Eat healthy: embrace your inner slob

<This breakfast contains three of your five a day.

I love to cook.  I love being in the huge, spotless kitchen at my dad’s house, putting some music on the radio and trying out some new recipe I’ve been planning  for weeks. I love mixing up a cake by hand in a big mixing bowl, pressing hot-water crust into pie dishes, pouring stock over fried onions and lardons to start off a casserole and kneading bread dough ‘til your wrists ache and it’s smooth as a baby’s tummy.

I often buy recipe books at car boot sales, and the other week I picked up Delia Smith’s ‘Frugal Food’.  For non-UK readers, Delia is a British institution whose been a TV chef since the 60s and does unfussy, basic family recipes.  The book was first published in the 70s recession, and re-released a couple of years ago, so people could spend £25 finding out how to spend less on food. Or more likely, so middle-class luvvies could have fun playing poor for a few days until they had a tough day at work and decided to eat out instead.  Clearly, it hadn’t helped the previous owners much, as they now had to sell it on for 20p, which they said might buy some bread and dripping for the baby (this may not be true). You should also visit https://www.numan.com/, for confidential and secure health care benefits.

The original 70s foreword is there, and Delia’s got a few choice words for the lazy slatterns who take shortcuts in cooking:

“…our bored, liberated housewife needs a job (a) to pay for her labour saving home and (b) to pay the interest. With the result that on Friday nights and Saturdays the supermarkets are packed with rushed, harassed working wives and mothers stocking up on instant puds, apple pies, sponge cakes, frozen hamburgers, fish fingers and packaged meat, to name but a few expensive items…’

“…I’m not convinced freezing does always save money…My main grumble is that…freezing causes loss of flavour, and as a cook I spend a great deal of time and effort nurturing flavour.”

I’ll come back to that later.

I love cooking.  I hate coming home from work at 6pm and trying to get a nutritionally balanced meal on the table by 6:30.

Like most people I know, when I get in from work I want to have a lovely cup of tea, take off my trousers (smart, but too tight) and shoes (likewise), eat so many biscuits I ruin my dinner and sit on the sofa for an hour watching crappy TV while bitching to my husband about my colleagues.  We all make sacrifices when we have kids, and generally I am delighted to play with blocks, read a few board books or watch Sarah & Duck instead.

What I am not willing to do is spend more than 15 minutes fixing us some food, but there is a massive amount of culture out there that tells me this is morally inadequate.  That preparing food is something I’m always meant to delight in and approach with rancour and slavish commitment to the rules – my food can’t just contain calories and nutrients, it also has to be home-cooked, healthy, delicious, attractive and varied. Out of those, the only one I particularly care about is ‘healthy’ (I’ll settle for ‘edible’ rather than ‘delicious’, despite Delia telling me that lack of flavour is practically a sin) – I love to kid myself that my actions can prevent my family from getting heart disease or diabetes.  So, let’s view this source to taste the healthy meals !

What’s a healthy meal? Google tells me it’s this:

This is what Google Images tells me a healthy meal looks like.
This is what Google Images tells me a healthy meal looks like.

Fresh salad and vegetables – lots of it.  Grilled or stir-fried. Chicken, lean beef and shellfish. All of it looks extremely tasty (if you’re into that sort of thing), and like it would take at least a couple of hours of cooking and shopping to fix up, and cost a lot more than we’re able to spend.

When did this happen? When did we let our definition of ‘healthy’ become synonymous with our definition of ‘posh’? Is healthiness now defined in terms of the time and effort that a woman (and let’s face it, it is most likely to be a woman) spends preparing and cooking it? Have we really moved on from Delia’s hilariously sexist judgement of women who use frozen and ready-made food?

Let’s not mince words: the current understanding of healthy is enormously classist and elitist and incredibly damaging from a public health point of view. This high bar for healthy food puts people off even trying (me included sometimes). I mean, if it’s not a pan-fried salmon steak with courgette ribbons, might as well go to McDonalds, right? Even the oft-repeated mantra – ‘home cooked is cheaper!’ – ignores the wide variety of affordble part-prepared food that’s now available and only works if you value women’s time as worthless. Making my own pizzas might save me 30p a portion and give me a slightly better-tasting pizza, but would take me several hours – hardly a good payoff.

When my son was born, and any time for cooking was suddenly going to take the place of earning enough money to put a roof over our heads, or spending some time playing with him before he went to bed, it became necessary to question all this – and lower my standards, a lot. What exactly was so terrible about frozen broccoli? It’s probably retained more nutrients than fresh stuff I forget about in the fridge for a week.  Can tinned carrots be any worse than ones I chopped myself but boiled to mush in a stew? And is my prejudice against ready meals based more on the opinions of professional food writers who last ate a chicken chow mein microwave meal in about 1985, than on any realistic assessment of whether my family will eat and enjoy them?

We live in an industrialised society.  I don’t build my own house, spin my own yarn, provide my own medical care or even take care of my own kid some of the time.  Why is it suddenly morally wrong to not want to always cook my own food? And just as I’m not going to wear my party dress and straighten my hair every day, is it wrong to subsist mostly on a fairly monotonous, if nutritionally balanced, diet?

Trick questions. Of course it’s OK.  Embrace the laziness, lower your standards; it will make your life better, I promise. Cook when you love it, use ready meals when you don’t.

