Making time for meals

When I took a job with a US financial institution it involved making regular phone calls to its European offices during what was often a very long day with little time for lunch breaks, as the Americans wanted their pound of flesh. One day I called the Geneva office at 1pm to be answered by a receptionist who was surprised at my interruption as the whole office was out to lunch – along with the rest of the country.

That was 20 years ago. The situation today isn’t quite as regimented due to the wholesale dismantling of the fixed-time activities within people’s days – one of the most notable being meal times. The gradual disappearance of what were critical parts of the day has been going on for many years and the impact on foodservice continues to be felt.

Going back in time our ancestors lived and ate in sync with the rhythms of the seasons and the hours of sunlight, which determined when everybody stopped to eat. Schools and formal institutions still adhere to a timetable but everybody else has dropped into a much less strict regime as flexible working hours have become the norm and many people don’t even need to go to the office any more. The better restaurants are adapting to this new dynamic.

Flexible working clearly saves time and should allow people to commit more of their waking hours to vital activities such as eating – but things aren’t quite playing out that way. We seem to be increasingly strapped for time. However, this is merely a perception of the time we have rather than the actual reality – for most people that is. We think we have less time because there are so many things we can now do with our time – many of them social in nature rather than work.

Precious family time round the breakfast table

One element of this is social media, which voraciously eats our time. This is merely one manifestation of digital, which is also driving the expectation of immediate gratification. This gives the perception of having no time to waste. In reality, the digital revolution should be massively time-saving as it can remove the need to visit shops, banks, restaurants and travel agents. Everything can be summoned to your door without you even leaving the house.

The impact of this immediate mindset on meal times and eating habits has been catastrophic. According to Mintel, two-fifths (40%) of millennials think cereal is an inconvenient breakfast meal because it takes time to clean up the bowl after eating, which is leading to food decisions being made on the basis of convenience and speed to mouth.

Washing up breakfast bowls: Just too much trouble

This has led to the rise of fast food, vending machines, takeaways and today’s big trend, online delivery. What’s the problem with this? The issue is it’s leading to greater consumption of processed foods. This is hardly new and probably began with the invention of sliced bread but in recent years it has taken a real hold. What’s particularly worrying is some of these processed convenience foods are marketed as healthy options, while some pander to the latest fashionable diets.

Among the latest healthy foodstuffs hitting the market and gaining a following are meal replacement brands such as Soylent and Huel. The latter is a plant-based powder that promises to provide all the nutrition the body needs from a meal. The argument put forward by these brands is many people don’t have the time or money to get the nutrition they need in their time-poor lives. I personally find it hard to think of anything as joyless as a powdered meal replacement.

We’ve certainly come a long way from the dining habits of our ancestors and I hope the foodservice industry can turn things around and convince people they really do have time to eat proper meals, which is a natural, healthy, social and above all life-affirming activity.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.