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Retro eating with a 21st century twist

Retro eating - main

As part of its efforts to tackle obesity, the government is promoting a return to traditional customs like cooking meals from scratch and regular family mealtimes. But how relevant is family life fifties-style in the fast-paced, technology-driven 21st century?

The nostalgic image of the fifties family is encapsulated in vintage ads for products like Carnation Milk or OXO cubes, depicting cosy mealtimes with mum serving home-cooked fare to a contented family day after day.

Turn the clock forward half a century and the image is of a family where mum and dad arrive home exhausted after a busy day at work with just enough time and energy to pop some ready meals in the microwave and round up any kids who can be prised away from their computers or video games.

According to the government, a culture of ready meals, fast food, sugary snacks and fizzy drinks is contributing to rising levels of childhood obesity. As part of its "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives" strategy, it is promoting a return to some traditional family customs that have all but died out over the decades, such as regular family mealtimes and cooking meals from scratch.

"Too many people just accept they cannot cook or simply do not have time for it," says the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls. "We've lost touch with making basic dishes from scratch."

But do modern families have either the time or the motivation to adapt their busy, often stressful daily routines to accommodate customs from an era when most women didn't go out to work and the microwave wasn’t even invented?

The healthy eating challenge: then and now

In terms of food choice, the contrast with life in the 1950s couldn’t be greater: while mum struggled to feed her family within the constraints of rationing, these days we have an almost unlimited range of fresh, frozen and processed foods to choose from.

Despite rationing in the first half of the decade, family diets in the fifties still contained more bread, vegetables and milk than our children consume today. The fifties diet was higher in saturated fat, salt and sugar, however, and there was much less variety with the same meals being served week in, week out.

With fridges yet to become a standard household fixture, the fifties housewife shopped locally each day for fruit and vegetables, dairy products, meat and bread. Availability of fresh produce depended on what was grown locally and what was in season.

Families would sit round the table and eat their main meal together each day, which typically would consist of meat and two veg, followed by a hot dessert such as rice pudding or a fruit pie and custard. The concept of the ready meal was unknown (unless you count opening the odd tin of spam!).

Despite the huge choice of fresh ingredients we have today, demand for ready meals in Britain grew by 44 per cent between 1990 and 2002, according to an Ofcom study that looked at the impact of TV advertising on childhood obesity.

Today, with both parents likely to be working, finding time to shop for ingredients and prepare a meal from scratch each evening presents a challenge even for those with the best of intentions. As Ofcom’s report acknowledges, "An abundance of processed products which don't need forward planning and require little if any preparation time, make it easy to produce food for children quickly and conveniently."

The number of occasions a family eats together has plummeted over the decades since the 1950s, and time spent on food preparation each day was estimated at just 20 minutes in 2000. While supermarkets have been reporting soaring sales of ‘comfort foods’ such as shepherd’s pie, casseroles and custard since the onset of the credit crunch, we’re buying them ready prepared, rather than making them at home from scratch.

What we can learn from the fifties household?

One useful lesson in home economics we could learn from the fifties housewife is to plan meals for the week ahead – and always make a list before going shopping. In the face of the recession and tight household budgets, the government is keen to stress both the economic and the health benefits of home cooking.

According to Ed Balls, "Proper cooking and budgeting means that you can prepare nutritious meals cheaply even in the face of rising food prices. It puts you in charge of your own health so that you can avoid salt, sugar and fat, unlike with ready meals."

Planning meals in advance means you can pick recipes that use the same ingredients, which helps reduce costs by minimising wastage. "If you have butternut squash on your list, for example, use half in a beef and vegetable stew one day and the other half in a risotto or soup another day," suggests nutritionist Sarah Schenker. "Or divide a tub of half-fat crème fraîche between a pasta dish and moussaka."

In contrast to the fifties, preparing food from scratch doesn’t have to involve hours in the kitchen. Modern appliances like pressure cookers and microwave ovens allow us to cook stews and casseroles in minutes. And, by making more than we need, we can have a supply of home-cooked ‘ready meals’ in the freezer for days when no one has the time or inclination to cook.

Our culinary horizons have also broadened significantly over the decades, and a stir fry or pasta dish that can be prepared from scratch in next to no time are popular and practical options for a family supper in the 21st century.

Here are some more time- and money-saving tips from Sarah:

  • After a Sunday roast chicken, make use of all the remaining meat and bones. Use leftover meat to make a tasty chicken risotto, and the carcass to make homemade stock with any leftover raw vegetables such as celery, carrots and onions – much healthier and lower in salt than bought stock cubes.
  • A low-cost can of kidney beans, butter beans or chickpeas can be used to bulk up a meat dish like a curry or chilli con carne. The beans are a good source of protein, as well as fibre and starchy carbohydrate.
  • Don’t be put off using canned or frozen fruits or vegetables. They all count towards your 5-A-Day and are great stand-bys when you’ve run out of fresh fruit and veg. Look for fruit canned in juice rather than syrup and vegetables in water rather than brine to keep the salt content down. You can add frozen vegetables to soups and stews, and frozen berries to yoghurts and porridge for natural sweetness.
  • Get the children involved with planning meals and allow them to experiment with different ingredients. This is a good way to encourage them to eat vegetables. They can jazz up a simple couscous dish with a range of chopped leftover vegetables, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.
  • Young children love to be in the kitchen. Use day old French bread and leftover vegetables to make simple pizzas, allowing them to choose and assemble their own choice of toppings.


With families cutting back on the number of occasions they eat out and spending more time at home, now is an ideal time to teach kids to cook and get into the habit of preparing and eating meals as a family, says behaviour expert Judi James. For some strategies and tips from Judi to help turn the vision into reality, have a look at this month’s supporting feature.

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