Yes, You Do Have Time to Eat Well

couple having a picnic of grapes, cheese, crackers, and wine
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Tim Collins / MaxPixel / Unsplsh

It's a question of scheduling.

Here's an interesting thought. Perhaps the struggle to cook meals from scratch and eat them with others is not because we lack time but because we're scheduling it poorly. In an article for the Financial Times, food writer Bee Wilson makes the following suggestion:

"When we say we are lacking in time to eat well, what we often mean is that we lack synchronised time to eat, which is a question of timing rather than absolute minutes and hours."

Not long ago, set mealtimes were a given. People had breakfast in the mornings, workplaces and schools had defined lunch breaks, and almost everyone sat down at the table for dinner. If these rituals didn't happen, it was an aberration from the norm.

Now a 'normal' meal schedule hardly exists. Modern life has become so busy, so packed with activities that happen at all hours of the day, that formal mealtimes have lost their places of importance. Because we feel so busy, we've convinced ourselves that there is no time to cook.

But, as Wilson points out, this makes no sense. Americans are working less than they used to, so finding time to prepare food shouldn't be an issue, in theory.

"In 1900, the average American worked 2,700 hours a year. By 2015 the average American worked just 1,790 hours a year and probably owned a kitchen containing whizzy time-saving gadgets that his or her ancestors could only dream of. Compared with many of the workers of the past, the average worker today is swimming in time. Except, it seems, in time for food."

Breakfast has been replaced by smoothies on the go (on a good day). Lunch is viewed as a disruption, or a chance to work out, shop, or simply continue to answer emails while eating a bag of chips with one hand.

Even schools are devaluing lunch, which sends a damaging message to kids. A high school in China eliminated seats in its cafeteria last year, in hopes that students would eat faster and get back to studying. Wilson describes primary schools in Ireland that give children only ten minutes to eat while standing on the playground or filling out worksheets.

Then there's the after-school extracurricular craze, with families driving children to tutor, music lessons, sports, playdates. It's almost impossible to get everyone in the same place at the same time, so what incentive is there for a parent to cook a nice meal? Snacking appears the easier option.

Wilson writes that this loss of communal mealtime is disorienting and harmful to the human psyche.

"Like religious worship, or news on the radio, eating used to punctuate the day at certain set moments. Even if you were eating lunch alone, you knew that much of the country was doing the same thing at that exact same moment, and this imbued your solitary meal with a particular social rhythm."

We can reclaim this sense of community by rearranging our days and fighting the tendency to schedule shared eating time out of existence. We can, and should, defend formal mealtimes because they give order and meaning to our days, force us to pause and feel refreshed, and give us the chance to eat well and interact with others. Eating communally, Wilson says, has the counterintuitive effect of making us feel rich in time.

The time is there; we're just using it in the wrong ways. A good first step is to replace social media scrolling time (or TV-watching) with food prep. We all know how quickly fifteen minutes can disappear when we're looking at Instagram feeds. Reallocate that time to something purposeful like cooking.

A more drastic step is to refuse to schedule activities around mealtimes. My family does this, or we adjust our communal eating time to fit, i.e. on soccer nights we have an early dinner, on piano nights a later one, but family dinner always happens.

Value your meals. Take them seriously. They will make you a happier, healthier person.