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Why Even Meals?

You could take this time to make yourself elaborate dinners from scratch. Or you could treat every meal like after-school snack.

snack with pistachio nuts, apples and string cheese Shutterstock

In 2010, The Awl asked a question that has haunted me for a decade: Are You Lunch? In it, Choire Sicha ruminated on a fundamental experience of anyone who has worked from home, rummaging through one’s fridge and cabinets to cobble together a plate that’ll tide you over without too much effort. A few things presented themselves to him as lunch: leftover Raisin Bran, a handful of Maltesers, some cornichon. It was all lunch. Because what even is lunch?

The blog was supposed to point out the often depressing reality of working from home, of the way we’ll let our lives deteriorate when there’s no one else to each lunch in front of. But there’s part of me that finds the Lunch Game incredibly freeing. You may think you need to keep up appearances, whether for your Instagram or for your own sanity. But meals are a social construct. It’s time to embrace chaos.

We already knew that, as adults, we could eat whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. Having to commute into an office never necessitated cereal and fruit as solely a breakfast food, and ice cream for dinner without anyone yelling at you certainly makes up for having to pay rent. But something about orders to avoid human contact, to spend maybe more time than you ever have in your own home, has further broken down these mental barriers about what a meal should be. For many, meal times have shifted from whenever they are “officially” designated to whenever you start feeling hungry.

Personally, I have also begun to reject the notion of “meals” altogether. Right now, I could make myself a hearty lunch out of the eggs or frozen dumplings in my fridge. I could easily throw together Marcella Hazan’s tomato butter sauce, or another batch of dal and roti. I could consult my Instagram, or this very website, for tips on making a sourdough starter, or shaping cinnamon rolls, or making a dutch baby (why is everyone making dutch babies??). But as much as rolling out dough and watching it rise can be a balm, it is also a chore. And you know what’s not a chore? String cheese.

Let me make the case, instead, for snacks. Snacking has been co-opted by the wellness crowd, twisted into “intuitive eating” and “grazing” and bled of all joy. But getting through orders to avoid human contact means embracing all the things that working from home allows, which includes snacking with abandon. Lunch can now be a rice cake with peanut butter, a piece of chocolate, and a clementine. Breakfast is four bites of leftover fried rice eaten at 11 a.m., and dinner is the rest eaten at 4. Every meal in one day can be pasta and butter if you want. Everything is after-school snack, a pure treat instead of a meal haunted by the specter of “should.”

It’s not like mealtimes, or meals themselves, were ever uniformly rigid. In plenty of ancient cultures people ate one huge meal in the middle of the day, and in many countries, lunch is still the biggest, longest meal, and breakfast essentially a snack of a cookie and coffee. The Industrial Revolution standardized breakfast, with workers needing a meal to sustain them at work. And growing up, my Southern grandma would make Sunday supper at 4 p.m. Meals are defined by the needs of the societies they exist in. And right now, the most prevalent society you’re engaging with is in your living room, so you have some permission to chill.

Still, I understand the urge to turn to the structure of full meals at “traditional” mealtimes during a time when we can’t even know what life will look like a week from now. And I could never judge soothing one’s anxiety with elaborate recipes and baking projects, taking two days to properly laminate croissant dough or spending an entire afternoon rolling out pasta, or setting the table for dinner at 7 p.m. and having your partner pretend to be a server by pouring you a little taste of wine and repeatedly asking “and how is everything?” (yes, I’ve done this).

But there’s something to be said for not acting like these are normal times, and for allowing one’s comfort food to not look like something out of Food & Wine magazine. Perhaps maintaining a sourdough starter is what truly relaxes you. But perhaps it’s actually being released from the obligation to do anything. Doing the bare minimum of feeding yourself with baby carrots and packaged hummus is enough.

Your croissants will likely never taste like the ones at your favorite pastry shop, but a Babybel cheese and an apple will always be there for you, at any time of day. Your leftover cacio e pepe will taste as good at 9 a.m. as it does at dinner. Now, more than ever, there is nobody to impress. Free yourself and eat some crackers.

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