lovely weather we’re having”; and actually connect a fork to your face.
If that’s not overwhelming enough, some foods are plain tricky to eat and need your full attention. It’s hard to keep up the cutting edge conversation when you’re sucking on a crab leg; gnawing furiously on anything chewy (tripe, abalone); needing to open your mouth very wide (for anything in a lettuce cup); or are dealing with splash back as a wonton dumpling dive bombs into your broth. To protect your dignity, and your white shirt, these foods are best tackled in solitude.
Timing also needs to be considered. A shared family meal is like a group dance and you need to chew to the beat. Not keeping a beady eye on the situation can see you grapevine ahead of your dining companions or step-ball-change and be hopelessly behind. You thought talking about your new side hustle terrarium business was a good idea. But when you look down at your plate, there’s 150 grams of pork belly left, everyone’s looking at you pointedly and Grandma’s slumped and snoring at the table. Someone will need to prod her for the birthday sing song.
Eating with others, small or tall, is the ultimate multitasking nightmare, and trying to accomplish too many things is destined to fail. When people moan about families no longer eating together, let’s remember what it’s really like: attempting to eat dinner while your toddler rapid fires pork buns at your head; well-meaning aunts force feeding you bowls of fried rice the night before a swimsuit competition; partner claiming they’re too full for dessert and now they’re eating all your dessert; or trying to divvy up three wasabi prawns between six.
Well, how about six prawns divided by one? You do the maths. I’m all in favour of a table for one. Alone, but not lonely.