"With the coming onslaught of stuff we can do little about, like Artificial Intelligence, global warming, lunatics in power and technology taking over our lives, it seems extraordinary that a trend we could stop in its tracks if we wanted to, we don’t. I’m talking about the seemingly inexorable disappearance of the age-old custom of eating together.
For centuries, everyone did it. Monks in a monastery, children at school, families at supper, workers in the canteen, even harvesters in the fields.
When my catering company fed directors and workers in City offices in the seventies and eighties, everyone sat down for lunch, and no one ate at a desk. The directors overdid it a bit – lunch, with a lot of booze, could last three hours. On Fridays many didn’t make it back to work at all. The office staff ate in canteens and they had a full hour to do it.
Today the average lunch hour is 20 minutes and it’s a brought-in sarnie at your desk, or a long queue at one of the thriving fast food take-aways. There seems to be a longing among some 30-somethings to do nice old-fashioned things with other people that don’t involve your mobile phone Today the Fire Service is one of the few organisations that still insists on communal dining, partly because operational crews on duty cannot leave the station in case there’s a “shout”. And since shifts can be 12, or even 15 hours long, they have to eat, so they have a mess area and kitchen. They used to have professional cooks but now a designated firefighter shops for the food before coming on duty and doing the cooking.
The crews sit down at breakfast (cereal and toast mostly, fry-up on Sunday), lunch (usually salad or sandwiches) and supper (perhaps pasta or curry). The main reason, according to Rob MacDougall of Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue, is to spend down-time together. “Eating together is an important part of bonding. You have to know your mates, trust them, and have their backs. Training, working and eating together helps maintain mental health and trust in each other.”
But such practice is the exception today. The stats tell us eating knees-under is a vanishing habit. Middle-class families where someone is into cooking will make an effort to sit down together once or twice a week.
The rest of the time it’s a matter of juggling work with the demands of children, parents and domestic duties, then flopping, exhausted, in front of the telly with a Deliveroo. In many households, “Ping Cuisine” reigns – with everyone separately microwaving different meals and eating them, often standing up.
For the hard-up it’s worse. Social housing almost never has a dining room and seldom even a kitchen table. The kitchen itself may consist only of a microwave, a chip fryer and a big freezer for the chips and ready-meals. Many children arrive at school having never held a knife and fork. Today the average lunch hour is 20 minutes and a brought-in sarnie at your desk
But I detect what I hope is the first glimmerings of a social fight-back. In line with the new trends of learning to cook, going to a dance class, joining a sewing bee or signing up for a singing group, there seems to be a longing among some 30-somethings to do nice old-fashioned things with other people that don’t involve your mobile phone.
One of the straws in the wind that give me hope are the increasing number of internet companies obsessed with good food and eating together.
Potage, which delivers healthy meals to businesses who want their workers to have a break, practices what it preaches. Their six cooks sit down together for a weekly lunch. The boss, Georgia Grace Cummings, says: “Friday lunch is the week’s highlight. It’s great for our culture, the team’s wellbeing and has become a source of innovation ideas. There’s a lovely irony to such an old-world, time-honoured tradition of eating together being the driver of so much digital innovation.”
Family time Pasta Evangelists is a web company delivering top quality fresh pasta and sauces. A Mrs Spallarosa writes on their website: “The kids love it, as do my husband and I. The recipe cards and stories of Italy remind us of home.” What we need is to reintroduce sit-down meals in schools with healthy food, good manners and a culture of sharing food.
And then there is Mob Kitchen which provides simple recipes on social media at an ingredient cost of £10 to feed four. It has been a huge success with the young, especially students who credit Mob Kitchen with inspiring them to cook for friends. One convert says: “If you cook something yourself, you sure as hell aren’t going to let anyone take their plate off to watch the telly, are you?”
Of course small businesses aiding knees-under eating is to be welcomed. But what we really, really need is to reintroduce sit-down meals in schools with healthy food, good manners and a culture of sharing food, chat, and time together."