One of the things that nobody tells you about when you move off-campus is that some nights, you will cook and eat dinner entirely alone. I didn’t expect this. For the past two years, I was used to the loud background noise in Lower dining hall, seated at a long table with several friends or roommates. We’d order whatever looked best—chicken and two sides, probably—and chatter aimlessly while we ate, discussing weekend plans, complaining about professors, or sharing the latest gossip. Dinner was often the only time I saw some of my friends in-between classes, rehearsals, and long library hours. That half-hour in Lower was almost always the highlight of my day, and it certainly wasn’t because the food was extraordinary. The act of sharing the meal was far more important than the meal itself.
I haven’t set foot in a campus dining hall since March 13. I miss nothing except the breakfast potatoes. Though I do live with roommates off-campus, the realities of our night classes, study schedules, and work hours mean that we are rarely able to cook and eat at the same time. More often than not, I find myself in a quiet kitchen with no witnesses to my nourishment for the evening.
It’s oddly difficult to motivate myself to cook when there is nobody to share it with. Somehow, it doesn’t feel worth the time or energy. My dinner has become nothing more than a quick study break, something pulled together with a minimal amount of effort before returning to stare blankly at my interminable to-do list of discussion post responses. While my stack of cookbooks glares accusingly from the corner, I scramble eggs or smear peanut butter on toast before hunching over the kitchen table to eat while mindlessly scrolling Twitter.
These dinners, efficient though they may be, don’t give me the same joy I found in the crowded dining halls last spring. I have realized that a meal is only truly satisfying when it is shared in some form of community, whether someone has made it for me or I have made it for them. Without any part of the experience being shared, dinner becomes no more than just a lonely, lifeless, literal means to an end.
In the past month, however, I have been on a crusade to change that for myself. We are still in a pandemic. The world is on fire. We are one week out from the presidential election. Zoom University is soul-crushing on the best of days. One of the very, very few things that I can control is what I eat for dinner. Why should I subject myself to any more sad, lonely meals?
There are two crucial aspects to enjoying a meal alone: the preparation and the meal itself. The chosen recipe should take a moderate amount of time—almost enough time that you wonder if it’s worth doing all this just for yourself. (It is). When we cook for others, we are likely to invest far more time in the preparation than when we cook for ourselves. We put in that time and energy because we want to show our guests that we care. There is no reason not to care for myself just as much as I care for my guests.
The second, equally important part of enjoying a solo dining experience comes after the time has been invested and the meal is ready. I set the table, use a real plate, and try to do something other than stare at my phone—usually, I read a few pages of a book that is not remotely related to my schoolwork. I’ve recently been loving Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, but if TikTok does it for you, there’s nobody around to judge.
To cook for yourself—beyond microwaved mac ‘n’ cheese or a cold sandwich—feels like an impossible luxury. Perhaps the time might seem better spent replying to Canvas discussion posts. But it will always be worth it. It will save you money (no UberEats delivery fees) and time (one good dinner can provide days of leftover lunches). It might just save you. And if you cook for yourself enough times, it might just sink in that you matter, even when no one is watching.
Cover photo courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine