Think back to your last meal. Maybe you scarfed it down elbow-to-elbow with a guy so unaware of your presence he took a sip of your latte. Or maybe you arrived ready to absentmindedly scroll through Instagram alone, but ended up bonding with your new winter boo over a shared love for simple carbohydrates. Point is, we’re no strangers to eating alone. From McDonalds to Momofuku, most restaurants seem to support some form of communal noshing. This new movement raises a couple of questions: How have we become so accepting of dining with strangers? And what does this mean for our wellbeing?

Will Cooper, Executive Creative Director at ASH, says the former is encouraged by thoughtful restaurant design. “I think there is a general movement happening now where restaurants are adding a casual seating area to compliment more serious and slow eating experiences. Within the casual setting, you’re likely going to find some iteration of a communal table, whether it’s bar height with stools or an extra long table with benches.”

“If you are in the same restaurant and sitting at the same table, you likely have something in common with another person who is at the same place at the same time.”

And in case great food isn’t enough to quell the loneliness, solo diners are granted all the bells and whistles they could dream of. “The user will probably be able to power all of their devices in that area, a convenience that most restaurant designers have considered for these tech savvy times,” Will says.

A well-designed communal table should allow its inhabitants the ability to mix and mingle with fellow solos, or tune the world out altogether. “I think you get the best of both worlds,” Will says. “But if you are in the same restaurant and sitting at the same table, you likely have something in common with another person who is at the same place at the same time.”

Robin Berzin, functional medicine doctor and founder of Parsley Heath, says eating alone (together) could be the key to a more mindful meal. “Eating alone without any distractions allows you to fully focus on what you’re doing. Being present during a meal keeps your nervous system calm and your body ready to properly digest.”

Time spent with loved ones is proven to have positive outcomes, and actually have a much bigger impact on our health than genetics. But research has shown that social pressures affect eating patterns, in both a positive and a negative way, and that obesity has been shown to spread through social relationships. “This is because people tend to alter their food intake to match the intake of dining companions,” Robin says. “So eating in a group, if that group is health-aware and upbeat, can be really good for you. But if eating alone (without a phone or laptop) helps you be more mindful, which it likely would, then that’s the winning combination.”

Whatever your dining habits — alone, or with strangers or loved ones — Robin’s advice is to slow down when it’s time to eat. “Take a breath before you start to bring your attention, and your digestion, to the task at hand. Don’t eat while standing or working or watching a screen. Give your body the focus it deserves. Make mealtimes a big deal. If you are what you eat then how you eat it matters too.”

Originally published at