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Are we really too busy to eat well?

Life & Arts

Are we really too busy to eat well?

Hurried sandwiches and deskbound lunches have become the norm. But real meals are far from a waste of time

Our loss of the rituals of shared eating time has consequences. Making time for meals can actually offer health benefits © Jody Horton

There are no chairs in the cafeteria at Sui County High School in Henan province, central China. They disappeared after the summer break, not because the school wanted to save money, but so that students could store up a few precious extra minutes of study time. With the chairs gone, there was no risk of lingering over lunch.

Students eat standing awkwardly at tables before rushing back to class. “We learnt this advanced practice from other places”, an official was quoted as saying in the Chongqing Morning Post, adding that it should be possible, with some further refinements, to get the time students spent (for “spent” read “wasted”) on eating their lunch down to just 10 minutes.

After the story of this chairless cafeteria broke at the end of August, the school’s policy was widely ridiculed both in China and beyond. “It’s a terrible idea to make students eat while standing,” stated an editorial in the same newspaper. “It sacrifices the students’ health for academic scores. It’s unacceptable, and it should not be emulated.” Gao Shan, a gastroenterologist, was quoted as saying that this practice would be very bad for the digestion and could set children up for a lifetime of chronic illnesses.

Most of us recoil at the notion of a chairless cafeteria designed to make children eat faster. Yet the disturbing thing about dining arrangements at Sui County High is that they are not so different from the rushed way that millions of others — children and adults alike — now consume meals around the world. Is the student in China gulping down a 10-minute lunch so different from the office worker who lunches on a protein bar because there are too many emails and not enough hours in the day?

What makes the chairless cafeteria at Sui County High seem shocking is that the lack of time for eating is so deliberate and calculated. In the rest of the world, by contrast, many of us feel baffled about the fact that we are eating in such a frazzled state so much of the time. For decades, there have been laments that modern life does not leave enough time to cook. The new worry is that we often feel we do not even have the time to eat.

How else can we explain the successful marketing of products such as liquidised breakfast cereal to drink “on the go”? It used to be that a bowl of cornflakes with milk was what you ate when you lacked the time to stand at a stove and stir porridge or scramble an egg. But now, even sales of cold ultra-processed breakfast cereals have become a victim of time pressure.

Eating used to occupy distinct periods of time in Europe. But even in Italy, time devoted to eating is now becoming shorter and less formal © Christopher Anderson

According to a 2015 report by the market research firm Mintel, 40 per cent of millennials surveyed said they felt that cereal was an inconvenient breakfast because it takes time to clean up the bowl after eating. Sales of breakfast cereal in the UK fell by £78m in 2015-16, equivalent to a drop of 8m pounds (in weight) of cereal.

Time scarcity is one of the great under­explored reasons why modern food habits differ from those of previous generations. A lack of time — or a perceived lack — hovers over many modern food habits, thwarting our desires and forcing us into compromises we never quite intended. There is evidence that when someone feels lacking in time, he or she will cook less, enjoy meals less and yet end up consuming more, especially of convenience food.

Sliced bread was only the start. Everywhere you look, there are products promising to save you time, from two-minute rice to the soggy monstrosity that is quick-cook pasta. All this talk about time is a clever marketing device too, because it can convince us that there is no point even trying to cook anything that takes longer than 20 minutes — even though those same 20 minutes feel like nothing when we are browsing online shopping (or less than nothing if you are playing Candy Crush on your phone). Feeling rushed makes us buy more takeaways; use our microwaves more and our wooden spoons less.

When we say we lack time to cook — or even time to eat — we are not making a simple statement of fact. We are talking about cultural values and the way that our society dictates that our days should be carved up.

The notion that lunch is a waste of time is not unique to Sui County High School. In the Republic of Ireland, the law allows children in school to have a “recreational interval” of 30 minutes in the course of the day. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, many children in primary education end up getting just 10 minutes for lunch standing up in the playground, a tiny morsel of time in which to feed a growing child. Deirdre Doyle, who provides courses on food education in Irish schools, told me she recently visited an Irish primary where the head expected the children in her care to use the 10 minutes they had been allotted to do academic work as well as to eat.

