Click plate: how Instagram is changing the style we eat


    One in five Brits has shared a food image in the past month, according to a supermarket survey. No wonder the dishes we cook are getting brighter and more photogenic. But does #instafood always taste as good?

    I often post pictures of my food online before I have savoured it. I take the photo, adjust the brightness, contrast and saturation, upload it to my social media accounts and rejoice in how amazing it is. Sometimes, when I go on to eat the food in front of me, I dont even like it. That pretty orange and pistachio thing I induced is bitter because the oranges have gone rancid. The photogenic Italian sfogliatella pastry, which I bought more or less wholly to take a photo of, is actually pretty tough. I am left chewing the pastry long after the likes have stopped percolating in. The interaction was sweet while it lasted, though.

    We love to share our food. Not inevitably in the physical sense, because that would mean giving away something substantive and delicious. That gesture is still set aside for the people around us who we love and care about. But for the rest of the world the school sidekicks and the random followers and our prying household friends we share our food online. We are sharing more food in this way than ever before, and a huge amount of this hungry, food-centric media revolves around food photography and short videos on platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

    Mouthwatering: a blueberry zoothie bowl. Photo: healthyeating_jo/ Instagram

    The annual Waitrose food and drink report, released on Wednesday, focuses on the way in which food has become social currency thanks to how we share and discuss it online. It is impossible to wade through the quagmire of social media without segueing into virtual treasure troves of #foodporn, #instafood and proudly #delicious content.

    According to the report, one in five Brits has shared a food photo online or with our friends in the past month. We have managed to forge what looks like a rare pure corner of social media, where pleasure is the order of the day. No matter the poster or the politics, food glistens bright as something that all of us can aspire to, if only we curate our lives and our diets carefully enough.

    Most of us who document our snacks online are amateurs, but there exists a sizeable, and tremendously profitable, industry of professional food bloggers and Instagrammers, whose pristine food styling sets the tone for a whole aesthetic movement.

    Take Sarah Coates who, off the back of the success of her blog The Sugar Hit and her 36,000 adherents on Instagram, has released a cookbook and shaped a particular niche for herself in the online baking world. Hers is a self-avowedly saccharine, indulgent various kinds of food. Unlike much of the more earnest online food world, her photo are bright, inundated with light and popping with flashes of colour, vibrancy and life. Punchy tones and patterns give the photos a kind of levity, in spite of the( wonderfully) butter-heavy, cloying sweetness of the food itself. Certain foods become emblems with a life of their own: waffles attained in a round waffle-iron; doughnuts glazed or rolled in sugar; funfetti sprinkles. These posts amass huge amounts of interaction from adherents, and spawn food trends of their own. First come the savvy Instagrammers, then the foodie public, and then, once we have all moved on to something new, the traditional food press.

    Glazed doughnuts from the Sugar Hit blog. Photograph: thesugarhit/ Instagram

    Once these Instagram-friendly foods go viral, they can entirely change the route we feed. Breakfast, for example, has shifted from a decidedly unphotogenic cereal or marmalade on toast to the bright hues of avocado toast( there are nearly 250,000 #avocadotoast hashtagged photos on Instagram) and smoothie bowls. Even the humble fry-up has been rebranded, in the hands of the Hemsley sisters, as an oven-baked, meticulously arranged, healthier big breakfast. It looks great and presumably savours awful, the oven tray divided into neat strips of colour, from leathery lean oven bacon to overdone eggs.

    Among the foods billed to gain traction in 2017, todays Waitrose report points to Hawaiian poke and even, in an alarming twisting, vegetable yoghurts. No doubt these will be helped along in the likability stakes with their colourful, snappy Instagram vibe.

    There is a big generation gap in this movement, though. According to the Waitrose report, 18 – to 24 -year olds are five times more likely to share photos of their food online than the over 55 s and that is certainly reflected in the types of cuisine, styling and tone the hell is popular in the online food world. So you are unlikely to find photos of old-fashioned sherry trifles, unpretty Irish stew or traditional meat-and-two-veg snacks, unless its in a shrewdly ironic way.

