How I Learned to Eat Alone and Not Be Lonely – The Atlantic
Eating alone began as a matter of circumstance.
In the spring of 2020, as my world shrunk to the square footage of my apartment, food became a mode of injecting pleasure and delight into an otherwise bleak and lonely period of my life. I frequently ordered pizza from my favorite local spot in Washington, D.C.; I sampled different brands of instant ramen; I baked loaves of banana bread. In some ways, this routine was familiar. In high school, after my parents separated, I would cook dinner for two—my mom and I—but she worked late and I would eat alone before she got home. For much of the pandemic, though, no one came through the front door.
As time passed, I wondered when, or if, I’d get to dine with friends and family again. I entered a state of despair. As 2020 went on and my mental health declined, daily tasks became more difficult to complete. My meals soon transformed from an escape into a chore. I resorted to low-effort dishes like scrambled eggs and vegetable curries, for which I had little appetite. I relied on books, Netflix, and even work to distract myself at dinner. Eventually I downloaded TikTok, and then that became my new dining companion.
I began seeing myself mirrored on my “For You” page, which served up videos of other people eating alone. In the videos, creators talked to their presumed audiences in animated voices: “I’m so proud of you for eating today,” “No matter what, you deserve to nourish your body,” or “I’m going to take a bite, and then you take one.” Why were these people filming an ordinary, solitary experience and sharing it online? And why were millions of strangers, myself included, watching them every night?
On TikTok, the hashtag #eatwithme has more than 3.4 billion views. The category includes foodie tours of Disney World, instructions on how to make cauliflower nachos, and ASMR compilations of people biting into crispy chicken wings. The Korean phenomenon mukbang—a portmanteau of the words for “eating” and “broadcast”—heavily influences the genre, with an emphasis on consuming large portions and highlighting audio elements, such as crunchy texture, through sound. But this is not mindless entertainment: Many of these videos are designed to encourage viewers, especially those with eating disorders or mental-health diagnoses, to eat in tandem with the creator.
I never sought these videos out. They found me, in the strange way that the TikTok algorithm knows you better than you know yourself. One account that I visited frequently was @foodwithsoy, run by Soy Nguyen, a food influencer based in Los Angeles. With her signature neon-blue hair and apple-cheeked smile, Nguyen starts every video with the same introduction: “Hey, it’s another ‘eat with me’! If you’re having a hard time eating, feel free to use this video.” The phrasing is intentionally open-ended, she told me, to invite anyone to join her, whether they are mourning the loss of a loved one, recovering from an eating disorder, or feeling homesick. Nguyen started her “eat with me” series in November 2020, when, she told me, she was overwhelmed by uncertainty brought on by the election, living on the opposite coast from her family, and pandemic anxiety. She had been building a career on TikTok by showcasing her favorite local restaurants in Los Angeles, but had been losing the motivation to eat. So Nguyen decided to film herself and post it, in hopes that someone else felt similarly.
To date, Nguyen has made more than 40 “eat with me” videos, most of which follow the same blueprint. After the introduction, she launches into a reflection on a chosen topic, while a video montage plays. Take, for example, a video from August 2021, where Nguyen sips ramune soda and samples sushi rolls overflowing with fillings. She describes how reaching an emotional low forced her to take her mental well-being more seriously: “I had a moment this past week where I didn’t feel like I wanted to exist,” she reveals. Even as she directs her words to the viewer—“I hope you stay kind and patient to yourself”—it’s clear that she is also extending magnanimity toward herself. Nguyen told me she hopes that by being vulnerable—sharing her own struggles with anxiety and depression, talking about her mom’s breast-cancer diagnosis—she can document her own mental-health journey, and encourage others to share theirs without fear or stigma. “Videos are, in a sense, like, my own journals,” she told me. “I thought, Okay let me open that up to the world.”
Some “eat with me” videos are monologues. Others try to be conversational. Marisa, a 22-year-old TikToker from Miami who uses the handle @ris.writes, asks “What are you eating?“ or “Which fast-food chain makes the best fries?” and pauses for dramatic effect, as if to allow the viewer to respond. (Marisa asked to be identified by her first name only for privacy reasons.) She started making “eat with me” videos at the request of a viewer; the first video of hers I came across was tied to National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
When Marisa was 14, she found her way into communities on Tumblr known as “pro-ana,” which glorify anorexia and share dangerous tips on how to eat as little as possible. At the time, her family was dealing with unexpected death, illnesses, and financial instability. “In retrospect, I was looking for something that made me feel a little bit more in control,” she told me. “The emotional relationship that I developed with food at that time was that it was not a necessity.” Getting professional help made her recognize pro-ana Tumblr’s dangerous misinformation, but she still struggled with binging and body-image issues throughout high school and college. She learned that having a “positive distraction” can quiet feelings of shame and discomfort brought up by meals.
