Shyon Baumann, a sociologist at the University of Toronto and a co-author of Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, told me in an email that these numbers fit with how often many families eat meals separately—so, he says, “it would make sense that when people eat, they are doing it at places other than the table.”
Indeed, a nationally representative 2013 NPR poll found that even though parents considered it important to dine together as a family, only about half of American children sat down with their family to eat on a typical evening. The most commonly cited obstacles to doing so were caregivers’ work schedules and children’s extracurricular commitments, though a not-insignificant minority of respondents said one or more of their family members were home for dinner but simply ate elsewhere in the house.
A potentially related trend is that while women, on average, cook less than they did in the past (because they are, on average, working more), men haven’t increased their time spent cooking in equal measure, according to Josée Johnston, also a sociologist at the University of Toronto and the other co-author of Foodies.
“Women still do about twice as much foodwork as men,” Johnston wrote to me in an email. “Not surprisingly, people eat out more and eat more ready-made food options.” One consequence of these convenience-bringing developments might be that people are less inclined to set the table and corral all diners to gather around it.
And that’s just what’s happening with communal dining customs. Sinikka Elliott, a co-author of Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, suggested in an email that another explanation for on-the-couch eating might be “that more Americans (and Canadians)”—Elliott is a professor at the University of British Columbia—“than in the past live alone and may eschew the dining table (e.g., for the couch or even standing up) when they eat at home by themselves.”
The number of people living alone has soared in the past half century. In big American cities, it’s common for almost half of households to have just one resident. “More people live alone now than at any other time in history,” wrote the sociologist Eric Klinenberg in 2012, describing this uniquely modern living arrangement as conducive to “freedom, personal control, and self-realization,” for those who can afford it. Perhaps self-realization means eating dinner on the couch—or, more practically, not owning a kitchen table in the first place.
This lifestyle may also mean eating dinner in front of a screen. “Eating on the couch and in bedrooms makes sense because these are places where people can eat and watch a screen of some sort if they are not eating with other people,” notes Baumann. (And this doesn’t apply just to solo eaters: The NPR survey found that 24 percent of children live in homes where the TV is on or a device is out during dinnertime.)