I wasn’t allowed to eat in front of the TV growing up. Mine was one of those mythical families that gathered together around a table most nights and like, talked, over dinner. There were only a handful of occasions when eating and watching were allowed to happen simultaneously, and these most often involved somebody (usually me) being sick. But on those special days, my mother would bring out my bowl of Jell-O or stack of Saltines on one of a quartet of old metal TV trays we kept in the broom closet. And it was magic.
Now, these were not just any TV trays — these were Strawberry Shortcake TV trays, with a pair of metal legs that folded out to elevate the tray a few comfortable inches over your lap. Keep in mind that to a kid in the 1980s, Strawberry Shortcake had the hype equivalent of Frozen, Trolls, Timothée Chalamet, and Animal Crossing combined. But my love for the TV tray had less to do with its spot-on branding, and more with what it symbolized: an invitation for mindlessness.
There’s been a lot of talk over the last several years about mindfulness — an extension of meditation that encourages you to be acutely aware of your surroundings at all times, of the tactile feelings of sitting or standing, of your own breathing, of the sounds and smells around you. This philosophy extends to taste in the form of mindful eating: focusing intensely on each bite, of the sensations of chewing and swallowing, of the various flavors and textures, all with minimal distractions. The idea is that by being mindful of the act of eating — and not, say, zoning out to Golden Girls re-runs while you munch — you’ll appreciate the meal more and avoid accidentally eating an entire box of Captain Crunch by yourself, if for some reason that’s a concern for you. It’s also a fuck ton of work, a little stressful, and generally counterproductive during these times when honestly what you really need is an escape.
Mindfulness is the reason we tell ourselves we shouldn’t eat in front of the TV, and it’s the exact reason why, when I was sick, I was encouraged to. Being ill or sad or trapped inside our house during a pandemic is not the time for being mindful. It’s the time to turn your brain off, to become less aware of the aches and pains in your body, of the steadily encroaching walls of your house, of the fact this is the sixth day in a row you’ve eaten the same pan of pizza beans. It’s the time to bust out the TV trays.
Beyond their symbolic power, TV trays are also just practical. What, am I supposed to just balance my bowl of fried rice over one knee while reaching precariously for my beverage on the coffee table that suddenly feels a socially distant six feet away — hunching over so as to minimize the number of rice grains that will forever live between my couch cushions? A TV tray keeps your posture intact, your dishes secure, your lap dry, your coffee table free for actual coffee and the 17 different remote controls that sit on top of it.
In the 1960s, when TV-tray dining was at its peak, eating in front of the television wasn’t considered a symptom of clinical depression or a sign your marriage was over. It was glamorous. Dinner and a show! At home! And keep in mind this was back when Americans had access to maybe six channels and half of them played some version of Hogan’s Heroes at all times. Sixty years later, our at-home entertainment choices have never been better — or more flexible. No need to limit your TV tray usage to the recliner in front of the living room set. Fold out the TV tray wherever your preferred screen sits at any given time. Binge Too Hot To Handle in your bed or the garage or your fire escape or the bathroom, if you want to, while confidently eating something that requires you to use both a knife and fork — at once! That, friends, is the life.
Sadly I don’t know where those Strawberry Shortcake TV trays wound up, but when my aunt died of cancer a few years ago, my family got together to sort through the stuff in her house and pulled out a few wood-patterned formica TV trays from her front closet. She’d lived alone her whole life, adored TV and movies, and no doubt enjoyed many a meal on top of these trays. Nobody else wanted them so I ambivalently threw them in the back of my car along with a few other boxes of trinkets and took them home.
I’d forgotten all about them until last week, when I dug the trays out from my garage, dusted them off, and set them up in front of my couch as I turned on a Friday marathon of My Lottery Dream Home on HGTV. I don’t remember what I ate, and honestly, that’s the point. For a good 90 minutes I ceased to be a person stuck in my house far from my family in the midst of a global health crisis. I was just a pair of eyeballs and a mouth watching, eating, and escaping — and not a single drop was spilled.