Take back meal times, says Bee Wilson

14 May

Seasoned food writer, award-winning author and journalist Bee Wilson declared Swindon Spring Festival her favourite of all the literary events she has attended globally, not least because it links words to spring and nature.

Our food speaker, back in Swindon from the Big Apple for a lunchtime festival slot, discussed the demise of mealtimes.

Author of four other food books, Bee Wilson is a foodie passionate about the impact of our modern lifestyles on our eating habits and the so-called food we consume, which she shares in her new book, The Way We Eat Now.

The act of eating, according to Bee, was once an opportunity to stop. Today, meal breaks are seen as a disruption to learning and living. A case in point is China, where chairs were taken out of school canteens to reduce the time spent at lunch and increase the overall periods in the classroom.

However, no matter how busy we feel, we have one thousand hours more free time a year than those of previous generations; we use time differently, said Bee, choosing leisure activities like Twitter and online shopping instead of a long lunch break.

photo © Fernando Bagué Bee Wilson on stage with BSL deaf interpreter, Kat Wright, photo © Fernando Bagué

Freedom of time and choice of food has gradually become our undoing: we do not have too little, but too much. The first supermarket to open in America stocked forty products, today the average store has a range of approximately fifty thousand. 

Food is now the common denominator for premature death as we slowly eat ourselves into an early grave. We have around-the-clock access to these fully stocked supermarket shelves which, as Bee said, “Magical as it is, I have become entitled to the abundance.”  

Nevertheless, we can change our eating habits by managing our expectations and shifting our cultural values through legislation, education and labelling.

Amsterdam has reduced the highest childhood obesity figures in the Netherlands by encouraging children to drink water, banning sugary treats and drinks on school premises, and restricting fast food outlets to selling apples to unaccompanied children.

Chile has banned cereal box cartoon characters to stop the illusion of sugar-coated happiness, part of a broader initiative to change habits through the packaging of foods. Vague labelling has been replaced by large black government warnings of sugar, fat and salt.

Doing this in the UK would likely attract accusations of nanny state management. Yet, as one audience member commented, “most of us know what is good for us, but we do not act on our instincts.”

To change the way we view and consume food, Bee suggested the Sapere method (from the Latin, ‘to taste’ or ‘to know’) – using all five senses to explore food. This forms parts of her work with Taste Ed, an organisation which visits school children to teach them about food and provide the grassroots of education around eating.

Change is possible by relearning old habits – cooking from scratch, dedicated meal breaks and reducing snacks.

Anyone can learn to eat better, said Bee, given the right encouragement, and access to a variety of good foods. If we know our food before it goes in the basket, let alone on the plate, we can break the circle of food waste, obesity and ill health.

Bee Wilson appeared at Swindon Spring Festival, 13 May 2019 at Swindon Arts Centre.

Words by Emma Smith. Image © Fernando Bagué









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