Eating on the Go

Following on from her recent blog post about eating well on a tight budget, Noreen writes about the worrying trend that's seeing more and more Irish people eating on the go.

There is just so much angst surrounding food and diet in the Western world – or actually in all parts of the world where the people don't, generally, go to bed hungry. We have eating disorders alongside obesity. The causes of ill-health and death in our forefathers – infection and lack of preventative medicine are being replaced by factors we often bring on ourselves – related to what we eat and our lifestyles.

So much has changed about our eating habits. The formality and the structure have been jettisoned by many families. The whole routine of sitting down at a table two or three times a day is probably alien to most young people. This change has happened slowly, maybe even imperceptibly and it is easy to see why. It is a cliché to say that we live busier lives; but what is undeniable is that it is more common to have both parents in a family out of the house in paid employment. The person at home whose main job is to put food on the table has been largely replaced by...what, exactly? That is the interesting point.

Frozen food

Microwaves and ready meals and wall-to-wall entertainment have all combined to make eating a more individual activity and also a more absent-minded activity. Teenagers, in particular, often have too much going on in their heads and in their lives to have the time to focus on food. Eating, at least, for some, has become a functional requirement, to be met, in an almost absent-minded way. If you doubt this, just sit for a while, in a coffee shop and observe people texting while they eat, checking out their iPhones while simultaneously playing with a muffin or panini.

In fairly recent years, schools have moved away from teaching skills like cooking, sewing, woodwork and metalwork. The reasons for this are probably beyond this article, but we all have an idea of them: an unrealistic expectation of technology is one. Let me tell you a story. I used to work in a small college that was quite renowned for cooking, sewing and fashion design. In the white hot grip of technology a couple of decades ago, the powerful people in the college decided that computers were the coming thing. Of course they were right in one respect...but they were really wrong in another way. You see, they saw a huge need for computer classes.

A little bit like the inability of the founders of the NHS in Britain to forecast the consequences of their success (that more and more people would need and demand better treatments, not that the NHS would cure all ills and wouldn't be needed so much anymore – imagine!), those running a small college failed to see that in the decades to come, students wouldn't need computer classes, indeed that they would have more technologically advanced pieces of equipment in their back pockets that the teachers at the college at that time could even visualise.

That's well and good but what has that got to say about how we eat? Well, maybe one thing is that it isn't always easy to predict at all how trends are going to evolve. It has become a bit of a cliché to say that cooking and baking shows have become so popular in a time when we cook less. But it is fascinating – something deep in our psyche must yearn for the time and ability to cook and eat in a more civilised way. More than that though, is the relaxing effects of cooking.

It is an activity that forces you to slow down. You cannot rush a meal or a cake, so as the hands and brain are engaged, the stressful mind chatter eases. Marian Keynes, the lovely Irish writer, has written about how baking was one of the very few activities that lifted her mood when she was suffering from serious depression. Isn't it just so interesting that chores our forefathers (or more likely, mothers) may have viewed as a tad tyrannical are now viewed as therapeutic – talk about coming full-circle.

The super-commercialisation of food production has affected the way we think. It's like the cart – the shopping bit, has now come before the horse – the cooking and eating part. But, I am not alone in thinking that we don't just have to accept this passively. We can take control. What do I mean? Well, if you think about the “big shop”: your mind-set is influenced by what you see in the supermarket, what is on offer, in particular and the need to have something in. Then you rush in, starving and what you make to eat is dictated by what is in the fridge or freezer.