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Location, location, location

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Where do you eat? At home? At work? In your car? In coffee shops and restaurants? Standing up, sitting down, with utensils or just your hands?

What do you eat? Take-out? Homemade? A little of both? Do you do dishes, or do you just toss wrappers in the trash?

Entire publications and companies are devoted to the study of our eating habits, including the research journal Appetite and market researchers. That's unsettling enough, but what does their work show? Not surprisingly, that we eat out, and more, than we ever have before — although we try, or at least claim to try, to eat healthy foods.

The National Restaurant Association's own research concludes that modern American consumers spend more than 46 percent of their food dollar on "freshly prepared food away from home," up from 25 percent in 1955. Smaller households eat out more — presumably because they can afford it more easily — but even 10 percent of "households of six or more" eat premade food at least once a day. 

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of North Carolina have documented our increasing consumption: We eat 11 percent more calories now every day than we did 30 years ago, and even our homecooked meals are bigger, with homemade hamburgers plumper than those served in restaurants or fast-food joints.

In December, CNN reported that, while Americans may be eating more prepared foods than ever before, we still prefer to eat them at home. That may mean take-out or delivery from a restaurant or grocery store, or a meal begun by a manufacturer (prewashed and presliced veggies, for example) and finished by us (we stir-fry the veggies ourselves).

"You want to eat in your house, you don't want to really go out," CNN quoted a market researcher. "But you don't want to prepare the meal, or you want to spend as little time preparing the meal." 

Sallie Tisdale, in her book The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, quotes Better Homes and Gardens magazine as lamenting the passing of the family meal, with everyone seated simultaneously around the dinner table. "Everything from juvenile delinquency to drug addiction gets blamed on families not sitting down for dinner together," writes Tisdale. 

Why is the ideal of the sacred meal so powerful? Because, in general, eating together makes us healthier and happier. 

The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported in April 2006 that meals eaten together at table typically had more fruits and veggies than meals scarfed on the run. And the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has concluded that teens who eat regular meals with their families are less likely to smoke, drink, and generally run off the rails.

As Nancy Gibbs pointed out in Time magazine last summer, the shared family meal shines "on those evenings when the mood is right and the family lingers, caught up in an idea of an argument explored in a shared safe place where no one is stupid or shy or ashamed."

The sit-down meal, savior of society.