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Time for a confession, ya’ll. I have a tremendously big fear of eating alone in public. Yup, it’s true. I know it’s irrational. I know it’s silly. I know none of the restaurant’s fellow patrons really negatively judge me for enjoying a – gasp! – solo meal. I know the waiting staff probably serves solo diners on a regular basis so my independence isn’t as unusual as, say, a fluffy white unicorn sitting down for some hummus or eggs benedict.
But (there’s always a “but,” huh?), despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, my eating phobia is still very present, and it is particularly consuming on my solo travels. Solo travel means you don’t have much of a choice when it comes to eating alone in public. Yikes!
Now I think anyone who suffers from anxiety can travel alone, but at the same time, this particular phobia totally deserves its own post.
Why an entire post?
Because so many people have a fear of eating alone in public. Do a Google search. Every forum under the sun will pop up with people asking for help about solo meals in restaurants and whether or not the experience is doomed to be an awkward one.
Furthermore I remember before taking my first solo trip to Scotland asking around for advice. A good friend of mine told me that while she loved her backpacking trip in Europe, she absolutely hated asking for a “table for one,” because it made her feel lonely.
My own experience eating alone is long and torrid, haha. I hope this post eventually helps you feel more confident about meals on your solo trips. Good luck.
Failing to Eat Dinner in Porto
Alright, time for an example of how insane my fear of eating alone is.
My hostel in Porto had an adjoining restaurant – which was (unfortunately) overrun with school kids on a trip – and therefore had absolutely not space available for other travelers. Not cool.
I had to find another option for dinner. So I wandered the streets of Porto. At each establishment, couples and pals ate happily together at the outside tables, enjoying the scenic view of Douro River as they sipped from delicate glasses of Port.
What did I do? Run into the nearest grocery store and eat a bar of chocolate for dinner.
Forcing Myself to Eat Alone in New Jersey
Upon moving to north Jersey two years ago, I decided to at least try and combat my fear of eating alone in a restaurant. My new city was very walkable with a lively restaurant scene. So why not give it a go?
So I took a deep breath, charged my device, and then went on a walk to a local vegan spot for lunch.
I was surprised that my experience wasn’t … all that awful. The waitress made friendly conversation, asking if I was new to town and if I liked the vibe of the restaurant, and she didn’t seem at all bothered at serving a single person. And my flatbread with cashew cheese was delicious, too.
A good piece of advice for nervous solo eaters is to try to have a solo meal in your home town.
Why eat at home first? Well, you don’t have the common stresses of travel triggering you, which makes it easy to focus on your main goal: beating your anxieties surrounding restaurants. It worked well for me.
Tackling my Fear of Eating Alone in Public in Madrid
On my solo trip to Madrid, I promised myself that I wouldn’t go hungry simply because eating alone stressed me out. Spanish cuisine is marvelous. I refused to miss out on a fine meal. Refused.
So, upon arriving at my hostel, jetlagged and practically delirious, I asked the man at the check-in counter for lunch recommendations. He took my map and jotted down several options, each sounding more delicious than the last one. Then I slowly asked him if it was “okay” to eat alone at any of these establishments.
He laughed and smiled, and I will never forget what he told me:
“Lots of people eat alone during the work day. It’s Madrid. No one will care.”
Oh, wow! Wow.
Funnily enough, his words reassured me that, yes, it was perfectly okay to eat alone. No one would think I was weird or desperate.
Within an hour, I sat at an adorable outdoor cafe in Madrid’s trendy Malasaña district enjoying smoked salmon on toast. Victory!
Tips for Your Own Fear of Eating Alone in Public
Honestly, you shouldn’t force yourself to go hungry, even if you’re nervous about eating alone. Your body needs nourishment. No escaping that.
In addition, one of the best parts of traveling is experiencing a culture’s food and drink. C’mon, my friend. You paid a lot of money for your adventure. So why shouldn’t you enjoy a country’s cuisine as much as couples or people traveling with friends and family? That’s unfair and ludicrous!
It’s time to be brave and well-fed, solo travelers. Let’s work on addressing your fear now.
So these are some of my personal tried and true suggestions for eating alone in public. You can do this, I promise!
1. Go on a Food Tour.
Mmm, yummy. Food tours help you experience a city’s cuisine without dealing with the crippling fear of sitting for a meal alone. As part of a group, you make new friends and share many meals together. Being on a food tour also eliminates the need to research and find a place to eat on your own. You just go along for the ride. As for me, I took a food tour in Montreal and had a great time! Not only did I make a travel buddy, but I also had a chance to try Montreal’s famous bagels and chocolate without awkwardly sitting by myself. So book a food tour if you have a chance to do so. The experience is worth the money.
2. Stay at a Hostel that Offers Free Dinners.
A lot of highly ranked hostels have dinner nights available for their guests. If you’re lucky, you’ll stay at a place that offers free dinners. For example, my hostels in Lisbon and Madrid offered dinners every night, making it easy to know where I’d find my next meal. And, of course, the communal atmosphere makes it much easier to make new friends. Take advantage of the hostel dinners. They’re pretty tasty too, depending on the chef, haha.
3. Bring a Book with You.
Yay, books! As you already know, I’m an avid reader. I always have multiple books on my Kindle waiting and ready for me to digitally flip the pages. By bringing a book, you’re no longer focused on the people around you, which helps lower your anxiety. Channel your inner intellectual and devour a book and emit an unbothered superior aura to everyone around you, haha. Who knows. The restaurant’s staff may mistake you for a professor or even a food critic!
4. Eat your Meal at the Bar.
My friends who travel for business all say the same thing: eating alone at the bar is way less stressful than sitting at a table, where you’re surrounded by other diners. Not to mention, you won’t feel guilty about the wait staff receiving a smaller tip, thanks to being a “party of one.” At the bar, you’re more likely to strike up interesting conversations too. Find a bar and enjoy your meal.
5. Visit the Local Market.
Mmmm, a city’s local markets are both delicious and simple options for solo travelers to satisfy their palates. A lot of the famous markets have booths with prepared meals that you can enjoy right on location. You also have the options of purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables, and creating your own picnic lunch. Markets are fun places where solo travelers can blend in with the energetic crowd. Enjoy them.
6. Make Lunch Your Main Meal.
Lunch tends to be more “laid back” than dinner. I mean, lunch means avoiding romantic dates, who doesn’t love that? Not to mention, in bigger cities, you have many workers headed out for lunch and a lot of them eat alone. Shocker, huh? So enjoy your “big” meal in the middle of the day rather than at night. Not to mention, lunch specials are a lot cheaper meaning big savings for budget travelers. And believe or not, some higher end restaurants are open at lunch. Perfect!
But, Rachel, Do Other People Really Judge Me?
I want you to think of a time you went for breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a group of people, and saw someone eating alone. I think we’ve all seen solo diners. Did you think negatively of that person? Probably not.
I know whenever I see someone eating alone I immediately think, “wow, this person is brave,” before returning to my own meal. I promise most people have similar thoughts regarding single patrons.
Now let’s discuss the worst case scenario: what if a person sitting near you thinks you’re weird for eating alone?
Honestly, who cares if they do? It says a lot more about their negative personality than yours. And you’ll probably never see said-jerk ever again, anyway, so what does it matter?
As solo travelers, we need to try our best not to care what other people think, especially if their opinions truly have no impact on our lives. An annoying stranger at a cafe falls into that category.
Do you have a fear of eating alone in public? How do you handle this anxiety as a solo traveler? Share all your thoughts in the comments.