Illustration by Isha K.

Illustration by Isha K.

I started 10th grade as a new kid at a huge public high school in Gulfport, Mississippi. Because my family moved around a lot, it was my third high school in just over a year, and let’s just say that I wasn’t adjusting to the changes too well. While my life at home was manageable—I had my brothers, and I had the internet, and I could be myself with both—my life at school was a different story. It was like someone held up a remote control to my personality and pressed the mute button.

Which is why, on my first day at Gulfport High, I walked into a cafeteria full of strangers and panicked. After a failed attempt at sitting with some people I didn’t know, I decided to wander to the courtyard just outside the lunchroom, find a bench, and face my fear of waiting out my lunch period…totally alone. And that is exactly how I ended up spending every lunch period that entire semester.

On better days, I treated my alone time as an opportunity to read books, write, and observe those around me (i.e. stake out crushes and the people I’d eventually want to befriend). On the bad ones, I couldn’t help but think I was a friendless high school failure, and not in a mysterious, Winona Ryder character kind of way.

Eventually, I met friends in class who made a space for me at their lunch table, but the skills I picked up during that lonely time of my life have helped me ever since, especially in situations far outside my comfort zone. Here are a few things I’ve learned to help make eating lunch alone less lonesome:

Avoid the bathroom.

Eating lunch alone in a restroom is no good, but it’s an easy mistake to make thanks to movies that place many a lonely new kid in a bathroom stall with a lunch tray on her lap. In reality, spending 30 minutes trying to eat in close proximity to toilets is a first-class ticket to losing your appetite. My advice: Get the hell outta the bathroom.

Go outside

If your school is cool with it, head for a bench or table outside. (If going outside isn’t allowed, see if the library is an option.) There are a couple benefits to this setup. For one, you’ve got the happy vibes of fresh air and sunshine/vitamin D. And then there’s open space: When there’s more of it, you’re less likely to feel like all eyes are on you. Instead of being a total lone wolf in the cafeteria, I spent a semester lunching in the courtyard, far beyond the gaze of my peers, surrounded only by fellow loners. Though we rarely interacted, we were united in our independence.

Books are your friends.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned eating lunch alone, it is this: No matter the situation, always bring a book. Whether that means an actual book, a magazine, a bunch of articles on your phone, or—I don’t know—a poem scribbled on your arm, have something to read. It will help you pass any awkward stretches of time more quickly and—more important—will get you out of your head if you’re feeling self-conscious. A bonus is that you’ll also find yourself full of interesting things to talk about with any potential lunch buddies.

When you’re ready, don’t be afraid to jump in there.

Something I’m still learning is that at some point you just need to say, “Screw it,” and put yourself out there. When I’m freaked out or uncomfortable I tend to fall silent, retreating to the depths of my thoughts. But when I think about all the time I’ve lost hanging out with people by hanging back because I was shy, I’m that much more motivated to push through my anxiety, open up my mouth, and talk.

Go easy on yourself.

One of the biggest challenges for me during my solo lunches wasn’t necessarily my peers. A lot of the most negative stuff was going down in my own head. While I know now that the loneliness I felt then was temporary, at the time, zooming out to the future was impossible. It seemed like I’d never eat a sandwich any other way but in total silence and completely by myself. If you’re in a similar situation, try to remember this: Your value, now and in the future, doesn’t rest on the company you keep (or don’t) at lunch.

Last month, I started a new job only to find myself again at the mercy of a lunchroom full of unfamiliar faces. While my first instinct was to bolt back to my desk with my food, I challenged myself to pull up a chair next to a coworker and take a crack at small talk. It was hard, but I know it’ll get easier. It’s worth it to me now to try. And if all else fails, I can always grab my book and a bench outside. ♦