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A Simple Way to Show Hospitality to Yourself

Published:
April 23, 2024
April 15, 2024
Read this reflective narrative about allowing eating alone to become a special experience, even when living by yourself.

A reflective narrative by Grace Spiewak.

When Grace moved to a new city, she anticipated the changes that would come with it, but she didn’t expect dinnertime to be the most challenging. She went from eating at a full table of family to eating alone each night. Rather than appreciate the meals she carefully cooked for herself, she found herself rushing through them — until she discovered this simple ritual.

I found the blue-and-white striped placemats while walking through Home Goods on a June afternoon last year. Curtains, pillowcases, and sponges sat in my cart, practical essentials for my upcoming move out of my family’s home and into an apartment. The placemats weren’t on my list, but as I walked through the kitchen section, I spotted them among the spatulas and mixing bowls. Their colors evoked the aura of summer spent by the beach, eating lobster rolls and sipping lemonade. They were not a necessity, but I bought them anyway, along with a matching set of navy napkins.

Anyone who has ever moved — whether into a dormitory, apartment, or house — knows that the first few weeks in a new space often consist of a flurry of traveling to the store for utensils you have forgotten or misplaced, retrieving packages from online orders, and eating quick, easy meals until you can fully stock the spice cabinet. Though I knew the city to which I moved well, I was not exempt from the challenges of navigating a new commute, coming home, and feeling slightly out of place as I adjusted to my surroundings. Of all the changes I experienced in adapting to new routines, dinnertime emerged as the most poignant.

At my family’s home, I usually ate dinner with my parents and anywhere from one to five siblings at a time. Each night we set the table with utensils, napkins, and placemats. My mom bought fabrics in an array of colors and used them to signify each new season — woven blue circular mats in the heat of summer, cloth red-orange-yellow stripes for the shades of autumn, crimson red for the winter. This simple showing of hospitality to ourselves and to each other made the dinner table a place where we came not only to fortify our bodies but also our connections.

When I moved out, I became reacquainted with my graduate school habits of eating alone.  Though I lived with a roommate, the differences in our schedules and commitments often resulted in eating separately. At first, eating alone lacked the eventfulness of sitting down to a full table — I could read the news or watch a show while I ate, but without conversation around me, I rushed through my meal so that it was more akin to a chore than a moment of restoration. 

Cooking has always been a reprieve for me, a cathartic exercise in patience and experimentation. While I looked forward to chopping vegetables and trying new recipes in my kitchen, I spent only a small fraction of that time sitting down and enjoying what I made. On days when I rushed through eating dinner, my apartment felt less like a home. I knew there was an opportunity in the solitude, but I rushed through it without thought.

“Even when we eat a meal alone, there is an opportunity to make it an occasion, to rest in the satisfaction of food and its pleasures.”

Realizing something needed to change, a few weeks into settling in, I started pulling my placemat and napkin out each time I sat down to eat, whether it was a couple of minutes for breakfast before work or a leisurely dinner at the end of the day. The simple ritual began to mark mealtime and make it eventful rather than monotonous. Laying out the placemat and napkin reminded me to slow down and enjoy the efforts of my cooking, no matter how modest. A bowl of yogurt and berries, a plate of salmon and farro — it was all nourishing me and it all deserved attention.

Extending this basic measure of hospitality to myself has allowed it to come more naturally when I have other people over for dinner. We set the table to acknowledge the importance of the time we are about to share. We form bonds over food, whether we’re celebrating or commiserating. Even when we eat a meal alone, there is an opportunity to make it an occasion, to rest in the satisfaction of food and its pleasures.

Setting out a placemat each time I eat serves as a recognition of food’s value for my physical and spiritual self. Slowing down allows me to be more mindful of my eating and recognize what I am craving or when I am full. Even if I relax by watching a show or reading while eating, refusing to rush provides moments of comfort — seeing the sun crest over rooftops in the morning, listening to the wind gust through the city. Eating in solitude can be difficult, but it also has the power to fill us with the warmth of a winter stew, hearty and sustaining.

Creators:
Grace Spiewak
Published:
April 23, 2024
April 15, 2024
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