I’ve always been bit of a wimp about cooking a meal for just myself. I’m a dry-biscuits and a bit of fruit or a bowl of soup kind of girl if I’m on my own. It doesn’t bring the same amount of enjoyment, cooking for one, dining alone. Sharing is nice, eating with others is a feast, but if it’s just me, why would I bother?
I need to think again. Plenty of people eat by themselves through necessity, choice even. Some people don’t have a choice. Some people have very little food at all. I am privileged to have food on my plate, and I need to remember that during each mouthful. Mindful eating is something I do try to practise regularly.
Besides, eating alone can be fulfilling, desirable even. It certainly shouldn’t be an opportunity to neglect oneself. Let’s remember Lucullus and take a leaf out of his book. He had the right idea.
Lucullus was a wealthy Roman politician and a general who lived around 80BC. He was well known for his lavish lifestyle and he threw huge banquets. The story goes that one night, when he was dining alone, Lucullus was dismayed that he was served a modest meal. The cook apologised, suggesting that Lucullus wouldn’t want a blow-out feast because he was by himself. Lucullus’s reply is famous. ‘Dost thou not know that this evening, Lucullus dines with Lucullus?’
I haven’t yet mastered the art of dining alone, but thinking about it suggests huge possibilities. It means we can eat what we like, when we like, where we like, without having to accommodate other people’s tastes. It means that we have the freedom to skip meals, or eat a whole pizza to ourselves without reprisal.
But the whole Lucullus thing becomes even more interesting when we consider the art of dining out alone. It can be a moment of awkwardness, walking into a restaurant and asking for a table for one. I’m sure I’d look lonely sitting by myself: people would think I’d been stood up. But then again, there’s something independent and poised about swanning into a restaurant, sitting down with the menu and ordering just for one. It could be pure luxury. You can have as much or as little wine as you like. There’s no having to negotiate with someone else whether we have starters and desserts. You can even eat with your fingers, which is very liberating as there is no-one around to be offended.
You can take as long as you want to finish, there’s no-one to keep waiting. And you can take a book, text people on your phone without being deemed rude; you can listen to music through earbuds, flirt with other diners. Plus, you pay for your own meal, so there’s none of that thing that often happens to me when I go out with ten other people: they have three courses each, several cocktails and a dessert, I have a salad and a glass of sparkling water, and we split the bill eleven ways. All is fair in love and dining alone.
Moreover, I like the idea of Lucullus’s banquet for one, in so much as it’s about fostering feelings of self-worth. Like many people, I have a problem with the ‘it’s only me…so I’ll do without’ syndrome: I’m not worth the trouble, so why should I bother cooking for myself when a piece of toast and Marmite will do fine. I have to think about that one so often – it’s about giving yourself the same quality advice you’d give a best friend or your own child. Imagine the situation where your teenager bounds into the room and says ‘Can I have my favourite pizza for tea tonight?’ and you reply, ‘No, I’m going out. There will only be you here, so you can just get a slice of toast.’ Unthinkable.
Imagine your friend saying to you ‘I’m on my own tonight. What shall I cook?’ and you reply, ‘just have a dry biscuit – that’s all you’re worth.’
Lucullus’s example teaches us that we have to value ourselves. It’s fine to say ‘I’ll just eat a Ryvita tonight,’ if you’ve splurged earlier in the day, or of for some reason you’ve actually decided to eat a Ryvita. That’s fine. But not as self-neglect, or a punishment for perceived inadequacy. Rather, it’s better to say, ‘Just me for supper tonight? I’ll make myself my favourite food and open up a bottle of wine.’ It’s about saying, ‘I love myself,’ not ‘I don’t care about myself,’ which is far too easy a response.
Is it a gender thing, a class thing, an age thing? I wonder how many of us learned from our mums to put everyone else first, and to put ourselves last? Worse, the mindset where we are not worth it continues well beyond meal times. Trips out, treats, holidays, even saying positive things to ourselves: there are so many gifts we would readily lavish on friends and family while we regularly deny ourselves. ‘It’s only for me… it doesn’t really matter if I go without…’
That has to change. It’s about positive mental attitude, self-esteem, self-confidence. The way we treat others, kindly reassuring them that they should practise self-care, is exactly the behaviour we should bestow upon ourselves. We are worth it: in the same way that we tell our family that we love them often, we should tell ourselves, show ourselves.
So, I’m going to try really hard. No solitary banana-on-the-go for lunch again because I can’t be bothered to cook, because it’s not worth the effort, just for me. No quick glass of tepid water and then start work in the morning because I can eat later if I get the time. Instead, it will be about finding opportunities to do as Lucullus does, to make our lives become the same banquet that we should serve to those we respect and love. To anyone, in fact.
So, I’m off to make falafels and hummus, and I’ll sit in front of the TV with the cats on my knee. And I’ll light a fire (too often I don’t bother if there’s just me in the house when I can grab a blanket and shiver…) And I’ll have a glass of something nice, because I can. Or, more to the point, because Lucullus did. Tonight, Judy dines with Judy. Thanks, mate!