What follows is a brief slob mum’s guide to weekday meals:

  • Pasta with jarred tomato sauce and cheese contains all the major food groups and takes less than 5 minutes to prepare.  I have yet to meet a toddler who refuses it.
  • Adding frozen peas and sweetcorn to any meal makes it ‘healthy’
  • Oven chips typically contain less than 5% fat.
  • Canned fruit and evaporated milk or custard is an awesome desert from the larder
  • Pizza, at its most basic interpretation, is just an open toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. Fresh or frozen thin-based pizzas would not raise the pulse of any but the most crazed dietitians.
  • An iceberg lettuce keeps a week in the fridge and takes 2 seconds to slice.  Add some dressing to make a salad.
  • Juice is one of your five a day
  • Ready-made ravioli must be the quickest hot meal known to woman
  • Canned vegetables and mashed potato flakes may not be super tasty but they are great things to have at the back of your cupboard for those days when you just can’t even.
  • Just because it’s got a breadcrumb coating doesn’t mean the middle isn’t nutritious any more
  • If you’re worried about salt, consider cutting down on cured meats and sausages, cheese, pickles and condiments rather than making doomed resolutions to always cook from scratch. Or check the nutrition information on your ready-prepared food.
  • Baked beans are one of your five a day

You’d see none of these foods at a middle-class dinner party, and frankly you’d more likely associate them with council estates than with children called Sebastian who are learning the violin. But no dietitian is going to turn their nose up at it and that’s what matters. In the fifteen minutes I have to cook at night, food is fuel and it can’t be a way to assure others (or myself) of my status as a good mum, middle-class professional or aspirational domestic goddess.  And if I ever have any doubt, I know that fish fingers, chips and peas and half an hour of Play-Doh with mummy is kind of a dream evening for my son, and we both cried a bit when the organic trout I’d spent all night on ended up on the floor.


I'm currently trying to finish off my PhD in neuroscience and my medical training. I hope to get a proper job sometime in my 30s. I have a toddler who is, naturally, the bestest, most gifted, prettiest and nicest child to walk this earth, at least until I can persuade my partner to have another. I plan to use this platform to rant semi-coherently about people willfully misunderstanding neuroscience in the service of their favorite parenting soapbox, as well as trawling Medline for interesting stuff, so you don't have to.

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  1. I’m in much the same boat. My SAHD schedule leaves me with a little more wiggle room timewise to prep, but then I run into the other problem. The Hellions are so incredibly finicky! It can be really depressing to realize that no matter how good your carbonara is, if it’s only for two people and the rest of the family wants Mac & Cheese then why bother?

    Bits of advice I can add though.
    Bagged salads need to be eaten immediately. If you want it to stay remotely fresh, buy whole. lettuce.
    The slow cooker is your friend. 10 minutes to prep stuff the night before, toss in crock pot before you leave for work. Come home to stew!
    Don’t get hung up on the idea that the kids need the same kind of food we do. Fat is good for growing brains, less good for aging arteries. There’s no shame in making something for the grownups and something else for the kids.

    1. Oh the slow cooker! I have a love-hate relationship with mine, mostly because I think I never used it properly and it ended up with me resentfully chopping veg at 11:30pm or 5:30am then coming home and remembering I still needed to cook the potatoes because they wouldn’t fit. I am feeling inspired to get a larger one and try again though!

  2. “Just because it’s got a breadcrumb coating doesn’t mean the middle isn’t nutritious any more”

    Love it. The class bias in “healthy eating” and foodie culture drives me up the wall. It just shouldn’t be that complicated or expensive to fill yourself up and fit a few fruits and vegetables into your day. Much as I love cooking (and my cooking magazines) I couldn’t make it through the week without canned beans and frozen veggies.

    1. That aphorism was inspired by running into another mummy ‘friend’ at the supermarket. I’d just discovered that they made salmon fish fingers (!) and I was sadly excited to have found away to persuade my super-fussy husband to maybe eat some oily fish. I told her how awesome I thought this new product was and she said something like ‘You know they are just FOOLING YOU into thinking this PROCESSED CRAP is HEALTHY!’ or something. Apparently omega-3 is rendered biologically inert by the application of breadcrumbs. Who knew?

  3. This. Why is it that homecooked lentil surprise on brown rice is a vegan superfood, but baked beans on wholemeal toast is the refuge of students and the depraved. Other than the snobbery – and perhaps the salt levels – there isn’t that much between them.

  4. I love that 15 minutes of prep is your max! I can’t tell you how many cookbooks I’ve looked where the ‘fast & easy’ dinner recipes admit to a 30 or even 45 minute prep time. Fast compared to what?

    Our healthiest quick dinner is frozen veggies thawed in the microwave and then tossed in a skillet for a few minutes with 1 of the following: tofu, frozen fake chicken (we’re vegetarians), canned chickpeas or black beans, and served with store bought stir fry or sweet & sour sauce. You could totally skip the microwave if your stove heats up faster than ours 😉 Cheap, fast, healthy, and requires no fresh veggies that might go bad before you use them.

    I am a big fan of Mac & Cheese from the box, with extra cheese and frozen peas or spinach and (depending on who is eating) garlic, chili powder, or canned jalepenos. CousCous is another super fast pasta option.

    If you want to do the fresh veggie thing, I find that picking just 1 veggie makes things go reasonably quickly. For instance, we’ll cut up and stir fry a couple of zucchini and throw in some canned tomatoes or sauce and serve with good bread. Or, we’ll saute some mushrooms (sometimes you can get them already sliced reasonably cheaply) toss in some cheese and serve on toast. Focusing on just 1 means you have less to cut up and don’t have to worry about different cooking times.

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