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The Rise of Eating Alone

For millennia, humans have shared meals together with their communities. The social aspect of eating is so strong that solo eating is seen as a sad – or even worse, despicable – activity in many cultures. But in South Korea, things are starting to change.

The social stigma of eating alone

In recent years, the stigma associated with eating alone has been increasingly challenged in rich societies. Food-delivery apps, online streaming services and the fast food industry are turning eating alone into a more enjoyable activity. As a result, “primary eating” (eating together with other people) is declining around the world, while “secondary eating” (eating while doing other things) is on the rise. Surveys have shown that almost half of all adult American meals are consumed alone, while one-third of Europeans eat all their meals alone.1,2 

Fighting the blanket statement that eating alone is simply bad, many people have come to argue that solo eating is a worthy activity that deserves no judgment from others. But the debate still revolves around whether the digital advancements that made this possible are truly empowering us – or are actually just increasing our social isolation?

Solo dining 'privacy' dividers have become increasingly common in Asia, even before the global outbreak of Covid-19

‘Honbap’: empowering young South Koreans

In South Korea, eating alone has become a symbol of empowerment for young generations. In just a few years, South Korea – like many other countries around the world – has become dominated by a cyber-mediated consumer culture where everyone is only one click away from anything they might need, including food. Currently, more than one-third of people live alone and eat approximately half of their meals in solitude in South Korea.3 Solo eating has become such a widespread phenomenon that young Koreans created a new term to describe it: “honbap”, stemming from a combination of hon (“alone”) and bap (“rice”, which also means “food”).4 Over the past few years the use of this new term has been growing exponentially – hand in hand with the rate of smartphone ownership.5 

A rise in people eating meals alone is perceived as a big deal in a country like Korea, where food has historically been seen as a vehicle to forge ties and define social roles. “Food eaten alone doesn’t taste good,” recites an old Korean saying. But this link between food and social structures might be precisely the reason why many more young Koreans prefer to eat meals on their own: for many, the dinner table still represents the inequalities of a heavily formal and hierarchical social system.6 

When Koreans sit at the table with others, it is necessary for them to quickly gauge their table companions’ social ranking: at a family meal it might be based on age; at a business lunch, on title; with acquaintances, on social rank. Without information that allows us to understand who are the more or less authoritative people among us, it would be hard to understand when we can begin to eat (since the oldest person or highest-ranking person eats first) or where to sit (the youngest must sit closest to the door). Eating alone, in this sense, is seen by many young Koreans as a revolutionary and defiant act.7 

Businesses are ready to support this trend, giving rise to a hon-conomy where doing things on one’s own is presented not as embarrassing, but cool. In shops it is now easier to find kitchenware for one person, mini-dishwashers, and special deals on single-portion prepared foods. More and more honbap restaurants are opening, offering single-seating tables each set up with plexiglass dividers, a television screen, and an electric burner. 

Solo eating: a challenge to health and culture? 

While the honbap movement may have made solo eating more acceptable, it hasn’t overcome some of the other downsides of eating alone. Surveys have shown that Koreans who eat alone pay more attention to comfort and functionality than to nutrition, taste, or tradition: the result is that fried eggs have become the most popular meal for honbapers. Research has also shown that those who have a habit of sharing meals tend to eat more nutrient-rich foods, have better self-esteem and less depression, and a healthier body weight.8 

Some believe that phenomena like honbap are the result of a system that constantly seeks our money and our attention – they argue that a system forcing us to eat alone rather than with other people will ultimately destroy the shared heritage of our food cultures. So while some are celebrating the freedom from oppressive traditions that solo eating can offer, others are mourning the loss of shared culture and history that comes with it. As with every social and cultural transformation, both sides probably have a point. 

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