Public “solo-dining” has become a hot topic.

Articles and blogs extol the virtues of the party of one. Some restaurants in major U.S. cities specialize in solo-dining. An OpenTable study reveals single reservations have increased 62 percent, making such bookings the “fastest growing table party size.”

Why is an uptick in dining alone in public noteworthy? Because most of us dread the idea. The notion is a perennial literary device, hack comic premise and universally acknowledged source of social anxiety.

In its most severe form, it’s called solomangarephobia. If you’re dismissive of this fear, consider it’s extraordinarily easy to avoid sitting down by yourself in a packed restaurant and ordering a full meal.

Unless you’re a ’tween or teen. For many, middle school may mark the first time you’re free to choose with whom you dine.

Those who fear such dining alone in public often attribute their anxiety to school cafeteria experiences where they were forced to eat by themselves for some reason.

While some may notice a peer eating alone, they don’t necessarily take any action.

Meanwhile, adults may underestimate how much a social connection affects a child’s educational experience. Kids want to feel included, and cafeterias are a huge factor. In such settings, the opposite of “inclusion” isn’t “exclusion” as much as it is “isolation.”

Earlier this week, I received a notification from my daughter’s school about its observance of “No One Eats Alone Day” (www.NoOneEatsAlone.org). The national movement encourages schools to host personalized, student-led days to help everyone feel included, valued and accepted by their peers.

The national No One Eats Alone Day typically takes place in February, though many schools coordinate individual events at other times of the year. It is intended to raise awareness among middle and junior high school students — get them to look beyond the groups to which they gravitate and understand for some, lunch is the most difficult part of each school day.

At my daughter’s school, No One Eats Alone Day will be observed by asking students to actively foster a culture of acceptance. The idea is to ensure everyone has a lunch companion.

The event is an initiative of Beyond Differences. The San Francisco organization was founded by Averell “Ace” Smith and Laura Talmus as a way to increase inclusion and awareness of differences among school children.

Their daughter, Lili Smith, was born with Apert syndrome, a craniofacial disorder that prevents a child’s skull from growing and affects facial and head shape. Lili struggled to feel included at school and participate in social activities.

Although Lili became a disability rights activist, Beyond Differences notes middle school proved especially challenging, and she often ate lunch alone.

Lili died in 2009 at age 15, due to complications from her syndrome. At that time, peers realized they hadn’t even noticed they’d excluded Lili from social activities. This caused them to ensure it didn’t happen to anyone else — anywhere.

Their efforts were incorporated into Beyond Differences’ national, multifaceted movement to emphasize empathy and inclusion. The No One Eats Alone Day website offers free curriculum and provides schools with the tools to start and sustain local inclusion initiatives.

On a personal note, please encourage ’tweens and teens to remember to include peers who receive aid from paraprofessionals. While kids with such assistance aren’t technically “alone,” they do crave the company of kids their own age.

Golden writes The Courier’s weekly faith and values column. Email her at onfaith@karrisgolden.com.


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