The meeting was scheduled to begin at 9:30am, but traffic woes for many caused a half hour delay. The 50 or so women already present thus had extra time to eat the breakfast items laid out on the long table: bagels and cream cheese, croissants, muffins and coffee cake. And most of us did.
The woman sitting next to me complained that she had just started a diet and it was hard for her to resist eating one of everything on the table. “Of course I ate breakfast before leaving home,” she told me. “I am not hungry. But it’s hard to resist a croissant or muffin. Why must there always be food wherever I go?”
Why indeed. I suspect every woman at the meeting had either eaten before leaving home or, if not, avoided eating because she was not hungry early in the morning. Was it really necessary to put out food, and so much of it that everyone there could have eaten a bagel, a croissant and a muffin without leaving the table empty? Why must refreshments accompany so many meetings, workshops as well as morning or afternoon programs? People attending these events must have food at home; they are not depending on the ‘refreshments’ to compensate for an empty refrigerator.
Food has become inextricably linked with activities outside the home. Performance venues always sell food although some, thankfully, like the theater or concert hall, do not do so during the actual performance but limit sales to before programming and during intermission. This is not the case at sporting events, where someone can spend as much time buying food and eating as they do watching the game. In fact, you can watch the game while you buy food and eat, courtesy of big screen TVs inside stadiums. Religious services are followed by an ‘eat and greet’ hour, parent-teacher evenings have snacks set out in the gym or lunchroom, and late afternoon lectures at universities provide snacks and drinks before the speaker begins. It begs the question, is the food provided to get people to leave their labs and libraries to come to a talk? I have a young relative, a law school student, who managed to avoid cooking dinner for an entire semester because so many of the afternoon and evening lectures were accompanied by substantial appetizers.
It is hard to resist eating when faced with an array of cookies, coffee cake, or chips and dip, even when we are not hungry. A cube of cheese, a cracker, a potato chip scooping up dip, perhaps a tiny sandwich: How much caloric harm can these do? They are so small! And then of course, if we are chitchatting while standing next to the table with the food, our hand may manage to snag some nuts or a cookie and pop it into our mouths without us really noticing.
So we nibble and snack at these situations unaware of how much we are eating. We behave as if we are on, as that old joke goes, the Seafood diet: “Whatever we see, we eat.”
Are we, by being so generous with our culinary offerings at every gathering of more than two humans and a dog, contributing to weight gain? Might we be obesity enablers? Probably.
So one must then ask, is it time to change, unless we wish to continue, as a nation, to gain weight? We should do two things: cut down, or cut out the food at all events not actually linked to a meal. (Obviously if there is to be an after-dinner speaker, one has to serve dinner first.) It will take time to change people’s expectations that whenever someone is speaking, someone else is eating. And it is possible that some lectures might have fewer attendees because the lure of food is not longer present. One way of defusing the disappointment is to announce that the money that had been used to buy snacks is now being given to shelters or other charities.
Resistance to making certain places and events into food-free zones will come from those who believe that many professional and/or social encounters work better when food (and drink) is available. How can people gather at an art exhibition or after a church service if only coffee, tea and soda water are served? What will people do with themselves if no cookies are offered at a parent-teacher night? No one will hang around for the last three talks of an all-day conference if they don’t get fed at the 3:30pm coffee break. Who will sit through a movie without buying something from the concession stand? (We all know that this is how theaters make their money…) Yet we manage to sit through a play, a concert, and a funeral without eating.
It is time to undo the almost unconscious expectation that someone will feed us whenever we go to an event. This was appropriate when we were toddlers and fed Cheerios to stop our whining. But we are grownups now, and if we don’t stop our almost constant eating, we will certainly start our own whining at our growing girth.