From rations to ready meals: the transformation of the nation’s diet

A new BBC Two living history series, Back In Time For Dinner, explores how the food we eat has changed by taking a modern family, the Robshaws, back to different 20th-century decades. The show’s food historian, Polly Russell, talks to Jonathan Wright about food, fridges and filming…

Q: How much have our food habits changed since 1950 [where the series starts]?

A: Food habits change incrementally, but in Britain the change, within living memory, is dramatic. It’s not just the food we eat but the ways it’s produced and how it’s sold that have radically altered.

Although Britain has a rich culinary past – over many centuries Britain incorporated foods and tastes from around the world – the nation’s diet in the middle of the 20th century was significantly shaped by two world wars. With rationing still in place until 1954, food supply immediately post-war was limited, and the post-war diet, compared to today, was conservative and relatively bland. Eating in meant meat and veg, and eating out meant fish and chips. Forget olive oil, garlic, coriander, basil, or any number of ingredients we regard as staples now.

Today we eat food from around the world; are as likely to eat a ready meal, a takeaway or in a restaurant as we are to cook from scratch, and our supermarkets are stocked with tens of thousands of products. But though the food landscape now is almost unrecognisable from only 60 years ago, older customs and tastes have not disappeared. Roast dinner is still a Sunday tradition in many homes, for example. 

Q: How much have our alcohol consumption patterns changed?

A: A lot! We used to be a nation of beer and spirit drinkers. We drank mostly outside the home, in pubs, and men did most of the drinking. Post-war, alcohol consumption in Great Britain has risen per head of the population, more than doubling between the mid-1950s and late 1990s. The most significant changes have been the widespread drinking of wine for men and women, and the consumption of alcohol in the home, which has been driven by the sale of cheap alcohol by supermarkets and off-licenses.

Q: Does Back In Time For Dinner reveal a story of class?

A: The series allowed us to explore how diet is connected to economic issues. Simply put, early on in the experiment it was not only the lack of choice that limited the family’s diet, but it was also their lack of funds. Relatively speaking, food was much more expensive in the 1950s and 1960 – a third of household income was spent on food, and the impact of this would have been felt most obviously by those with smaller means.

The Robshaw family enjoys a TV Dinner. (BBC/Wall to Wall/Duncan Stingemore)

Q: How important is technology to this story?

A: Open the fridge in most people’s kitchens, pick out any item at random, and it will tell an extraordinary story of technological developments in production, farming, packaging and mass retailing.

A packet of chicken breasts is the result of intensive poultry farming, automated processing and the development of refrigerated transportation; a simple bag of lettuce is only possible because of experiments with new seed varieties, the establishment of airfreight, and the use of modified atmosphere packaging. In the home, fridges and freezers have meant food can be stored for weeks or months, contributing to an entire industry of frozen and chilled foods that were not available even 20 years ago.

Q: Have TV chefs changed our culinary habits?

A: Television chefs reflect the food preoccupations of the moment, and they shape and influence taste. Television chefs like Ken Hom and Madhur Jaffrey introduced the nation to the idea that Chinese and Indian food could be cooked at home, and when a celebrity chef advocates an ingredient such as goose fat, cranberries or bouillon, product sales are boosted.

We may cook less regularly than we did in the past, but now we’re more likely to do it for pleasure – celebrity chefs have encouraged us to have fun with cooking, and to my mind that’s a welcome change.

Q: What was your favourite moment filming the series?

A: I loved visiting the Willy Wonka world of the food flavourist to find out how scientists in the 1970s experimented with the synthetic tastes for processed foods – weird, wonderful, and a little bit scary!

Back In Time For Dinner airs on BBC Two
 on Tuesday 17 March at 8pm. To find out more, click here

To listen to our podcast interview with food writer Mary Gwynn about how our mealtime tastes have changed over the past 70 years, click here

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