Eating is important. I know it sounds like a silly thing to say. We have to eat, so of course it’s important. But it seems to me that more and more, we have ceased to care about eating and need to be reminded that it should be one of the things around which all our lives revolve – as it did for millennia. Despite all those cooking shows on television, we are cooking less and less and eating poorer quality food, and as what and how we eat has fallen off our list of things to care about, our health, along with the environment, is getting worse. How do we turn this around? How do we invest again in eating?

Eating home-cooked food has repeatedly been shown to be the most healthy and nutritious way to eat – it beats eating in restaurants, fast food, and processed, packaged food. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that people who cook mostly at home, eat less sugar, fat and carbohydrates and the more they cook at home the fewer calories they consume. The importance of cooking healthy meals at home is a key recommendation in most current food policy. But all the insistence on eating home-cooked meals hasn’t made much of an impact on most of us. The evidence is that cooking is on the decline in our time-poor, fast-paced globalised world.

Further, as cooking has declined, the amount of access we have to cheap, ready-made processed food has increased. A recent study has linked obesity to the size of supermarkets – this may be a stretch but the vast array of processed food made available in supermarkets is hard for many to resist. As work life bleeds ever more intensely into home life and jobs become more demanding, spending an hour in front of the stove generating dinner can seem like an untenable waste of time. Increasingly, dividing lines are drawn between those who love to cook and those who hate it. Telling people they need to cook more can seem patronising and privileged.

There is much talk about how to get people back to making those home-cooked meals because obesity is getting out of hand in the most devastating way – a generation of children set to die before their parents from their poor eating habits, the first generation ever not to be healthier than the one before. So there is an imperative here; we must eat better.

But along with the quality of food we eat, how we eat is also changing in ways that further devalue the act of eating. We eat quickly; we eat alone; we watch the television (all those cooking shows, remember) or play on our iPad even when we eat together. It’s a throw-away activity for many of us and in the quick, slurp of a microwaved meal, what is there to pay attention to? We disconnect from the elemental pleasure of eating, the ‘ahhh – oh my god, that’s so good’ (and what does that sound like to you? I think both go to the core of our being.) With this disconnection, we also separate from one another forgetting to ask how the day went or to discuss the heavy freakish snow across the country or the latest gaff of some politician.

Eating, as a friend reminded me recently, is a compulsive and emotional act. It can provide comfort, connection, love (yes, love – especially chocolate!) Great food is an immersive experience of flavour, luxuriousness and aching goodness. It can take you back to moments etched in the architecture of your being – like the scene in Ratatoullie, when the food critic is transported back to the memory of his mother’s ratatouille. This is what we must find a way to reconnect to. Good food feeds you in a myriad of ways and Dan Barber makes a pretty solid argument in The Third Plate, that flavour and nutrition are connected in food, so it’s not all just emotional. Good food feeds you better than bad food.

It’s cultural as well. Eating is the centrepiece of the rituals that mark our lives and shape our cultural identity. There is always food at weddings, at birthday parties, at funerals. What our own food traditions are at home also knit us into family. Christmas dinner is almost always consistent – we always eat turkey or goose or ham – and that consistency makes a family tradition that bonds us to one another along with the simpler consistencies of Sunday lunch or pancakes on the weekend. Food builds social bonds. It means so much to us and this is why we must not forget its value.

As we trade in this fundamental joy of eating for something quick and easy that gives us a hit of salt and sugar, we lose so much. Step back and look at what is disappearing. The environmental impact of an agricultural system that largely produces processed food for us to eat is threatening ecosystems and cultures across the world. Our bodies are literally staggering from the weight of our poor eating – here in the UK, 70% of adults are overweight or obese.

We need to wean ourselves off of this manufactured pallate of ready-made food and taste our food again – taste what freshness is, taste the complexity of flavour, try new textures. Find that moment of deep and enduring pleasure when you ate something with a friend or parent or partner and it meant something to you. We need to eat like our life depends on it – because it does.

Photograph: Stuart Richards 

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