The Working Waterfront

The toil and time of breakfast

‘A lot of work’ includes the wrong factors

By Sandy Oliver
Posted 2024-02-01
Last Modified 2024-02-01

Somebody recently told me that millennials weren’t eating as much packaged cereal as they used to because pouring milk into it and then cleaning up the bowl afterwards took too much effort. I thought, surely that’s apocryphal. Nope.

In 2016, the Washington Post reported that cereal sales were lagging and by various means the cereal makers determined that a whole generation of Americans determined that pouring cereal into a bowl, adding the milk, then eating it, and then (egad!), washing the bowl afterwards was more effort than grabbing a breakfast sandwich or a disposable cup of yogurt to woof down while on the way to work or school or whatever. The main obstacle here seems to be washing the bowl.

I wondered how much time it would take to perform the act of eating cereal. My experiment took me four minutes and 43 seconds to complete, from opening the package and pouring crispy rice and the milk into a bowl which I had left in the cupboard on purpose to add verisimilitude to my experience.

Lots of us islanders have eaten our breakfast while sitting in line; it’s a time-honored practice.

Collecting the bowl and handling the cereal and milk alone took 56 seconds. It took more time to eat it than anything else I did, then I went to the sink, and rinsed the bowl out. If I had a dishwasher, the machine would take it from there.

Briefly, I toyed with the idea of imagining I had to race to the ferry or miss the boat, but decided not to, at the risk of making myself unwell by gulping the cereal. As it was, rather than use my spoon to get the last mouthful, I opened wide and dumped it in, probably saved two seconds, thereby. Lots of us islanders have eaten our breakfast while sitting in line; it’s a time-honored practice.

Had I stopped at the market and picked up a breakfast sandwich, it would have taken more time to park, get out of the car, go inside, select the sandwich, stand in line at the cash register, swipe a card, and go back to the car. Maybe I’ll give that a try soon, just to see.

Of course, I wouldn’t have to wash anything except maybe wipe grease off my chin afterwards; and I’d add a helpful bit of crumpled foil to the load at the transfer station.

Because I like to grow a lot of my own food, prepare it for eating (like peel carrots), do a fair amount of cooking from scratch—that is, not opening packages of pre-made this and that to toss together into a casserole—but actually chopping vegetables and meat, sprinkling seasonings and grating cheese myself—I often hear, “It’s a lot of work.”

Sometimes it is. I think making ravioli is lots of work. Preparing a multi-course dinner, carefully fixing several dishes so they all come out at the same time, takes steady activity and attention, but it isn’t like hauling lobster pots, spending hours on your feet with patients in an understaffed hospital, or creeping on your stomach in creepy crawl spaces repairing plumbing.

Sometimes “a lot of work” is code for “pay attention.” Being mindful, observant.

The question still is what else can I do with the four minutes and 43 seconds I spent getting a cereal breakfast together? I suppose comforting a sobbing child, embracing a loved one, telling a joke, or actually, all three! Or doomscrolling.

One missing piece is whole-household help. Even of households shared by a couple with kids, few required young ones to pitch in. A couple I know acknowledge a bit of push back, but find, ultimately, that the youngsters learn how to appreciate a sense of accomplishment. How many times have you observed that even very young ones bounce up and down in the kitchen saying, “Can I do it, can I do it?”

Anything we don’t do for ourselves still needs doing, so the next question is how does that happen? Well, we do have robots, various mechanized servants like vacuum cleaners, chain saws, and food processors. If we buy pre-washed lettuce, someone or something had to rinse it, dry it, package it.

Here on Islesboro fellow-growers Pam and Michael offer a popular pre-washed salad mix. Michael plus a couple of gadgets do the work; the effort chips away at an already slim income margin. Seriously, is washing your salad how you want your farmer to spend time?

You better be working towards world peace with the ten or so minutes you save. Just don’t let me catch you on your phone.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro. She may be contacted at