Britain can’t cook, won’t cook. Should we care?

A year ago we set up a tiny community garden on the verges of our barren car park. Not a great deal grew in the first season, but what we produced we tried to give away, sometimes without success.

“What will I do with it?” asked J as I offered him a bunch of dirty carrots. A few days ago, I got a glimpse inside J’s fridge. Everything was pre-packed, microwave or oven ready, accompanied by step-by-step instructions. J doesn’t cook and he is not alone.

A review for Defra by Best Foot Forward highlighted that one in six people say that they cannot cook. Most of us now cook only one meal a week from basic ingredients. Just one in eight mothers cook from scratch every day and almost all are turning to pre-prepared foods to feed their families. One third of us skip breakfast and as many won’t eat vegetables because they are a hassle to prepare.

Chatting at meals is good for our children and the rest of us, yet one in two meals are eaten alone (a third of us live alone). Three quarters of our food is consumed while doing something else like watching TV.

Best Foot Forward argues that part of the issue is a “plethora of messages around food miles, local food, organic, Fairtrade etc. have generated a degree of market place confusion and consumer dissonance.” Perhaps. What I hear talking to friends and neighbours is that food, especially the preparation of it, is in their peripheral vision. They are among the six in ten of us that say that food is not as important as social activities. People don’t cook any more, they just eat.

This debate is not just about what goes into our mouths, it also concerns what our non-cook culture does to our bodies. Obesity and diabetes are on the rise, reducing the quality of life for too many people. Food-related ill health costs the NHS at least £6 billion to treat each year. It even transpires that choosing healthier food is better for the environment.

Of course, food alone is not responsible for our growing weight and declining health. We simply don’t exercise enough. Over the last eight years, the average number of walking trips we make has fallen by more than a quarter.

So what are do we do about this? Should diet and exercise be left to communities and individuals? Is this another issue for schools to pick up where parents fail? What is the role for politicians and government? Do we nanny, nudge, or nonchalantly let the issue pass us by? And if we nanny or nudge, will it be effective?

Perhaps we should just lie back and accept the trend towards a nation of coach potatoes. (This expression that is surely out of date in a nation that doesn’t peel spuds any longer.)

I for one don’t want imperious officials telling me what to eat or drink, or how much to exercise. I think it is illiberal to try to control people’s lifestyles at the level of what they eat and how much they walk. But is such a laissez-faire attitude acceptable in the face of the health problems we are stacking up?

We are experiencing unprecedented longevity but seem determined to undermine it with burgers, pizzas and fried chicken.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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  • David Rogers 2nd Aug '13 - 8:52am

    Generally good analysis, but two small comments: COOK carrots – why not eat them raw? And PEEL spuds – why not eat the skins?

  • jenny barnes 2nd Aug '13 - 8:58am

    Raw carrots are relatively hard to digest; if they are cooked you get more calories out of them. And if , for example, you want mashed potatoes, you need to peel them before you cook them. Do you cook?
    I like cooking – but I think a lot of what passes for cooking on tv is mystified out of all plausibility. Basic cookery is fairly easy, but you wouldn’t think so.

  • Peter Andrews 2nd Aug '13 - 9:36am

    We mash potatoes with the skins on, produces a very tasty rustic mash.

  • Martin Caffrey 2nd Aug '13 - 1:42pm

    Spare a thought for the people who have had their benefits sanctioned. They CAN’T afford to cook!

  • richardheathcote 2nd Aug '13 - 2:05pm

    When you see a parcel from a foodbank its filled with the cheapest smart price goods certainly nothing you could get creative with.

  • I endorse Peter Andrews’ views. Also, those who are struggling and don’t see how they can eat well, might help. Granted, he’s right in an inner city and can get foodstuffs many of us can’t, but even so.

    I recall Orwell (who else?) being torn on the issue. He understood the argument that rather than hectoring poor people about good diets, it would be better to do away with poverty. But it’s a shame that, here and now, people vaguely think proper food isn’t for the likes of them when it is.

    And let’s bear in mind, for economic liberals, that via several means (especially the farm subsidy regime that supports large arable farmers and the feeding of their products to huge-scale “farming” of intensive animals), what exists is not a free economic and social system making heavily processed food cheap.

