We watch more cookery shows today, but we cook less
There is clear evidence that across the globe obesity is increasing in adults and especially in children. This is particularly concerning since being overweight in childhood is the best indicator of adult obesity. In other words, when it comes to weight "the child is father to the man".
Recent data from Ireland shows that up to one-quarter of children are either overweight or obese. For these children, life will not only bring medical problems but psychological difficulties during childhood and adolescence, some of which may continue into adulthood.
These psychosocial problems are not difficult to forecast. These children may be the victims of bullying at school, they may have trouble relating to their slimmer peers and be shunned by them.
Self-confidence may be dashed and they may use drastic dieting techniques that ultimately cause a converse eating pattern resulting in anorexia nervosa. The may also develop childhood depression. And there is abundant evidence of the long term consequences of these problems on adult self-confidence and on the risk of later depression.
And eating sweets and chocolate isn't the main reason for obesity in childhood but poor diet. Children have always eaten sweets, jam, biscuits and so forth and loved them. Indeed, in moderation these are almost as crucial to children's lives as are toys. So limiting their intake of sweets and soft drinks while important is not the most effective way of reducing children's weight. Increasing exercise also clearly will help. But what has changed more than anything else in our diet is the food we eat and the way we eat. And the two are linked.
It is ironic that as the amount of time we spend watching cookery programmes on TV has increased, the time we devote to preparing meals has exponentially declined. Instead we use precooked meals, takeout meals or various fast foods. Linked to that is the evidence that the less time we spend preparing food for ourselves the more we are likely to eat.
Studies from the US have found that in the past 10 years we have added the equivalent of half a meal extra per day to our food intake simply because we don't have to do the chopping, peeling and washing. Not only is getting complete meals from a shop easy, but we are also exposed to the temptation to buy other foods.
Coupled with the high calorific content of fast foods – such as fish and chips, pizzas, burgers, and even precooked expensive, high-end meals such as beef Wellington, chicken chasseur etc – it is apparent that the calorific content of all our meals has increased considerably.
Being a parent isn't easy and it is very tempting to take the easy route to the local takeaway. But if we are intent on reducing our children's waistlines we should eat home cooked meals round the table together. Not only will this impact on their weight but it will lead to better relationships overall.
Currently, tea time is no longer at six o'clock and even the more sophisticated "supper time", so called, is also a movable microwave feast, that is heated instantly to suit the schedule of each person in the house. And for many the main meal will be eaten in front of the television or computer while others will play with their mobile in one hand and the fork in the other.
Family meals are a time when our need for mutual contact and communication can be met in a practical and encapsulated way. We can learn the skills of discussion and the good manners that are a necessary part of human encounters. The benefits to children and young people that accrue from family meals include better self-esteem, lower rates of problem drinking and of substance misuse to name but a few, according to research.
These findings make intuitive sense also because if basic manners and communications are not developed during these necessary activities such as eating, there is little chance that they will do so at other times.
Most of the major celebrations during our lives are celebrated with food – weddings, birthdays, Christmas for example. Instead of being a spectator sport home cooking should enter our lives again. It will enrich our relationships and be a nutrient for better physical and mental well-being.