Netflix + Deliveroo = A Healthy 21st Century Diet?
A long while back I conducted a research project as part of my university dissertation into the links between childhood obesity and watching TV whilst eating family dinners. It was a fascinating topic to look into, one that meandered from statistical analysis of families dinner routines, the average meals children under 10 years old are eating, how the UK trends compare with other countries and the increased penetration of televisions into households decade on decade. I gathered insights and opinions from nutritionists, paediatricians and expertly-written reports from around the world and the outcome was clear; having the TV on during your family dinner is intrinsically linked with an increased risk of your children being obese. Considering that my design project was dependent on this result, the findings were welcome & unsurprising. Ten years later however, with the growing prevalence of technology in our lives, they continue to be troubling for youth and adults alike.
The awareness that individuals who watch a lot of TV tend to have less healthy diets may not be a new concept to most people. However, taking into consideration how the “TV” has evolved, one may find that their own dietary habits have taken a hit without even realising it. Consumption of television has changed dramatically over the last few years and seen the rise of subscription services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime; the free and limitless portals of Youtube; the social media behemoths of distraction; Instagram, Snapchat and Tik Tok. What we have at our finger tips is a never ending amount of video content to ‘binge’ our way through (the common word used to describe the trend being particularly apt in this instance). Where programs used to be an occasion to get friends and family together to enjoy en masse each week, they’ve gradually become a race to the finish with the winner being the person with the least on their plate, figuratively and literally.
I’m far from being innocent of these habits - I finished the Narcos: Mexico series in just a few days - but the occasions where I’m at my most square-eyed undoubtedly coincide with either my diet or bank balance taking a negative turn. The two reasons for this are simple:
Cooking a meal requires planning, shopping, concentration & time. Blasting your way through 4 episodes of Chef’s Table could possibly inspire these as future actions. Blitzing Stranger Things in a single night? Not a chance.
You have “restaurant quality” food available at the tap of a screen via Deliveroo, Uber Eats or Just Eat which can be delivered straight to your door, the money vanishing quietly from your account. So why waste valuable viewing time to cook?
I’m fairly certain if asked, the vast majority of people would agree that going down this route is neither healthy or cost effective but we’re all doing it at an increased frequency nonetheless because we consider ourselves time-poor. I’d offer that for a lot of people this isn’t the case, our time is just being taken.
So what can we gather from the ever changing relationship between screen time and meal time?
Anthony Bourdain said that “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together” and from my experience this extends into the entire occasion. Preparing food is a constant learning process; one that requires mental focus, hand eye coordination & collaboration. Because of this, conversations in kitchens and around dinner tables are highly interactive and this is the fundamental reason why food gatherings are such a key element of so many global cultures. But for the UK, our declining love affair with home made food isn’t a recent occurrence.
Whilst it may sound like I solely blame 21st century tech for the death of the family dinner, experts would argue that it really begun with the sale of the first microwaves in the mid-80’s. This momentous technological shift heralded the start of a processed food era that saw traditional food preparation plummet towards the mid-00’s milestone of UK families spending more on food outside of the home than in grocery stores. To be clear, my concern is far from being placed on eating out in restaurants. For families that are fortunate enough to be able to afford to dine out in London’s huge array of food haunts, the occasion can act as a fantastic mix of bonding and cultural discovery. The issue is that the current trending combo of home delivery apps and boxsets-on-drip completely de-values the experience of preparing, sharing and eating food which is a timeless and integral societal activity. If it becomes more than just a special occasion the immediate & disposable nature of this diet (not to mention the packaging it arrives in) is unhealthy mentally, physically, socially and financially. In a city where wallets and purse strings are becoming justifiably tight if eating in your own home ends up costing the same as going to a restaurant, something ain’t right…
The vital function that food plays in raising a healthy family has been widely documented, from NHS studies to the pages of The Telegraph. But aside from a couple of isolated articles, including this from America’s renowned radio non-profit NPR, there really hasn’t been a great deal of focus on the effects of screen time on adult nutritional intake. YouGov have highlighted that a third of UK children eat in front of the TV and it’s safe to assume that is a habit that has filtered down from their parents. You could argue that this just represents a shift from formal dining to a more relaxed family existence however, when obesity levels are rising and attention levels dwindling (not to mention the links between screens, depression & insomnia), one has to assume that if I repeated the same university study for British adults today, the results would be clear.
For the record, I’m pro-tech. I think our advancements have incredible power to contribute to our culinary experiences rather than detract from them. But I’m also acutely aware of how a healthy diet can have so many positive effects on other aspects of your life. So my suggestion is to slow down and place attention back on the table, to the skills that have gone into preparing the delicious flavours on your fork, to the smiling faces sitting across from you and the memories that ensue.