  • Martin: you say that people can’t afford to cook. I would have thought they can’t afford not to.

    I can cook filling meals far cheaper than ready made, indeed most processed pies, takeaways etc can be created more cheaply (and nicer) if you can cook.

    Even a horrid 99p supermarket lasagne or cauliflower cheese can be beaten on price if you buy basic ingredients, cook in bulk and freeze it..

    How on earth families afford takeaways several times a week I can’t fathom.

  • I second the recommendation of a girl called Jack, whose budget home cooking, entirely on stuff from sainsbury’s because that’s the only shop she has access to, is very accessible and understandable. It is FAR cheaper to cook for yourself than buy ready meals IF you know what you’re doing. The fact that many people don’t believe this is proof of how poor our food education has become.

    I don’t usually peel potatoes either.

    Regarding the substance of the article, surely, like all other liberal issues, it’s all about education?

  • I agree with the sentiments of this article … BUT ‘one in eight Mothers cook’ Excuse me, as a Father I cooked several days a week, still do, enjoy it. Being on benefits does not stop you cooking. I have been through periods of my life with very little money, buying raw ingredients does not have to be costly, in fact can be cheaper.
    Just off to my local green grocer to buy the fruit and veg 🙂

  • How many homes these days have the space for a dining table?

    And not just a tiny perch for one person, a dining table where you can have your friends/family around it for a meal that won’t cost your entire disposable income for the week/month/year (nb. people on benefits have no disposable income).

    The cheap-foodie blogs are an interesting source of ideas, but if you look carefully at the portion sizes, you might notice that they don’t meet minimum nutrition standards for the average adult (neither do ready-meals). The skill of the cooking demonstrates that this is purely down to poverty – lack of money.

    Learning to cook is something that is very difficult to learn while in poverty. Who wants to spend half an hour preparing a dish that tastes of nothing, where you still feel hungry at the end of it? The equipment required for even a basic home cooked meal are not affordable on benefits such as the jobseekers allowance – the authors of the cheap-foodie blogs I have seen have previously had well paid jobs, when they stocked up their kitchen with utensils and equipment, and had the spare income and energy to be able to experiment. This is when I was able to experiment and purchase decent equipment, and the difference it makes is incomparable.

  • Andy Boddington 3rd Aug '13 - 7:22pm

    It is perfectly possible to cook cheaply as Ann and others say. But it requires aforethought and careful buying – and some equipment. There is little meal planning among the “can’t cook, won’t cook” people here in Ludlow. There is also a lack of knowledge on how to shop.

    Supermarkets and pre-packed food take away all this decision making.

    We have great schemes. The local college has a strong catering food element. We have a “grow, cook, share” scheme based in one of the poorest areas of the town. Funding runs out at the end of the year but I hope that much of what it is trying to achieve continues.

    I want to get something less formal going on in our small community garden. We are awaiting housing association permission to take over a drying area as our base. Then I hope we can grow and share, and maybe give people guidance on how to cook.

    The project will only help a handful of people, but as the saying goes, “every little helps”.

  • I agree with much that has been said here. It is an important issue. To solve these problems we must:

    1. Get people out of poverty
    2. Get people out of poverty
    3. Get people out of poverty

    As you can see above, this will address many problems in one go. Hurray. Do it.

  • @CP, so how come people in poor Eastern Europe cook at home? Or is it “relative poverty” that is stopping people in the UK cooking at home?

  • Richard Im not sure exactly which ‘poor eastern europe’ you are refering to, but you should look up Purchasing Power Parity, this should answer your questions. 🙂

  • Talking about these issues is a very good test of character:

    1. Talk about some perfectly good people, who have no money. Eg “They have no money, so they can’t afford enough food/time to eat.”

    2. Ask someone what should be done.

    3. If they say “Its because they have no money” – good character.
    If they make personally disparaging or subtly insulting comments about the perfectly good people – character needs improvement!

  • @ CP – I also think people who disagree with me are of bad character so I suppose we cancel each other out on that “point”.

    About PPS , ok, I’ve looked

    and it seems to confirm my experience of actually living in Eastern Europe (Slovakia), namely that there is a world and particularly EU market for commodities such as food, and shops don’t just give it away below market price simply because we are in the East, notwithstanding a few headliners like 50 cent beer in some pubs. The people who move to the UK from the East for the higher wages are not just mugs who don’t understand PPS.

