The lonely eater

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Meal times are on their way out

"YOU are what you eat." In no time in history does this aphorism hold more grain than now. At times, ours seems to be a nutrition-obsessed civilization. In supermarkets, especially in middle-class neighbourhoods, buying food has become like conducting a scientific experiment. Individuals spend hours looking at food packet labels counting carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins and gauging if the food is organic, natural or holistic. A weekend newspaper supplement is incomplete without a section on health and nutrition.

Unfortunately this is one side of a paradox. Unstructured work days today mean indisciplined appetites. We might be fastidious about counting protein and carb content of packed foods but are not averse to calling up the nearest takeaway at the earliest exigency. There is little time to spend in the kitchen. Mealtime, our oldest social ritual, seems to be on its way out. Food is being desocialized. Home is no longer the place where aromas of spices waft by or stir frying creates a noise symphony.

People eat while they are doing other things, with eyes averted from company. They snack in junk food outlets or on the street, leaving trails of litter. Office-goers do not share breakfast with loved ones before leaving home in the morning. Family breakfast has been crowded out of daily routines. People living far away from families fall ravenously on instant noodles. Kids come home from school, turn on the latchkey, grab ready-made food from refrigerated shelves, microwave them and bolt them down in isolation. No mum or dad to arbitrate on table manners or on chewing properly. No one in a household has to defer to anyone else in culinary matters. People alienated from the comradeship and discipline of the common table starve or stuff themselves into extremes of anorexia or obesity.

But perhaps there is hope. Family reunions still take place at mealtimes. The discreetly lit dinner table remains the favourite of romantic rendezvous. Deals are still struck at business lunches and diplomatic alliances are forged at state banquets.

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