The dining table, once the epitome of family solidarity and sociability, is not what it was. Britons are sitting down to dinner with their nearest and dearest less and less, and we're all the worse for it.
The relevance of the traditional family meal, formerly considered a prerequisite of a functional household, has faded markedly in recent decades. Almost one in three Brits admit to rarely or never eating their evening meal at the dining table. A YouGov poll earlier this year revealed that a third of British children eat their evening meal in front of the TV. The dining table, once the centre of family life, is shunned in favour of meals eaten at the wheel, at the computer, or on the sofa.
The steady decline of the traditional family meal perhaps reflects the changing nature of relationships, work and leisure in the UK today. That's not to say Brits are making less time for sociable dining experiences because they are spending more time at the office, however. We work fewer hours than our parents and grandparents, with government stats showing a gradual decline in how long we spend at the coal face. Brits working full-time spend on average around five hours less a week at their desks than workers in the 1950s.
With increasing amounts of leisure time, why aren't we making time to eat dinner with our families? In reality the decline in the traditional family meal indicates a wider malaise in which our lust for convenience and instant gratification has meant we have lost our emotional attachment to food. We simply can no longer tolerate the hours of preparation that go in to cooking a meal from scratch. When we do manage to sit at the table, we let electronic devices get in the way of proper conversation.
Abandoning the ritual of the family meal at the dinner table in favour of fast food consumed on the go has had a profound effect on the nation's health. As meals at the dining table have declined, obesity has soared. Reared on a diet featuring more and more fast food, Brits born since the 1980s are up to three times more likely than older generations to be overweight or obese by the age of 10.
As food has got faster and waistlines larger, how we conceptualise waste has also changed fundamentally. In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. Whereas an evening meal in the 1950s might have been prepared from fruit and vegetables brought home in a paper bag, now dinner consists of a sandwich from a plastic packet wolfed down on a commuter train.
A recent road trip brought home the lunacy of it all to me. After filling up my car with petrol, I entered the forecourt shop to pay the cashier. As I weaved through the aisles crammed full of plastic-laden snacks, on-the-go foods, and multi-buy chocolate bars, it suddenly struck me. When did we become so comfortable with the insanity of throwaway plastic? Everything in that petrol store was wrapped in plastic in a bid to make 'convenient' for me to grab and go, but with no thought as to what happens when that packaging comes to the end of its useful life.
Plastic packaging is used by the consumer for just a few minutes, but it remains on the earth forever. What price are we paying for this convenience; for this new addiction to fast food; to mindless consumption with no thought of consequence to our own environment and our own health. Which came first - fast food or fast plastic?
Our unhealthy relationship with food is intrinsically linked with our relationship with plastic. We eat for the instant gratification of our taste buds not for the long-term health of our bodies. We use indestructible plastic to wrap perishable food, even stamping a 'use by' date on the plastic that will never be used again but will be added to the nine billion tonnes already clogging up our planet. When are we going to wake up and realise this is the 'smoking' of our generation? There are many correct uses of plastic - but single use plastic food packaging is just madness.
Our insatiable appetite for the empty highs of fast food laden with throwaway packaging is ruining us. For the sake of our children, we can't go on like this.
Earlier this year I founded A Plastic Planet in a bid to change attitudes towards food and the plastic packaging that encases it. We believe throwaway plastic is the smoking of our generation. We have a single aim - a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets. By giving consumers the opportunity to reject goods laden with plastic in favour of more sustainable alternatives, we can call a halt to the havoc that plastic has wreaked on human health and the planet we call home.
Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets. To find out more visit aplasticplanet.com.