Something Is Changing in the Way People Eat at Home

Out with the kitchen table, and in with the couch.

Russell Boyce / Reuters

According to a recent survey of more than 1,000 American adults, the table is becoming a less and less popular surface to eat on. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they grew up typically eating dinner at a kitchen table, but a little less than half said they do so now when eating at home.

Where are they dining instead? The couch and the bedroom are both far more popular now than in the respondents’ youth. Thirty percent of the survey takers cited the couch as their primary at-home eating location, and 17 percent took meals in the bedroom. To put it another way, the number of respondents who most often eat at a kitchen table nowadays is roughly the same as the number who eat either on the couch or in their bedroom.

Those figures come from June, a company that sells internet-connected ovens. As such, they should be treated with a bit of caution, since they were likely published as marketing fodder rather than purely in the interest of public knowledge. (The pool of respondents was equally split between men and women, but probably wasn’t nationally representative in terms of other demographic factors.) Nonetheless, when I brought these findings to the attention of several food scholars, all of them said that these patterns ring true—and, more broadly, that something seems to be changing in the way people eat at home.

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.)

Of course, screens have been a longtime fixture of home meals. When I asked Amy Trubek, a professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont and the author of Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today, what she made of this apparent shift, she noted that leisure activities have been seeping into food-centric ones for some time—consider TV dinners.

Trubek also wondered whether the survey results were tied to a change in the layout of American homes. “There has been a move away from the formal dining room as a separate space in more modern houses, but also in the new standard for the open kitchen,” she pointed out in an email—a shift that has opened up alternative places to eat, including but not limited to kitchens. “This creates, overall, a more informal relationship to the moment when a meal is consumed.”

Johnston similarly suggests that the rise of on-couch and in-bedroom eating is part of a larger casualization of food culture. “Even expensive eateries are doing away with tablecloths, candles, formal table service,” she wrote. “In this context, it seems less surprising that people aren’t ‘setting the table’ for dinner, as they once might have done. Instead, people grab their food and sit where they feel comfortable.” In other words, people are loosening up about how they eat not just within the walls of their home, but beyond them. Maybe soon there will be couches in restaurants too.