Eighty-eight percent of Americans are zombie eaters, according to a survey commissioned by Snyder Lance, the manufacturers of “Pretzel Crisps.” Zombie eating means eating while staring at a screen.
We find zombie eaters everywhere. Few restaurants are without groups or families, in which each person is staring at a smartphone screen. There is something pitiful seeing a family whose members have nothing to share at the end of the day.
An Old and Growing Problem
Eating in front of screens has gone on for years. When television first entered the home in the fifties, people ate as they watched their favorite shows. They served factory-prepared frozen meals called T.V. dinners on T.V. trays. The Swanson company even pictured its offerings in a frame that simulated the cabinet of a television.
Today, the survey notes that forty-nine percent of Americans say that they regularly watch television while eating. On the other hand, average Americans only eats three meals per week at their kitchen tables.
Twenty-two percent of Americans zombie-eat lunch in front of their office computers. “Zombie eating is something most of us can relate to – we’re busy, we’re productive, and we’re constantly on the move,” says Pretzel Crisps’ Senior Brand Manager Syreeta Norwood.
A Threat to Body and Soul
A surprising amount of research is available about social eating patterns. Food plays a huge role in social life. In the 1995 book, Food and Nutrition, P. Fieldhouse says that “food is a vehicle for expressing friendship, for smoothing social intercourse, for showing concern. It is also ridden with status symbolism and is manipulated, subtly or blatantly, to demonstrate differences in social standing. There might almost be a dictum which says where two or more people gather together then let there be food and drink.”
Eating in groups, especially families, is healthier than zombie eating. Christie Wilcox, a contributor to Nutrition Wonderland, cites statistics in the United Kingdom. She points out that “married women with children are the healthiest group of people, followed closely by married men.” She adds that “the mortality rate for single men between 30 and 59 is 2.5 times higher than their married counterparts.”
Living alone is a major cause of zombie eating. More Americans live alone than ever. USA Today reported that U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2010 show that “The sheer number of Americans living alone has more than tripled since 1970 to 33.2 million.” More than one household out of four is occupied by only a single person.
Unlike the joy of dining in groups, eating alone is a chore. Usually, it takes longer to prepare the food than it does to eat it. Making the food appealing to the eye seems wasted when alone. Doing this most social of activities in solitude is depressing. Hence, screens make it more pleasant, or at least less lonely.
Precedents of Biblical Proportions
The importance of meals together is highlighted in the Bible. Jacob gained his father’s blessing by serving him his favorite food. The Passover centered around a meal, for which God gave very explicit directions. God fed the ancient Hebrews manna and quail in the wilderness. Esther gained the confidence of her husband, the king, by preparing a banquet for him.
The New Testament reports Our Lord’s first miracle at a wedding banquet. He fed thousands who had come to hear Him in the desert with the multiplication of loaves and fish. The parable of the Prodigal Son has the father celebrate his son’s return by ordering a great feast. The wise virgins are invited to the wedding banquet, while the foolish ones are kept out.
Of course, there is the most important meal of all time – the first Eucharistic feast; the first step in the Passion and Death of Our Lord – the model for the Holy Mass.
Slaying the Zombie
Given the importance of eating together, we should strive to limit zombie eating. We should make meals an occasion for learning and cultivating manners and conversation.
The head of the household should keep television and smartphones away at mealtimes. This measure might require some planning. It would be good to think of topics of conversation that will replace the screens with human interaction. Families should move the meal to the kitchen or dining room table.
We might also look for opportunities for the family to eat with other families. This change need not be complicated or expensive. It can be as simple as inviting another family over for a barbeque. Groups in parishes can sponsor potlucks where each family brings its own plates, silverware, and a favorite dish. These community meals have the added benefit of attracting those living alone and therefore tempt to zombie eating.
People should also consider more formal dinners with correctly set tables where all family members are well dressed and use their best manners. Those who have lost – or never had – opportunity to partake in such meals will benefit from the experience. It is also an effective way to train children in manners and socializing that they will need later in life. Families unused to complicated food preparation can use a local restaurant for this purpose – just leave the smartphones at home or in the car.
God gave us a great gift when he created food – that feeds both body and soul. We should not lose that gift through mindless “zombie eating.”