    In any case, as we can observe “non-cooking” at all points on the income scale – this strongly suggests that it is not caused by finance but by culture, as earlier posters suggest. The interesting test would be to see whether or not people from abroad working in the UK are cooking or not (as it is the perfect control group with UK economics but foreign culture).

  • Andy Boddington 4th Aug '13 - 8:14pm

    I am quite struck that Labour’s food strategy fails to recognise that the problems lie not just with supply and procurement, but how food is prepared and consumed in the home (or not). Good food and nutrition can be pulled by the consumer as well as pushed by producers

  • Andy Boddington 4th Aug '13 - 8:18pm


    Love your comment about ” nurturing skill” and the social importance of food. Spot on. I wish there was a “like” button on LDV!

    Mind you, I prefer blackbirds in my pies 🙂

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Aug '13 - 10:14pm

    Right-wingers love to go on about how the welfare state has caused a dependency culture. But they will not admit that their beloved free market has also caused a similar dependency culture. The dominance of big business selling processed food, heavily advertising it, has led to this loss of cultural knowledge of how to prepare your own food from basic ingredients, and so a dependency on big corporations to provide prepared food for you.

    I quite agree the argument that poor people can’t afford fresh food is nonsense – I know I could live a lot more cheaply if I had more time to make up dishes using fresh vegetables and cheap cuts of meat, it’s something I’ve done in the past. Many of our ethnic minority communities still live like this, which is why you see food shops catering to them selling fresh food. However, the loss of cultural awareness of how our ancestors used to feed themselves amongst white British people is such that even the shops and markets that used to sell this foodstuff have closed down.

    On CP’s point, you really don’t need that much equipment, a couple of pots, a cutting knife and a cutting board are enough. You could pay for this on the saving made from not buying ready meals and takeaways for a few days. However, to be sure, if the knowledge on how to do this has not been passed down the generations, it’s been lost. I knew how to cook this way and did when I was a student only because when I was a child that was how everyone ate, and I observed my mother cooking that way, I was never formally taught how to do it.

  • @Matthew – I am not sure if you have kids or not, but I would be interested to know if these cooking skills/habits are still being passed down in your family, to your kids or nephews/nieces. Most people posting here, including me, seem to still cook themselves as they saw their parents do, but believe there are other families where people have stopped – the interesting case study would be the first person in the chain not to follow on from their parents in cooking (and they could tell us why) – but no one seems to be owning up to being that person.
    I don’t know if TV advertising is the cause – I can still sing the Birdseye Potato Waffle (waffly versatile) song from the late eighties but I have never been tempted to actually buy one. I think TV (and for younger generations computer games / internet) is part of the explanation as it has a role in pulling people away from the dinner table and out of the kitchen.

  • The problem isn’t as simple as cooking or not cooking., For example the diabetes, heart disease and obesity rates are in fact very high amongst brits of Indian origin.
    I seem to remember that a few years back there was a report that suggested that the eating habits of the poor were not that different to anyone else’s, Also measuring BMI labels people as obese when they are within a normal healthy weight range.
    To be honest I don’t see that many more fat people walking around my city centre than I did when I was a kid. When I go to my doctor they are sat in supersized seats there either and I’m pretty certain that if I went to hospital it would also not be fully of large people..
    What I think is really going on is that the obesety epedemic rhetoric is a useful tool for demonising the poor as overwaight wastrels and being bossy towards the general population. Medical problems reflect all kinds of demorgraphic fhifts the biggest of which is the result of an aging population.

  • Jock,
    I’ve heard that too. But I think it’s also to do with the propensity of frying absorbent and fatty meats. like. lamb and chicken. The latter is widely perceived as healthier than red meat, but in fact soaks up fat. White Rice again is very absorbent and is a common source of food poisoning. My point is that we make lots of assumptions about the benefits of home cooking when it’s about what is being cooked and in what way. Generally speaking there is just too much fat, salt and sugar in our food. Instead of bemoaning the death of cooking, as veggie I cook all the time, but hate cooking,, we should maybe regulate the content of ore-prepared food better and make people more aware of healthier cooking methods.

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