Whatever happened to the good square meal? The BBC recently conducted a survey that revealed the sorry state of Britain’s eating habits. Of the 5,000 people questioned 78 per cent admitted that they “rarely or never” invite friends or family over to eat, while 27 per cent said that they eat alone most days. When did Britain, home of Elizabeth David and Rowley Leigh, birthplace of beef Wellington and Eton mess, become solipsistic in its eating habits?
The other Saturday I found myself in a restaurant where I was meeting friends for brunch, an emerging cultural (American) pastime that feigns interest in food but in fact occurs at the antisocial hour of 11am. We were served a mashed avocado on toast alongside a glass of flat prosecco. The culture of brunch is one of many signs that we are abandoning the traditional family meal at home in favour of individualised eating and new dining experiences.
And that’s for those of us eating at all. The same survey also found that one third of people never eat breakfast, one fifth of us skip lunch as well, and 18-24-year-olds were the most likely to skip meals. Shockingly, 88 per cent of all interviewees preferred snacking to sit-down meals.
The decline of social eating comes as increasing numbers of healthy restaurants and cafes are emerging across the UK. Restaurant chains such as Leon (“naturally fast food”) and Pret A Manger (“organic coffee: natural food”) allow urban dwellers to access healthy meals on the go. Israeli restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi has written four best-selling books that promote the use of fresh and colourful ingredients. Jamie Oliver began his Food Revolution more than a decade ago, campaigning for healthy school lunches and donating his cookbooks to libraries in order to make good food available to the masses. Incidentally, all Oliver’s TV shows show him eating his recipes, with his friends and family, after he has cooked them.
The government, too, has tried, but largely emphasising healthy meals as opposed to social eating, in order to alleviate the financial implications on the NHS. The Live Well Five A Day Scheme is the spearheading example of official attempts to curb warnings from the World Obesity Federation that two-thirds of Britons will be overweight or obese by 2025.
The irony, of course, is that although we are in a phase of food fanaticism, with more focus than ever on healthy eating, we have forgotten to eat together and to enjoy doing so. Who are you dining with tonight?