There is something paradoxical, however, in our collective perception that we have too little time to eat properly. By absolute objective measures, most of us in affluent countries have far more free time on average than workers did a hundred years ago: nearly 1,000 more hours a year, in fact. 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.

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. Our days and weeks are broken up with constant interrupt­ions, and meals are no longer taken communally and in unison but are a cacophony of individual collations snatched here and there, with no company but the voices in our headphones.

Many of us, to our own annoyance, are trapped in routines in which eating well seems all but impossible. Yet this is partly because we live in a world that places a higher premium on time than it does on food.

“Forty-five minutes is the new hour,” announced a poster I saw the other day in central London, advertising a gym where busy workers could use their lunch break to dash through a “super-concentrated workout”. The lunch break, if it exists at all, is often used for other, supposedly more important activities, such as shopping or exercising, or simply more work.

Different cultures have always slotted eating occasions into the day at different moments. We sometimes beat ourselves up over our inability to find time for a 1950s pattern of three square meals a day, forgetting that there have been plenty of times and places where meals were informal, snacky, haphazard affairs, eaten without much ceremony or cutlery.

For most of the 19th century, the usual lunch for a rural labourer in England would have been informal “field fare” of something like bannocks or oatcakes with cold meat and cheese, eaten out of the hand sitting under a tree, with nothing but a tin mug and a pocket knife by way of utensils. In Cambridgeshire during harvest time, men would stop for five of these short snacks in the course of a working day, each one washed down with beer or cider. Labourers were encouraged to eat and drink quickly and get back to the field without delay. So fast food is nothing new. But never before have so many populations around the world organised life in such a way that shared time to eat is more or less scheduled out of existence.

If you are of a nosey disposition, as I am, there are worse ways to while away an afternoon than by scrolling through graphs showing how Europeans spend their time. From around 1998 to 2006, researchers in Europe gathered data on time use for 15 different countries. Many thousands of people (more than 20,000 individuals in Italy, nearly 4,000 in Sweden) were asked to keep diaries recording how they spent their days. The data were then compiled into a series of tables — areagrafs — showing how the hours of the day were portioned up in different European countries. (The exercise was also repeated in 2010, from which the data illustrated in the graph below is drawn.)

Reading these graphs, you seem to be peering through a secret window revealing the truth about human behaviour across different countries. Everyone may sleep and eat and work and rest, but different people slice up these activities in different ways. At 4am you can see that virtually all of Europe is asleep (or trying to sleep). From 8am to 6pm there is a chunky splodge of time that represents work or study.

Meals are no longer taken communally and in unison but are a cacophony of individual collations snatched here and there

Eating is a special case on these time-use graphs. The pattern of time devoted to food varies from country to country far more than work or rest. In the graphs for France, Spain, Bulgaria and Italy, the hours spent eating appear as clear and distinct peaks of time that push work and rest away for a while. This part of the graph dramatically rises from 12 midday to 2pm in France and Italy and from 1.30pm to 4pm in Spain. There is a second big spike in eating time in the evening, from 7pm to 9pm in France and 9pm to 11pm in Spain.

In France, Italy and Spain, most of the population still ate to a common beat in 2006. But in other places, this old tempo had already become radically disrupted. To turn from the Spanish graph to those for the UK, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden and Norway is startling. In these countries, the band of eating time had become something with no clearly defined peaks but rather a continuous ribbon throughout the day. In Poland or Sweden, you are as likely to be eating at 4pm as at 8pm.

In the years since the graphs were assembled, many of the general patterns have held. But the shared mealtime has become still more disrupted. Even in Spain and Italy, time for eating is now becoming something shorter and more matter-of-fact. After the great recession of 2008, many businesses in Spain cut the traditional two-hour lunch break to a single hour. In France, once a bastion of slow meals, Parisian workers have started consuming such ad hoc novelties as ready-to-eat salads or quick repasts of panini from snack bars.

