By Iona Bain
Last year, I looked at why food banks have become commonplace in modern Britain – what is it due to a real fall in living standards? Difficulties in finding worthwhile jobs that put food on the table? Or has there been a growing faith in – and awareness of – food banks to provide a sticking plaster when all else fails?
All three factors have played their part, but a further issue began to play on my mind recently; how many people know how to cook with the ingredients they have?
Baroness Jenkin in the House of Lords landed in hot water last year by seeming to suggest that ‘poor’ people cannot make their food last because they don’t know what to do with it. Many critics hit out at her comments, arguing that you cannot produce ingredients from thin air and that extreme poverty cannot be simply alleviated with a quick Home Economics lesson.
A valid point, for sure, and one that Baroness Jenkin and her fellow peers endorsed in a comprehensive report on Feeding Britain at the end of last year. But the report also pointed out the need for more hands-on, intensive support for food bank claimants that includes training on supermarket psychology, food planning and healthy eating.
Who wouldn’t support this initiative? I have talked many times about financial literacy on the blog but what about culinary literacy? In fact, Baroness Jenkin’s comments can be applied to most of the young population, if my experience is anything to go by.
A newspaper column by the journalist Daisy Goodwin recently highlighted a worrying lack of cooking skills among all demographics thanks to a fast-food culture promoted by takeaway firms and supermarkets on every street corner.
The writer referred to a friend who volunteers at a foodbank and kept seeing one client who couldn’t make her food go far enough to feed her children. The mother in question didn’t know how to cook the spaghetti that she received, so the volunteer showed her how to knock up a nutritious and delicious meal, using tomatoes and tinned veggies to make a lovely pasta sauce.
Such such skills not only help you to survive and make your money go further. Creating dinners with healthy and varied ingredients makes a tremendous difference to your quality of life, whatever your income.
Sadly, I know many young people who lack the desire and ability to cook a meal from scratch. Why?
Fantastical programmes like Masterchef and The Great British Bake-off can make us feel very inadequate in the kitchen. Many of us believe that cooking should be of the highest standard, and if we can’t achieve that, we leave it up to the professionals. That means takeaway apps like Hungryhouse and Just Eat have exploded in popularity. If a meal can be delivered to our door, why slave over the stove? The extortionate prices charged by Dominos and other major chains shows our willingness to pay over the odds for a quick, comforting meal. It seems like a very high price to pay for poor organisation.
Young people, especially in urban areas, are also relying a huge amount on mini-stores. Rather than do a big shop for the week, they pop in and out of these stores, spending relatively smaller amounts on ready meals and essentials (and by essentials, I mean booze, chocolate and sweets…no?)
Why defer gratification when food is instantly available at practically any time? But the next time you go into one of these outlet stores, have a think about the ratio of healthy to junk food. Just as importantly, consider the following question; what is the mark up for this convenience? Does a ready meal, a pizza, a fatty pudding represent better value for money than a recipe using thoughtfully sourced ingredients?
Popping into Tesco Express on my road is an eye-opening experience. There are whole aisles devoted to chocolate, alcohol, crisps, sweets, puddings and pastries. It’s a veritable temple to instant pleasures. But try asking for some oatcakes! It’s like asking whether they sell oven-roasted unicorn.
To be fair to Tesco, it has played a huge role in helping foodbanks and their clients by hosting collection days and contributing produce. Other supermarkets such as Asda, Waitrose and Sainsburys have also partnered with local foodbanks to minimise food waste and making sure surplus food goes to those in need. These efforts are somewhat undermined, I think, by marketing techniques to persuade people to buy more food (at a higher price) than they really need.
I have also had the dubious pleasure of inviting a very popular breakfast cereal back into my life recently, as my flatmate (aka my brother) developed a sudden New Year craving for them. This cereal isn’t particularly cheap, especially when you’re getting through pints of milk at a rate of knots. Worst of all, it doesn’t fill you up. You find yourself having another bowl or snacking throughout the morning (or evening, if you desperately use it as a substitute for a meal!)
I hate to come over all pious – I go for the easy option whenever I can. I think proper food planning is one of the hardest tasks of modern day life. I have a made a study of it in recent times as I try to figure out what’s good value, what’s healthy and what’s filling. It’s a challenge but one must we try to tackle every day if we are to function and thrive.
So my first insight would be; soups and stews are a life saver. It’s ideal to plan meals for the week so you save yourself time each day, have the right ingredients to hand AND save money. But if we’re time poor or lacking imagination when it comes to food – and I frequently have both problems – then the slow cooker is your friend.
Here are typical ingredients that go in a slow cooker: tomatoes, stock, vegetables, hummus, pesto, cream, potatoes, cupboard sauces, curry paste, sesame oil, soy sauce, any kind of stir fry, beans, lentils and of course meat or fish. Never put the last two together, though I find finely cut anchovies add great flavour to any meat based stew.
It is often pointed out that you can use less meat in a stew, and cheaper cuts of it, without really compromising the taste. My favourites are mince and lamb but I also use pre-cooked chicken and turkey, both of which are cheaper and take no time to prepare.
In other words, just about anything and everything savoury you can think of. You can even use some stale bread to make croutons on top, or grate some cheese as a topping.
And here’s an extra treat for you. Why not try making this soup in the next week? It’s got ingredients that may already be in your kitchen and it only costs £2.40 per person. Make a big enough batch, add some bread and you have a warming meal for these harsh Winter months. Many thanks to Jona at Soupe du Jour for the suggestion. Bon appetit!