British eating habits

British table trends: microwavers and takeaway munchers

“Because they spend so much time out of the house earning money, many young women in cities like Manchester have never learned to cook. Sometimes their households scratch along, ill-fed. At other times their husbands are condemned to take over domestic duties.” That was Frederick Engels, the industrialist and communist, writing in 1845. But the complaints have not changed much over the decades.

In January 2013 Anna Soubry, Britain’s public-health minister, decried the culture of TV dinners, which she blamed for eroding family life. Celebrity chefs campaign to revive a dying tradition of family Sunday roasts. There was great mirth earlier this month when the Grocer, a trade publication, revealed that pre-cooked soft-boiled eggs would soon go on sale, eliminating even the most basic culinary challenge.

The belief that the British increasingly survive on processed food, cannot cook and no longer eat together is half painfully accurate and half oddly misplaced.

Leaner on greensThe contrast between domestic diets now and in 1942, when reliable records began, is certainly startling. Wartime families ate far more vegetables and fish and about half as many biscuits as modern ones. Even since the 1970s Britons have cut back drastically on green vegetables and have turned to ready meals — especially meaty ones — and salty snacks. This is true of the rich as well as the poor, although working-class diets have deteriorated faster since the financial crisis. Fruit consumption among the poorest one-fifth of households is down by 12% since 2001.

Britons eat out much more than they used to — which means their diets are even worse than those figures suggest. The average Briton eats just three grams of green vegetables in a restaurant each week. He dines out on 44 grams of chips and 75 grams of meat.

Engels was partly right about the reasons for this: harried working mothers have less time to cook. Steady advances in technology — not just freezers and microwave ovens but better containers for processed food — mean they do not need to.

Above all, people have far more choice. The speed with which Britons have abandoned foods like cabbage suggests they never liked them much. Brussels sprouts were once such a staple that they were part of the basket of goods used to calculate inflation. Sprout consumption has fallen by more than four-fifths since 1974.

But if worries about changes in what people eat are well-founded, fears about the decline of cooking and family meals are much less so. Britons are no worse in the kitchen than they were in the past. They are just no better. Most people can rustle up about seven different meals and simply repeat them, says Jon Firth of Kantar Worldpanel, a market-research firm.

That is not all that different from 1950s family meals in which the same dishes — Sunday roasts, leftovers made into cottage pies, sausage and mash — featured every week. And today’s repertoires might at least feature once-exotic dishes such as pasta.

Nor has the tradition of family eating declined as much as is commonly supposed. Britons have never eaten together as much as they like to think. People interviewed in the 1970s about their childhoods in the early 20th century often remembered meals without parents. Posh mothers were commonly off doing charity work; working-class fathers were on unsociable shifts. People still sit down to a roast Sunday lunch, a meal rarely eaten in solitude, 14 times a year on average.

True, the growing numbers who live alone, now 29% of all households, often eat by themselves…..

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