Meals are not just a way to use up time but a series of ceremonies through which we experience time. 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. You were doing the right thing at the right time. Now our eating is out of sync. You may go to a café and order an all-day breakfast at nine o’clock at night or buy an ice cream along with the morning paper without anyone looking at you askance.

Our loss of the rituals of shared eating time has consequences. Making time for meals can actually offer health benefits. A classic study by epidemiologist Michael Marmot and colleagues in the early 1970s found Japanese-American men to be more prone to heart disease when they adopted the stress-inducing American habits of eating meals in a hurry. Marmot found that diet alone could not explain why so many Japanese men died of heart disease in the US compared to their counterparts in Japan.

The lunch break, if it exists at all, is often used for other activities, such as shopping or exercising or simply more work © Brian Finke

The researchers found that when Japanese-American men became culturally less Japanese in the way that they ate — regardless of whether the dishes they were eating were Japanese or western — they were five times more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease. Studies of American men around the same time found that rates of heart disease were highest among those with high levels of individualism, impatience and a desperate sense of urgency about time, all values that American society strongly promoted.

This is not a plea to turn back the clock to a patriarchal dinner table where a mother cooks and a father keeps order with an electric carving knife, while children sit chewing their food in petrified silence. It’s about holding on to the principle that time to enjoy food remains a basic human need, even as modern families, cuisine and patterns of work evolve.

When we never allow ourselves time to stop, sit and digest, we are in effect saying that our own nourishment doesn’t matter very much. Lack of time also has a direct impact on our food choices (the colossal global popularity of sandwiches being a case in point). One study of schools in Wales found that allocating even a few minutes extra for lunch made a difference to what children chose at school meals. The shorter the lunch break, the more likely they were to eat fries and the less likely to eat vegetables.

Most workers today do not even expect their employers to make any provision for their meals. We live in an individualist world where each person takes his or her chances with a £3 meal deal. But there was a time when a leisurely lunch in the work canteen was something normal.

The lunch hour was like a rest in music. It was there to break up the rhythms and revive you and sustain you for what was next

Anne Marie Rafferty

When Anne Marie Rafferty was a student nurse in Scotland in the late 1970s, she told me that lunch breaks were a highlight of the day. In those days, the staff cafeteria would serve heavily subsidised, hearty two-course lunches to hospital staff. Rafferty recalls that no one in the hospital bought food to take away. There was plenty of time to eat your stew or roast beef with all the trimmings and maybe relax with a cup of coffee and a cigarette afterwards (“in those days, we all smoked”). When I interviewed Rafferty — who is now a professor of nursing in London — she recalled that the old lunch break was “like a rest in music. It was there to break up the rhythms and revive you and sustain you for what was next.”

Talking to Rafferty, I thought how sad it was that we have started to see meal breaks as a disruption of our working lives rather than as something that patterns our days and gives meaning to them. The great irony of our collective belief that we lack the time for proper meals is that nothing makes you feel as rich in time as a good meal, especially if it is shared. Research on how we experience time suggests that we actually feel less harried when we stop holding on to our minutes and start freely giving more of our time away — by cooking dinner for someone we care about, for example, whether yourself or someone else.

Even in the rush of modern life, there are still moments when time seems to become elastic and expansive. Most of these moments, in my experience, are spent sharing food. It’s a summer evening. The cherries you bought are large and lush, and you eat them lazily, until your mouth turns inky-red. There’s a pot of fresh mint tea, and you share out the final slice of almond cake between everyone. It is as if someone has handed you a sliver of time, an excuse to stop counting the minutes for once and actually experience them.

Bee Wilson’s latest book is ‘The Way We Eat Now’ (Fourth Estate)

Do you think the lunch hour is dead? Let us know what you think in the comments

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