A few years ago, Marisa discovered mukbangs on YouTube, and found herself drawn to them. She liked seeing other people enjoying eating in a casual way. “I remember being mystified by how intuitive their relationship with food was. And I remember thinking, I want that for myself. I don’t want to be thinking about trying to restrict or feeling guilty because I’m binging,” she said. Her experience is echoed by data; a 2020 study from researchers at Nanyang Technological University, the University of Calgary, and the University of Toronto found that “sense of connectedness, vicarious pleasure, and spectacle” motivated many mukbang viewers’ watching habits. Marisa told me that by the time she started making “eat with me” videos, her relationship with food had healed significantly. Still, I thought that things had come full circle—Marisa had become the positive distraction she had sought during her own challenging times.
Reading the comments on Marisa’s videos is like glimpsing diaries. “Today I ate an [sic] yoghurt without being sick. I’m proud of myself,” one reads. “I’ll use this in the morning, to have someone to start my breakfast with, thank you (trying to recover rn so it’s double nice),” another user writes. These confessions may seem like the tiniest of victories, but for people struggling with disordered eating or mental-health problems, they are accomplishments. The videos can also balance out messages pushing diet culture and weight loss, says Jaime Sidani, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. There are real concerns that apps like TikTok can serve as a conduit for harmful eating behavior and poor body image. In 2016, Sidani published a study showing an association between social-media use and eating concerns, but she told me that the type and quality of the content should be the real focus. Sidani, who struggled with an eating disorder in the past, wished she had “eat with me” videos while growing up. Deborah Glasofer, a psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University’s Center for Eating Disorders, told me that these videos could be beneficial for those in recovery, but only if creators are modeling “normal eating behavior” such as eating balanced meals and healthy portion sizes. Her patients have shared that they find value in having external support—from therapists, friends, and family—during mealtimes.
People battling eating disorders may benefit most from watching others eat, but even for those without disorders, the videos can be affirming. Shawn Thomas, a 23-year-old in Dallas, Texas, known on TikTok as @hellomynameisshawn, told me he films “eat with me” videos specifically for this purpose. Although Thomas has not had an eating disorder before, he has, at times, had a negative relationship with food. “In high school, I was a raging perfectionist who always put success over my own well-being,” he told me. If he struggled to eat three well-balanced meals each day, then surely others with more stressors than him did too. He has fond memories of praying before and after meals with his South Indian family. “The dinner table was not just a place where I sat and ate,” he said. “It was where I shared my latest news, my successes and failures, with my family.” He hopes his videos mimic that sense of communion in an online space, even though he knows that watching people eat online cannot be a true substitute.
One night in November 2020, I cooked a nice steak with chimichurri sauce, a baked potato, and green beans. I was so proud of my efforts that I even took a photo and texted it to my dad. Coincidentally, he was also making steak for dinner, and replied with a photo of his own plate. Staring at the pictures, something in me cracked: Our food could exist—we could exist—together in a text thread, but not in real life. I started crying. But I also felt embarrassed. People were dying and I was sad that I had to eat alone? I ate quickly, barely pausing to swallow before loading up the next bite. Later I thought, what a waste that I didn’t even enjoy the food.
And yet, when I remember the end of 2020, I also think about a different meal that served as balm. Unable to fly home to be with family for Christmas, a friend and I quarantined for two weeks (testing before and after—remember those days?) so we could spend the holiday at her house. When she picked me up on the 24th, we embraced fiercely, and I realized I couldn’t remember the last time that I had been hugged. She drove us to H-Mart, where we bought groceries and seaweed soup for my birthday the next day, and then picked up pizza with jalapeño, pineapple, and ham. After being starved of companionship for so long, I appreciated the table set for two, the laughter, the way our conversation flowed easily between bites. The following June, after 18 months away, I finally flew to California to see my family. My mom picked me up from the airport, and we stopped at my favorite Mexican restaurant. It felt simultaneously like the most miraculous and most ordinary thing to be sitting across from her, eating enchiladas and licking salt from the rims of our glasses.
Two years have gone by, and I wouldn’t say I enjoy solo meals. But eating alone is something I’ve learned how to do, much like going to therapy each week. Sometimes I dread it; other times it’s not too bad. When I eat, I still watch Netflix, read books, and scroll through TikTok, where I continue to see “eat with me” videos on my “For You” page. They haven’t shrunk in popularity, although presumably, more people are eating with others than they were two years ago.
Now that the weather is warmer, I like to eat outside when I can. I’ve found myself returning to “third places”—libraries, churches, parks, and other community spaces outside of work and home—to feel enveloped in something other than my own thoughts. Recently, I picked up a chicken-shawarma bowl and sat by the fountain at Dupont Circle. I noticed that I was surrounded by other solo diners, munching on burritos and salads, reading books or listening to music. For two years, I’d dined face-to-face with other people in the internet’s liminal space. Now we sat side by side in the real world, eating together.