Only 16 per cent of UK mothers cook from scratch every day, according to a survey. Many healthy-eating campaigners will be keen to tell you that the other 84 per cent are risking the health and prospects of their children.
Blame is routinely heaped on working mothers – and let’s be honest, it is largely mothers who get shamed about this – accused of neglecting the nutritional needs of their family, filling them up with processed junk and artificial chemicals.
“Cook from scratch”, “ditch additive-laden frankenfoods”, “return to real ingredients that our grandmothers would have recognised”. The guilt associated with not feeding children a “proper” meal is pervasive and reinforced by media messages and social attitudes towards manufactured food products.
It has become commonplace to pour scorn upon women who do not fulfil their “duty” of delivering a continual stream of beautiful home-cooked dishes to nourish and develop their family. Yet for most parents, this is a near-impossible dream.
Advocates long for what they see as a lost world, where nuclear families gathered daily at the table to be nourished by caring, domesticated mothers. Driven by the animated corpse of Victorian misogyny, this movement has created a convenient narrative: the preprepared food products that make lazy women’s lives even easier must be rejected. They are vile, unhealthy and unclean. They are making our children fat.
Such people might do well to read the conclusions of research published yesterday (Archives of Disease in Childhood, DOI: 10.1136/archdischild-2015-310098). It found that home-made meals based on 408 bestselling cookbook recipes for infants and young children are not always healthier than ready meals and convenience products. In fact, on many measures they seemed less healthy: they tended to have a lower vegetable variety per meal and were more likely to exceed maximum recommendations for energy and fat content.
Of course it would be foolish to draw too many conclusions from a small study, but it does question the readily accepted narrative that processed food is inherently bad. As with most simple stories, when you look closely, the reality is far more complex and nuanced. If there is a conclusion to draw, it is that choosing convenient options as part of a balanced and varied diet is perfectly acceptable and should not be a source of shame.
To reiterate: no one should be made to feel the slightest bit guilty for including these foods in their children’s diets. Similarly, the consumption of processed fare should not be thought of as a symbol of society’s moral decline. In many ways they have given us more freedom, time and energy to engage in family life.
My formative years were full of beautiful home-cooked meals, but I have equally fond memories of ice cream, Crispy Pancakes, fish fingers and tinned tomato soup. Foods like these form a rich part of many lives. They can be an expression of love and family values as wholesome and joyful as any meal cooked from scratch.
Every time we shame food choices and advocate the exclusion of perfectly healthy items for moral reasons, we are moving away from the sensible, balanced relationship with food that we really need.