    A stack of multicoloured macaroons. Photo: Getty Images/ EyeEm

    Instead, there are fun, irreverent Instagram food circles, all funfetti and ice-cream sandwiches, and in a twist that is so very 2016 that it attains my soul scream flamingo pool float-shaped cakes. But just as popular are the serious, aspirational channels popularised by accounts such as @violetcakeslondon and @skye_mcalpine. Here, you will find beautifully shot, intricately staged photographs of the food and, crucially, the lifestyles of successful, creative thirtysomethings. These are wishful odes to how serene and perfect their own lives could be, if only you had the money, the 50 ceramic platters and the time. Perhaps in keeping with the broader asymmetry between the numbers of social media users in different generations, theres a lot less to be seen of older people, or past food manners, in this smart, moneyed, and overwhelmingly young world.

    And yet it would be wrong to assume that this online culture doesnt bleed through to tint the ways that real people cook and eat. For every wildly successful professional food blogger, there are countless amateurs posting the minutiae of their gastronomic day online. Meals that are Instagrammable take, for example, Borough Markets Bread Ahead doughnuts, of which there are nearly 5,000 tagged photos on Instagram become viral content in their own right. These foods become the must-eat and, more importantly, must-document snacks of the moment. Eateries such as Londons Bao maintain punters queuing out the door just through the photogenic strength of one good dish.( For what its worth, I went to Bao to try their cloud-soft steamed buns and the latter are as good as they looked ).

    Running green: fresh avocado and guacamole. Photograph: Getty Images/ iStockphoto

    Increasingly, we are being influenced not only in the types of food that we feed, but how we cook and eat that food. The Waitrose report also states that almost half of us take more care over a dish if we think a photo might be taken of it, and virtually 40% claim to worry more about presentation than they did five years ago. We might include a garnish of picked thyme leaves to bring a pop of colouring to a lemon drizzle cake, even if that thyme doesnt genuinely stand strong against the punch of the citrus. I am guilty of weeding out the messy and the misshapen from a batch of doughnuts or muffins before I take a photo. I might add a glaze that nobody wants, just because it will attain the afternoon sunlight catch and glisten in the furrows of the churros I only fried. Its aesthetic first, taste subsequently and, quite often , no savour at all.

    The old went on to say that we eat first with our eyes rings true here. If people, in the process of preparing their food with extra care, or receiving a perfectly presented plate, are able to savour that food and that moment a little more, all the better. If a home cook can derive a little extra pride from posting their meal online, thats great. Of course, a photograph can never tell the whole story when it comes to something as tactile, personal and intimate as food, but this isnt about having it all. It is about having fun.

    Posting food on social media can reframe the ways that we interact with food on a fundamental level. When we document the food we feed, taking is high time to savor, share and even be proud of it, we also destigmatise it. Although #cleaneating, weight loss and #cleanse food photograph on Instagram have created a shaming, toxic subculture of foodphobia and guilt, there is a still greater clique of foodie social media that rallies against that nastiness. People in recovery from eating disorders are able to chronicle their recovery and celebrate each morsel of food that they are able to eat. In the absence of positive depictions of plus-size people in the mainstream media, social media affords fat people a place where they can subvert the expectations of shame, shyness and prescribed dieting foisted upon them by a fatphobic world. Posting your snacks online whether they are healthy, unhealthy or none of your goddamn business can be a freeing act.

    A perfect snack for two and thousands of adherents. One of Ruby Tandohs pictures on Instagram. Photograph: ruby.tandoh/ Instagram

    If you want to post your meal online, post away. Upload a picture of that sausage and mash. Dont worry that the illumination is dim, that the gravy sloshes in a swampy pond across your plate. Sharing is a generous act, but perfectionism smothers that goodness. Upload the unfiltered, ugly pictures of your failed birthday cake, or your fish and chips in grease-soaked newspaper. Or, if you want to fuss over the exact positioning of four blueberries on top of a smoothie bowl for an hour before you tuck in, do that but dont forget to enjoy your food. Eat what, and how, you want.

    I keep a food diary. It is only a list in Biro on narrow-ruled paper, in a notebook embossed with a gold hotdog. Everything that has really made my tastebuds sing goes on the list. Hot and sour red lentil soup; a mint chocolate Magnum; hot crumpets with butter and Marmite the words alone create their own various kinds of moreish verse. No great dinner goes forgotten and, in theory at the least , no culinary mishap is repeated.( Though, truthfully, I have built the same rubber-boot flapjacks once a month for the past two years .)

    This is Instafood v1. 0, the analogue version of the slick, glitzy food media that has taken root online. There is a world of difference between my garish notebook and that good-looking social-media culture, but their function is one and the same. Taking the time to enjoy and to document the meals we feed is a cathartic luxury. It is almost as nourishing as the food itself.

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