Over the weekend an article was published in a newspaper with Bake Off judge Prue Leith complaining that the British public don’t know how to cook.  Although she condemned the ability of many younger people to cook anything decent in the kitchen, she targeted poorer families, stating that the ‘the middle classes’ can ‘eat extremely well’ without cooking, while many poorer families who can’t afford that luxury ‘haven’t learnt to cook’.  She continues on in the article explaining that the poorer classes in Britain today aren’t teaching good table manner or cooking skills to children.  But is this really true, are poor people useless at cooking and eating healthily?  Or could there be other reasons why the nation struggles to eat and cook good food?

A view on eating habits

Comments like this have been made many times before by many different people.  There are many reports and studies that suggest the poor in society are eating unhealthily and that their lack of cooking skill is responsible for the obesity crisis.  But while there is a problem with obesity in this country, and indeed around the world, are the cooking skills and abilities of the poor really to blame for everything?  Prue Leith was speaking at a literary festival in Stratford-upon-Avon, as the article on Saturday’s Daily Mail showed.  To quote the Daily Mail, she said:

‘If you have got money, you can eat extremely well without being able to cook. You can go to Waitrose shelves and pick up yourself a beautiful salad, trimmed beans, you can even get salmon, with all the really nice ingredients and just shove it in [the oven].

‘But you need money to do that. If you’re poor and you have not learnt to cook, and that’s the problem. You haven’t learnt to cook and your mother hasn’t learnt to cook and your granny hasn’t learnt to cook.’

She continues to add that this has caused three generations of bad cooks and spoke of families eating diets of ‘chips and pizza’ rather than ‘vegetables and good food’.  She then states that teaching at schools is to blame and that the government needs to intervene in the problem of childhood obesity.  Prue Leith’s comments were met with mixed responses although most people following the article online tend to agree.  But as someone who spent most of their childhood in a poorer household I can say that not only do I disagree strongly, but I also feel offended by the lack of understand and respect to poorer people.

The many reasons

I know how to cook and learned the skill both from my own family, something which according to Prue Leith is impossible as there should be generations of non-cooks in my family.  I watched my family cook good food but I also, at times, ate the ‘bad’ foods like chips and pizza.  Eating healthily while on a tight budget is not always possible and many don’t factor in the fact that cooking takes time as well as money.  One barrier poorer families have to cooking is that they simply don’t have the time.  Many parents just don’t have the time to cook as they work long hours.  Even those without children (as well as those with) might have to work several jobs (a growing reality with austerity and zero hours contracts), or very long hours for low pay, so just don’t have the time to spend cooking when they get home.  For many people with little time on their hands the best option to eat is to have a ready meal or something fast like that.  This doesn’t mean that these people never cook, but I personally went through a phase of a couple of years where almost every meal was pre-made as there just wasn’t the time to do the cooking, not even of something like pasta.

On top of that people who lead busy lives will struggle to have the energy to cook and many people today suffer from a wide variety of problems, particularly if they live in poorer circumstances.  Things like depression and chronic fatigue affect a large amount of people today and depression especially is far more likely to occur when someone is worrying about bills.  When you are depressed (as I and I’m sure many others can attest to) you don’t feel like cooking so fast food or a ready meal is convenient and easy to make with little effort.

Another major factor affecting people in poorer households is also the price of food.  It is no secret that a lot of ready-made, easy to heat up, ‘bad’ food is cheap.  Often these foods are so cheap as their ingredients are less than healthy with a lot of nasty fats and other additives which bulk up the product with little cost to the manufacturer.  That’s why these foods are often very cheap and when comparing the prices of some vegetables and fruits on sale (a small packet of peas still in their pods cost me £2 the other day!).  It’s not always a matter of choosing those bad foods because people can’t cook the vegetables, it’s the fact that they get more food (no matter how bad) when buying these cheap items rather than fruit and veg.

Prue’s solution

In the article Prue Leith explains how schools need to tackle the obesity problem and how this should be done the way they do in Finland.  She states that children should not be allowed to take any foods into school at all, that their breakfasts should be at school where it can be controlled, just a ‘yoghurt or a piece of toast’ and then should eat nothing until lunch so they feel ‘pleasurably hungry’, this pleasurable hunger supposedly will make kids accept and try new foods.  Some of what she says is actually a good idea.  In an ideal situation schools should give children the chance to eat breakfast there and then have lunch which is healthy and nutritious.  However the reality today is that schools still do not always offer nutrient packed meals and with current funding, it’s a wonder that they can afford to run breakfast clubs at all.

School meals many decades ago were healthy in Britain, I even drank milk for the first couple of years at school as it was an added health benefit, until the government abolished the scheme.  Along with abolishing milk for children they also got rid of healthy school meals and schools have been more reliant on cheap foods and making money through cafeteria style lunchrooms.  This isn’t easy to abolish with funding (although there was some progress some years back) but even if it is, children should still be taught and given the option of choosing to eat something healthy rather than forcing them which can lead to problems mentally, like depression and a variety of eating disorders.  Also as a type 1 diabetic myself, having the school control my diet would have been a nightmare (my school wasn’t good at understanding my disabilities) and keeping unhealthy snacks was always necessary.

The reality of schools and life

The problem with her comments on the poor is that it doesn’t look into the reasons why people don’t eat healthily and sometimes people of any class want to eat bad food.  But rather than slamming people who are poor let’s instead ask the question of why there are many who can’t cook.  It is true there are people who didn’t ever learn to cook and whose family maybe didn’t cook much beyond dishes like pasta.  But it’s not enough to state that it’s just the poor who are useless at cooking as many poor people DO hand down the skills to their children.  The middle classes may be able to buy something at Waitrose, but using trimmed beans and salmon suggests at least some cooking skill which many middle class people do not have.

The real question might be why some people don’t know how to cook and it could be the fact we just don’t learn it at school.  I studied HE (Home Economics) for the first three years of secondary school, but we never made actual food in that time, only baked cakes and biscuits (oh, and bread from a pre-made packet mix).  Schools could help teach kids and teens to make dishes that are simple, not fancy but simple things like how to cook pasta correctly and rice, etc.  Learning to cook simple things will give children confidence to cook and this would go a long way to addressing why some people can’t cook.

But the real reason behind the obesity crisis among children is not as simple as being a matter of parents not cooking at home.  Kids themselves  can and do learn to cook but just don’t want to take the time to cook meals at home or for many just can’t because of other circumstances.  The real reason behind obesity is very complex and involves both practical issues like knowledge and finances and psychological ones as well.  The nation won’t stop being fat because we all follow the Finish model and as Prue Leith says, ‘sit down and eat in an old-fashioned way, knees up, and learn good table manners.’

What do you think about Prue Leith’s comments?  Do you agree that people can’t cook?  What are your thoughts for tackling obesity and eating bad foods?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