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5 tips for eating alone when traveling solo.

When your Guide struggled with my mental health, I had so many compulsions around food and eating, in restaurants or at home. Those only became exacerbated when eating alone while traveling solo. 

Over on Instagram, I recently asked the community about eating alone in restaurants. Many people responded, with a range of experiences and anxieties.  So I’ll share five tips that helped me go from struggling with eating alone, to making it a special experience that enhances my adventures.

Thanks to all of the community members that shared their experiences with eating alone! Follow the Guide on Instagram:

1. Be curious about restaurants instead of right.

This tip is really a warning about the types of compulsions we do that fuel anxiety. When I struggled with my mental health, I always needed to get things right and avoid uncomfortable experiences or regrets or being responsible for anything bad happening. So I was terrified of picking the wrong restaurant. When traveling, I was so determined to have the best experience that I’d be paralyzed with indecision. I’d often travel to cities in Japan while I was living there, and when it came time to eat, I’d spend hours walking around trying to find the “right” place to eat with the right people and the right food and the right everything. I’d end up not eating at all because I judged everything as wrong!

Now something that helps me is curiosity. Instead of trying to get the right restaurant, I want to explore and learn about the restaurants and the people and the foods I’ve never tried before.

Being curious will supply you with far better culinary experiences than you’ll ever get from trying to be right.

After a long afternoon of walking around Osaka’s Shinsaibashi neighborhood, trying to find the “right” place to eat lunch, it had turned to night by the time I just went to a random ramen shop, exhausted. I didn’t realize it was an OCD compulsion at the time to spend hours trying to find the perfect place to eat.

2. Meet other people!

You don’t have to cling too tightly to the idea of eating alone. Once I started to embrace eating alone, I’ve actually found that I end up eating with other people because I’ll so often meet others eating alone. There are many adventures just like us in the world! In fact, sometimes they’re exactly like us. Check out what happened to me in Bordeaux, France:

After the Plum Village Business Leaders Retreat, I stayed in nearby Bordeaux for a few days to eat and enjoy the wine. I booked a dinner at a small, well-reviewed bistro named NOFA. It does not look like NOFA survived the pandemic, but it was fantastic. I appreciate I had the chance to eat there. And while I was eating there (alone), another guy sat down (alone) at the table in front of mine. I started up a conversation with him and, it turned out… his name was also Mark, and he was also from Toronto. 

Something else I like to practice when eating alone while traveling, is to eat and drink well. It’s not only an opportunity to experience the restaurant, but also a recognition that they could’ve had two people at my table. You can see in the photo above of that bistro I visited in Bordeaux: they didn’t have a lot of space. They did two dinner seatings every night. Reservations only. Always sold out. Times have only become more challenging for restaurants, especially in cities that relied on tourism. So I try to eat for two people and be kind for two people. Let’s support these small businesses that make our journeys even more enjoyable!

Also, worth noting a key benefit of eating alone: no greedy person sitting across from me with order envy trying to get a spoonful of my chocolate mousse globe 😀

3. Don't pretend your busy while you're eating alone.

Eating solo while traveling is the perfect opportunity to practice mindful eating.

I used to think I needed to pretend like I was busy and important and had things to do while I was eating. I wanted it to look like I was having very important conversations with people on my phone, like me eating alone in that restaurant was an aberration. I was definitely going to meet SO MANY PEOPLE and VERY GOOD FRIENDS as soon as I was done that anomalous, lonely meal, which was just to shove calories into my food hole so I could get back to doing important stuff.

Try putting your phone down. Let the meal be exciting. Explore giving your attention and gratitude to the meal and all of the people and animals and energy that brought that experience to you.

Criollo is one of Oaxaca, Mexico’s most celebrated restaurants. It’s popular with foodie tourists, gets mentioned frequently in foreign press. But when I stayed in Oaxaca earlier this year, we were at the peak of the Omicron Covid wave. Oaxaca was doing an excellent job with masking and public health protocols. Some other countries were not. So there weren’t many tourists in Oaxaca. When I stopped by Criollo for their tasting menu, not only did I eat alone, but I was really alone alone: there were no other guests in the restaurant. I enjoyed the beautiful gardens and the peaceful courtyard while sampling the best of the valley’s produce and traditions.

4. Judgments make for terrible dinner dates.

When exploring anxieties around eating alone, with our online community and my coaching clients, the most common barrier is the judgments people have about themselves and what they believe other people are thinking about them.

Judging yourself, judging others, and judging what they’re judging about you, will be a terrible dinner pairing. 

I recently stayed at Cannua, an ecolodge near Medellin, Colombia that’s designed around permaculture principles, from the architecture, through the customer service, and down to everything you eat in the restaurant, straight from their gardens. It is one of my favorite hotels in the world. It’s also a popular destination for couples celebrating special events. I was the only solo traveler I saw there. And I stayed there for a week. I noticed that would’ve bothered me in the past–sitting there in the restaurant, surrounded by couples celebrating anniversaries and birthdays. But it’s no problem now. I never hesitated to run down to the restaurant. I ate everything on the menu. Some things twice. I’m so glad I ditched those old judgment compulsions.

If you want to work on cutting out those debilitating judgments, check out the Non-Judgment Workout Plan on the Toolkit Store. It’s only $10 and gives you several weeks of exercises to explore judgments and learn how to cut them out.

After a hike up the hills behind Cannúa (Hotel Review: Cannúa), nourish yourself with the produce from their organic gardens (and beer from local brewery, Torrealta). It’ll remind you what real food tastes like.

5. Be open to what could happen when eating alone in restaurants.

Going to restaurants alone has produced some of the most interesting food experiences because I was available to talk with the staff. I’ve had kitchen tours of Michelin starred restaurants, learned about secret dishes not on the menu, and made friends all over the world. 

My experience has been that restaurant staff at unique restaurants are excited to chat with solo eaters because they know you’ve identified their restaurant as a destination. You want to learn about the food and experience it. 

When I visited Candlenut, in Singapore, I was blown away not only by the food, but how much time the staff took sharing stories with me about the restaurant and explaining the dishes. And they topped it off with a kitchen tour! I had the time for it and was open to it. If I had been pretending to work, buried in my phone, or rushing off somewhere, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

If you’re in Singapore, I’d definitely recommend a stop by Candlenut. I had one of my favorite ever chocolate desserts there, which you can read about here: Candlenut’s buah keluak ice cream 

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