Guilt for Dinner Guilt for Dinner

Guilt for Dinner

by Denise Gershbein

February 26, 2010
design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. This is the last installment in a miniseries within that blog, which has run every Thursday for six weeks.

At every home, we started with a sit-down interview to ask the participants about their behaviors. After that, we had them show us the food in their kitchen. They displayed the insides of their cabinets, refrigerators, freezers, and pantries. Finally, we asked them to cook a simple meal of their choosing, after which we’d all sit down to eat together.

The part I found most interesting was how participants’ attitudes shifted when they switched from telling us about their behavior to showing us what actually went on in their kitchens. Time after time, no matter how healthy or clean or “good” a person said they were about cooking and eating, as soon as any of them were forced to show us what was in their pantries, they became self-effacing, guilty, and embarrassed. There were no exceptions. Everyone understood that they should be eating well, cooking nutritious meals, and being healthy, but they all felt like they were failing, regardless of the truth.

The research revealed to us an incredible pattern of guilt and aspiration in how people eat—an embedded cycle of should/don’t/want. Our research subjects believed there existed an ideal they had to live up to, but none of them thought they could meet that standard, so they felt guilty. And yet they continued to aspire to that goal.

I’ve since noticed that pattern in many other programs I’ve been a part of, and not just ones dealing with food. I think it says a lot about consumer culture: the culture of empowerment and being the best you can be, and the ubiquity of material objects—those things that are always available to buy and own, things that represent you, and your worth in the world.

Denise Gershbein is a creative director in frog’s San Francisco studio.

A version of this piece appeared in the May 2009 issue of design mind magazine.

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Guilt for Dinner