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Elephant in the Room: Eating Alone

My roommate is out for the night. Most of my friends are busy. Hodgdon is closed. I need food. What does that mean? I have to eat at the cafeteria.

Alone.

Of course, there are other options, but all of them require money. I’d rather not let a prepaid meal go to waste. But eating alone is a daunting task. Maybe I’ll run into people I know and eat with them. Maybe the cafeteria will be empty. Maybe this will be the day they introduce takeout containers. Unfortunately, none of the possibilities happen. Dewick is jam-packed. I have to find a table beforehand. Somehow, I only find a large round table to eat at. Great.

Perusing the night’s options, I can’t help but think of how to make “eating alone” less stressful. However, that doesn’t work, and I end up piling up my plates with mashed potatoes and stuffing. I fill a cup with cranberry juice and a slight tap of grape juice. I also find myself getting a plateful of craisin nut bars.

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So here I am, eating an unusually large amount of food while sitting alone at a large table in a crowded cafeteria. This has to be one of the worst situations.
I wouldn’t go to great lengths to call myself self-conscious. In fact, I enjoy being by myself. I’m fine with taking walks and admiring nature, or even chilling on the T to get bacon and mashed potato pizza in Harvard Square at Otto. When I can get my mind to relax, I feel like any situation is feasible. But why is eating at the cafeteria so hard to do?
First off, I try to come up with options to make my experience less daunting:
  • Browse the phone. Of course! I can read the news, roll my eyes at Kanye West feuds, replenish my social network addictions, reply to that one email I’ve been procrastinating on, play Tetris, etc.
  • Listen to music. I always have a pair of headphones on me, and always down to listen to Mumford & Sons.
  • Work on homework. I can always count on an essay lurking around my schedule.
  • Enjoy the food. I can pretend that mashed potatoes and stuffing are as satisfying as any food from Ratatouille.
  • People-watch. Exactly how Steve Carell and Tina Fey did in Date Night.

As helpful as all of those options may be, I find faults in all of them:

  • Eating food with a fork and looking down at a small screen is more difficult than it sounds.
  • Whenever I listen to music, I always end up listening to Adele or Christina Perri.
  • Homework? Yeah right.
  • Sometimes the meal is satisfying enough to end the experience on a good note, but sometimes there’s too much garlic in the mashed potatoes.
  • There’s countess reasons why this would be a terrible idea.

As the result of not finding a solution to my awkward situation, nothing changes. I’m still alone and feeling like people are staring at me (probably due to my intense thought processing). As time passes, groups of people role-play as vultures in order to take my spacious table. Once the last nut bar has been consumed, the table is theirs to claim.

As I leave and pass other tables with people also eating alone, I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t take the initiative to eat with them. Many of them are doing one of the options I listed. I exit the cafeteria feeling worse than before.

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Here’s the real question: could anyone be in the same position as I was? I think so. I’ve actually seen people do so while I was eating a meal with someone else. Do they have the same thoughts as I did? Maybe not to my extremes, but there has to be some form of pressure in eating alone in an awkward situation. Is it right for me to feel bad for someone who eats alone? Does pity make the situation any better?

I’m not sure how address the problem other than saying that the cafeteria can feel like one of the most hostile places on campus. It could be because of the way the tables are set up (especially in Dewick—a mixture of round and long tables). Or it could be that we’re all naturally awkward people. Or that I’m taking this concern way out of proportion. Regardless of the science behind painful cafeteria visits, the struggle is real.

I admire the people who are perfectly fine with eating alone. But if you’re someone who doesn’t understand why eating alone in the cafeteria can feel overwhelming, know you’re not alone. Don’t judge.

-Kyle Paul

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