Like language, clothing and logical thought, it has long set us humans apart from other animals.

However, our ability to cook could be lost within just two generations, according to a food expert.

Science writer Nicola Temple has warned that the skill may die out among the majority of Britons, in the same way the ability to sew – once considered a necessity – has dwindled in the modern world.

Mrs Temple, who has published a book on processed food, told the Edinburgh International Science Festival that its popularity can be put down to simple convenience. Those who buy ready meals and takeaways are happy to expose themselves to additives and preservatives because they have decided – for whatever reason – that they no longer have time to prepare their own meals.

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In a lecture on the future of food, she said: "We're always on the go – other than the weather, we love to talk about how busy we are. But the average person in the UK watches three and a half hours of television every day so I think we need to be honest about whether we are too busy to cook or whether we just actually don't want to cook."

More people are opting for ready meals because of the dwindling importance of the family unit and of sitting down together to eat, she said.

Single-person households are also more widespread and single people are less likely to make meals because it may seem too much effort or lead to wasted leftover ingredients. After asking how many in the audience would feel confident sewing their own outfit for an evening out, Mrs Temple said: "I definitely could not do that but my grandmother would have been able to do so and my great-grandmother definitely would have been able to do so. In a couple of generations we have lost a skill, and we now rely entirely on clothing manufacturers to make our clothing.

"My question is, in a couple of generations are we potentially going to lose the skill of cooking? That is very concerning." After the talk, she warned that within two to three generations it is possible many of us could lose the ability to cook entirely, in the same way we have lost these other domestic skills in the past.

Just as most of us now opt to buy clothes off the rack rather than produce our own, ready meals can appear relatively cheap and more convenient.

The average person now spends 34 minutes cooking an evening meal, compared with an hour in the 1980s, and more than 1.6billion ready meals are consumed for dinner every year.

A survey by the Co-op of millennials – those born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s – also found more than a quarter are not even interested in learning how to cook.

Mrs Temple's comments came after it emerged yesterday that the amount we spend on takeaways for home delivery has soared by 73 per cent in a decade, thanks largely to the popularity of online services such as Deliveroo and Just Eat.

She added: "People are obsessed with food, which means they are obsessed with watching cooking shows and the Great British Bake Off. But these people are not obsessed with making their own food all of the time.

"This shift from preparing our own food to watching people prepare food as a form of entertainment is concerning for several reasons, not the least of which is that we are passing over the responsibility of what goes into our mouths – what nurtures us and keeps us healthy – to others."