OPINION: Let’s normalize eating alone in the dining halls

A person sits at a table with a meal. A bag sits at her feet labelled "TOTE."
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

At some point a few weeks ago, I had made plans to meet up with a friend at Pitzer College’s McConnell Dining Hall, as I routinely do. As I was walking up those three stairs that lead to the entrance, I felt my phone buzz in my back pocket. I pulled it out thinking that my friend was giving me an ETA, only to read that they had to cancel our plan. At that point my hand was already pulling the door to the dining hall open, and I was too self-conscious to do a 180 degree turn and walk back to my room. And so, I tapped my ID and walked into the dining hall — by myself. 

I chose a table in the corner of the room, on the outskirts of the hub of energy in the center of the dining hall. As I sat down by myself, I grew self-conscious. I felt, erroneously, like all eyes were on me. “Why do we find it so awkward to sit alone in the dining hall?” I thought. 

The answer boils down to what we’ve been taught: Growing up, we consume images of characters on screens sitting in a bathroom stall with a lunch tray on their lap to avoid sitting in the cafeteria by themselves. There’s no doubt that we’ve internalized this message. We imagine dining halls as social hubs — places to laugh, to vent and to connect. When we enter this space alone, there’s a palpable combination of shame and awkwardness, especially in a small community like ours where most people know, or at least know of, each other. 

It’s easy to say “nobody notices or cares if you eat alone,” but it’s harder to actually believe it — especially when encounters seem to tell you otherwise. 

A few minutes into my solo dining hall trip, I decided to entertain myself with something I found relaxing and started binge-listening to the podcast “Serial.” But right as Sarah Koenig, the narrator of the podcast, was getting to the good stuff, I felt a friend tapping on my shoulder. 

“Oh, you poor thing,” she said to me. “Are you by yourself?” She plopped down her stuff and sat with me. However, instead of feeling joy that my friend was joining me for a meal, my initial gut reaction was one of embarrassment. I had been perfectly content up until that moment; now, part of me felt like maybe I shouldn’t have been. 

This experience points towards one conclusion: The main reason we find it so scary to eat alone is because we’re afraid that someone will perceive us with pity. Our job, then, is to redefine what it means to eat alone. We shouldn’t assume that sitting alone is an involuntary choice. In fact, I would have much preferred if my friend asked if she could join me instead of assuming that I wanted company. If we can recondition ourselves to view sitting alone as a valid, voluntary experience, then we can start to perceive others with less judgment. 

As college students, we exist in a space of constant social interaction. We hold ourselves to unattainable standards of stimulation: attending class, checking up on friends, participating in clubs, sharing our dorm rooms. We do so much as a community on this campus. We live together, learn together and lounge together. It’s difficult to find a moment for introspection. Lately, I’ve found those moments alone in the dining hall.  

Eating by yourself is not pitiful. In fact, eating by yourself once in a while can help strengthen your academic performance, recharge your social battery and equip you with the energy necessary to face the day. Between classes, extracurriculars and study sessions, meals are often the only true breaks in our day. So let’s grant ourselves time to be alone — not to laugh, vent, or connect, but to breathe, think and reflect. 

This week, I challenge you to have a meal by yourself. Take a moment out of your busy schedule to find a corner and sit solo, and spend your meal listening to a podcast or people-watching or thinking about the things you’re grateful for. Eating alone might be just what you need to de-stress and supercharge your day all in one. Start now: Trust me, it only gets easier with practice.

Annika White PZ ’25 is from Southport, Connecticut. She enjoys hiking, journaling, and making playlists on Spotify.

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