February 6, 2011 in Features

On this pinnacle day, we look at eating in front of the TV

By The Spokesman-Review
 

In a way, Super Bowl Sunday is a festive celebration of one of America’s beloved bad habits.

No, not football – eating in front of the TV.

Studies suggest chowing down while watching television isn’t good for you. (If you aren’t really paying attention to what you are shoveling into your mouth, it’s easy to consume too many calories.)

In addition, frowning observers of American family dynamics have warned for decades that being glued to a TV while having a meal diminishes any prospect of meaningful communication.

Family member A: “What can we do to give our lives authenticity and meaning?”

Family member B: “Huh? What? Show’s on.”

That’s not anyone’s vision of gracious living.

And yet, many of us continue to feed while facing the hypnotizing glow of the TV screen. Not just at football/commercials-watching pizza parties today, but all year.

“I love to eat in front of the TV,” said Christina Pollock, a church deacon in Spokane. “My favorite eating-in-front-of-the-TV food is spaghetti.”

She doesn’t believe the practice necessarily stifles the free flow of conversation. After all, there’s no law saying you have to watch dumb stuff, overeat and ignore those in the room with you.

“We watch TV while we eat dinner,” said Paul Mackey of Usk, Wash. “I like to watch the news and it’s the best way we can get the kids (ages 8 and 6) to eat because they don’t watch.”

Retired graphic designer John Mraz said he and his wife eat in front of the television “all the time.”

He hastened to note that they are not couch potatoes. And as they typically spend much of the day together, it’s not as if they are depriving themselves of their only chance to talk.

For those who enjoy both eating and watching television, the appeal of combining the two doesn’t require a great deal of analysis to understand. It can be a simple matter of seeking a comfort-zone diversion or even a sense of media-as-companionship.

Nick Britz, a dealer in antiques and collectibles, lives alone in Browne’s Addition. He made a case for viewing while dining: “I don’t have to stare at the wall.”

“Eating at a table designed for four when you are alone is boring,” added Hayley Lockerbie, who works for a financial services firm in Spokane.

This isn’t new. In “The Apartment,” the “Best Picture” winner from 1960, an early scene shows the center-of-the-story bachelor played by Jack Lemmon plopping down in front of his set with a TV dinner. Then he tries and tries to find something worth watching.

You could think of it as multitasking before we had the term.

Back when their children still lived at home, retired teachers Judy and Mike McKeehan in Cheney used to adhere to the family-around-the-table dinner plan. Now that it’s just the two of them, they often eat in front of one sort of screen or another.

Other couples have made similar transitions. In some families, though, the subject is a source of ongoing negotiation.

“My husband and I don’t eat in front of the TV,” said Jan Jesberger of Hayden. “But Emily, our 16-year-old daughter, does, even though we ask her not to.”

And in some families this is a non-issue.

“We never eat in front of the TV for the simple reason that we don’t watch TV,” said Stephanie Eloe, a Post Falls homemaker.

For many, it’s a matter of weighing pros and cons.

Kelly Mathews, who works for a local credit union, gets a kick out of seeing a commercial for a certain treat and realizing she has that very item in her fridge. “Hello, Dove bar!”

On the less appealing side of the ledger would be, “Being totally engrossed in a show for an inordinate amount of time before you notice you’ve slopped chili cheese fries down the front of your shirt.”

Arlie Robinson, a human resources manager who regularly eats dinner near the kitchen TV, summed it up this way: “The pros are you don’t have to talk to your spouse. The cons are you don’t have to talk to your spouse.”

Angela Roth of Nine Mile Falls noted that one occasional drawback is looking up and seeing something disgusting on the screen. “Especially when you just took a big bite,” she said.

Grade school teacher Betsy Weigle finds a certain balance in eating an unhealthy snack while zoning out with, say, a reality show. “Something about bad TV and bad food goes together intoxicatingly,” she said.

Another Spokane teacher, Tiffiny Santos, asked her third-graders to list the ups and downs of eating in front of the set.

“The remote gets sticky,” said one kid.

Well, there’s that.

Still, there is something to be said for noshing while interacting with TV the modern way.

“The DVR allows for conversation to flow just fine,” said Tim Osborn, a college administrator who eats virtually all his meals at home in front of the TV. “Just pause whatever you are watching while you talk.”

Of course, televisions are not the only screens in our lives these days.

Those seeking the true culprits in the 2011 struggle for dominance between actual human interaction and high-tech communication would probably round up a variety of hand-held suspects.

There might be some emerging problems with eating while looking at one of these portable screens. But the truth is, society is still coming to grips with the downside of mixing food/beverages and using a basic personal computer.

“I do eat lunch in front of my computer a lot because no one else is home at that time,” said Amy Garvin, a Spokane homemaker.

“But I live in fear that someday I will spill my Diet Coke and wreck the thing. And then I will have lots of explaining to do because I would never let my kids or my husband eat anywhere near it.”

Once gaining weight and losing touch with your family were all we had to worry about. Those were simpler times.

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