<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).
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 think of some healthy meals then!
What’s a healthy meal? Google tells me it’s this:
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.