Dinner’s on its way through the lobby at a newly minted condo in Toronto’s Liberty Village. There’s Chinese, Indian and Swiss Chalet, as delivery boys speed into the elevator one by one. Another wheels a cart loaded with Grocery Gateway boxes stuffed with frozen pizzas and chicken fingers – pub food, delivered straight to your door. The building’s young denizens also pass through, their Metro grocery bags filled with frozen entrées, often accompanied by brown paper bags from the adjacent liquor store. Across the way at the mammoth Metro supermarket that feeds the neighbourhood, where 55 per cent of the population lives alone, no fewer than nine industrial fridges have been stocked exclusively with frozen pizzas.
As an urban neighbourhood that caters to single, young professionals, Liberty Village is in many ways a microcosm of a greater demographic shift in Canada, which now counts more singletons than couples living with children among the population, according to census data released last fall. Here, as in other communities dominated by ever-smaller condo units across the country, domestic spaces are no longer necessarily meant to be communal.
The dining room where Mom served up chicken Kiev alongside a glass of milk at 6 o’clock sharp is but a retro dream. For careerist solos who forgo cooking in favour of takeout wolfed down by the glow of a laptop, the dinner table is redundant ; it’s more convenient to have a “cocktail entertaining” zone that fuses kitchen, living and dining space. And for special occasions, you can always rent the communal dining room.
When you’ve got 600 square feet, fast-food delivery and restaurants just past the lobby, sit-down meals are an obvious casualty. But what do we lose when we ditch the ritual of dining, when feeding ourselves takes second place to updating our Facebook feeds?
“People seem to be convincing themselves that they are the busiest generation that the world has ever known and that previous generations had spare time in which to do things like eat breakfast. I’m not completely convinced that that’s true,” said Seb Emina, co-author of the forthcoming book The Breakfast Bible , which blends recipes with essays and historical miscellanies on the meal.
In researching the book, Emina came across some post-Second World War writings by George Orwell: “He described a habit of taking a three-course breakfast in the morning. This was a widespread thing that was done. I just can’t imagine that we are busier now than we were when we were trying to rebuild a country. Technology and social media give this illusion of being really busy because everything happens every second and you’re constantly getting new information. But how much of that is actually stuff that can’t wait?”
Still, designers and developers are catering to the career-driven solo, not Orwell taking his leisurely feasts.
“Dining has to be reinvented if you’re not one of those families that has dinner every day at 6 o’clock,” says Carmen Dragomir, a principal designer at esQape Design in Toronto.
Dragomir says single young professionals don’t care to host formal and elaborate dinner parties, preferring instead to “cocktail entertain” (read: “appies” and pre-drinking) at kitchen islands before lining up with friends at a new restaurant.
“We’re talking about young, affluent individuals who are able to afford these new condos,” said Suzanne Bettencourt, a principal at figure3, an interior design firm in Toronto. “They’re working longer hours and eating at the office. When they’re entertaining, they’re more inclined to meet their friends at the next hot local restaurant. A lot of these condos are being built around the entertainment districts, right at the base of their condo units.”
Beyond the basic dearth of dining tables, solo living is shaping eating rituals. “Among Canadians, eating habits are influenced by the composition of their households. This holds all the more true when a person lives on their own,” says Joel Gregoire, a food-service industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. In 2010, NPD asked 3,330 Canadians to keep daily eating diaries; 400 of them lived alone. Singletons were more likely than others to skip meals and eat sandwiches and frozen food for dinner. When they did cook, solos used fewer ingredients, citing “ease” as a primary concern when planning meals.
Single-serve items now make up the largest share of Loblaw’s frozen-food entrée category, said Ian Gordon, senior vice-president, Loblaw Brands. “Single portions come from a need for convenience and the pace of life, particularly when you live in an urban setting. People are busier, they’re on the move,” said Gordon, noting that healthier options and the South Asian PC line are selling particularly well to this demographic – meals they’d never dare attempt themselves at home.
Meanwhile furniture manufacturers and designers are now pushing “transformational,” multi-purpose pieces that can be used for dining or work and then slid away into the wall to save space. Bettencourt points to the model suites at Lumen, a 30-storey condominium rising on Toronto’s lake shore to house “first-time single buyers and young professionals.” In these suites, a convertible table/desk will fold out from the wall, to be replaced at night by a Murphy bed pulled down in its place.
Bettencourt is also seeing the rise of a dining-room amenity, replacing the party room in newer condos in Toronto. Booked in advance by residents, these semi-communal dining rooms feature 12-person tables, bar sinks and fridges for the dinner party you couldn’t jam into a one-bedroom-plus-den. “The developers say they are a must because the units are getting smaller,” she said. The dining room amenity is also popping up in Concord Pacific’s new projects in British Columbia: One condo in Richmond will offer a dining room equipped with catering kitchen and table for 10; another condo in Burnaby will feature a communal dining room that will open up to an outdoor patio for summer dinner parties.
While non-traditional communal dining options are beginning to emerge, solo eating is still often done by laptop, at home – habits previously tracked among college students. A 2010 study from the Rochester Institute of Technology found college students tended to eat at the computer, not at a table. “As opposed to their parents or grandparents, college students do not see meals as a central activity in and of itself either for enjoyment or communication. None of the respondents I interviewed even had a kitchen table,” wrote lead author Madeline Varno, a senior communications major at the school. “This does not mean that students are any less social. In fact, they are often interacting with more people than if they were sitting in a dining room,” Varno continued.
Bettencourt observed the same pattern in her solo condo-dwelling clients: “I don’t think people are feeling loss of connection as they’re dining,” she said, referring to the Facebook status updates popping into her clients’ feeds as they dine by iPad. “They’re actually speaking to four or five people, while they’re sitting in their comfort of their homes in their pajamas with their feet up.”
While Emina isn’t sure three-course Orwellian breakfasts are the best alternative to meals spent Instagramming and Tweeting because you’re dining alone on the couch, he feels something has been lost.
“I don’t feel that we should be sentimental about some Golden Age of eating around the table: Things change. But if you’re constantly typing or having to express yourself to people who aren’t in the same room as you, maybe the value of sitting down for breakfast, lunch or dinner is different now. The value is that you can stop for an hour or so. Stop constantly being updated by the world. Maybe that’s something we should cherish.”