In 2013 retail analysts tracked the shopping habits of 30,000 Britons and found that Britain’s cookery skills and habits were in decline. Despite our obsession with high profile chefs, cookery books, and foodie TV shows, data compiled showed that consumers, particularly those who were short of money, time or both, were spending a bigger share of their food budgets on unhealthy frozen and chilled products.
According to Kantar Worldpanel, the average time taken to prepare the main family meal had reduced from 60 minutes two decades ago to around 32 minutes across all social groups– a sign that many households did not have the time, resources or confidence to devote to home cookery (Guardian, 2013)
Depressingly, the decline in ability to cook is a trend that is not going away at any time soon. A 2015 Good Food magazine survey found that young people are spending more on takeaways, despite earning the least, because they don’t know how to cook. The same survey found that an astonishing 14% of young adults ate no fruit or vegetables. (Telegraph, 2015)
Why is this a problem?
Fact – The nation is getting fatter! Between 01 Apr 2017 to 31 Dec 2018 there were 711,000 hospital admissions in the UK that were attributable to obesity, this represents a 15% rise from 2016 / 2017. In the same period adult obesity levels rose from by 3% to 29% of the population and 20% of year 6 children were classified as obese. Shockingly, the prevalence of obesity was over twice as high in the most deprived areas of the UK than the least. (NHS, 2019)
In 2018 the charity Barnardo’s warned that the government was sleepwalking into a crisis of children’s mental health. Almost 400,000 children and young people a year in England are being treated for mental health problems, the highest number ever, NHS figures show. Experts have warned that there is an unfolding crisis in young people’s mental health linked to increased pressure to do well at school, body image issues, the influence of social media and difficult family backgrounds. (Guardian, 2018)
In January 2019, the Environmental Audit Committee published their latest report on the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK follow-up: Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK. Amongst the major findings was the fact that food insecurity is significant and growing in the UK, with levels among the worst in Europe, especially for children.
The charity Feeding Britain highlights that 3 million children in the UK are at risk of going hungry during the school holidays.
With the loss of free school meals given out during term time, in addition to the extra childcare costs around the holidays, families already struggling with low budgets find it difficult to feed their children. The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report on hunger shows that hunger amongst children during the school holidays may exacerbate inequalities that already exist between children from wealthier and poorer backgrounds. Those children most at risk of hunger during the holidays may also suffer from social isolation, loneliness, and inactivity. These factors combined can lead to significant weight loss or gain, and negative impacts on physical and mental well-being (Feeding Britain, 2019)
Avoidable food waste
According to Wrap, the non-profit organisation which works to reduce waste, an estimated seven million tonnes of perfectly usable food is thrown away by families annually. That means we throw away a fifth of what we buy, of which 60 per cent could have been eaten, including 86 million chickens a year and six homemade or pre-prepared meals a week. (Daily Telegraph, 2014)
Seven Million tonnes of avoidable food waste equate to enough volume to fill London’s Wembley Stadium nine times over. Avoidable household food waste in the UK is associated with 17 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. Diverting this food waste is equivalent to shutting down 4.4 coal fired power stations for a whole year.
How does improving cookery skills solve the problem?
Poor physical & mental health, food poverty and environment impacting behaviours are complex problems and require a multi-layered approach to finding sustainable solutions. Cookery alone is not a magic wand, however, its impact and importance as part of a multi- agency approach is often overlooked.
In the case of childhood obesity there has been a long-held belief that an increase in physical activity is the panacea for weight gain, but physical activity must be secondary to calorie consumption. No one can outrun a poor diet. Purely educational approaches are also ineffective and may only serve to widen the inequalities between the wealthiest and poorest in our society. The relationship between household income and educational attainment is widely documented. The Low Income and Dietary and Nutrition Survey suggests that lower levels of education among parents are associated with lower nutritional knowledge or concerns, which could in turn lead to a less healthy food environment. (Guy’s & St. Thomas’ Charity, 2019)
Good physical health is intrinsically linked to good mental wellbeing. The National Mental Health Development Unit found that poor physical health is a significant risk factor for poor mental health, that positive mental health and well-being protects physical health and improves health outcomes. Early provision of advice on promoting physical health for people with mental ill health will help to increase well-being and prevent development of physical health problems.
Self-determination theory suggests that there are three essential foundations to good mental wellbeing; Feeling in control, feeling a sense of achievement and feeling a sense of belonging all things that can be achieved through the process of cooking from scratch for oneself and, more importantly, for others. Veenhoven (2008) states that the cost implications for good wellbeing are as beneficial as smoking is detrimental.
Writing in The Spectator in 2012 former MP Laura Sandys questions the effectiveness of food banks as a long-term solution for eradicating food insecurity, suggesting that they are symptomatic of a crisis and not a cure. Sandys goes on to say that what is required are innovative means to support families on the lowest incomes who are really struggling. There are commonly held misconceptions that cooking from scratch is more expensive than relying on a diet of, often unhealthier and less palatable, pre-prepared or convenience foods. Cooking from scratch does require skills and know-how. If we are to really dodge a Dickensian back-slide into nutritional recession, society needs to recognise the invaluable importance of learning from the earliest age how to prepare food and cook balanced tasty meals on a budget. Being able to feed yourself on a budget is an essential life skill and arguably as important as numeracy, literacy or science.
Evans & Welch (2010) intimate that the pressure on families to cook healthy meals from scratch may actually be contributing to a large proportion of the seven million tonnes of food waste. It is suggested that the ideal of eating freshly prepared meals together as a family unit is at odds with the reality of conflicting deadlines, competing priorities and appeasing fussy eaters. The result is a fridge full of uncooked ingredients heading straight for the dustbin. In 2018, a survey commissioned by Hello Fresh found that a quarter of British people could only cook three dishes. The research also found that those questioned were ‘stuck in a rut’ when it came to trying new dishes because of a lack of kitchen skills or confidence. Practical interventions are required to realise healthy and laudable aspirations.
How is The Let’s Cook Project addressing these issues?
Since incorporation in 2017 we have reached over 23,000 combined beneficiaries across the country and have shared with them the skills, knowledge and confidence to cook from scratch. This has been achieved through a combination of direct training and train the trainer programmes and attributable, in no small part, to the enthusiasm and dedication of our Projecteers at the frontline.
As we move into a new decade we are exploring ways to reach even more people through face to face cookery sessions as well as harnessing the power and convenience of the digital age.
We will continue to hold our values of treading lightly, harnessing and sharing expertise and advocating good health in our quest to see the nation’s kitchens full of activity again.
- Home cooking in decline as low-income households turn to ready meals. Available at (https://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/sep/05/home-cooking-decline-low-income-ready-meals)
- Young people spend more on takeaways than any other age group because they don’t know how to cook Available at (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/11910964/Young-people-spend-more-on-takeaways-than-any-other-age-group-because-they-dont-know-how-to-cook.html)
- Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England, 2019 available at ( https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet-england-2019)
- Sharp rise in under-19s being treated by NHS mental health services Available at (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/12/sharp-rise-in-under-19s-being-treated-by-nhs-mental-health-services)
- UK food poverty now a public health emergency, Available at (https://www.endhungeruk.org/2019/02/07/uk-food-poverty-now-public-health-emergency/)
- Holiday Hunger. Available at (https://feedingbritain.org/donations/holiday-hunger/)
- Feeding Britain: from potatoes to bananas, the tonnes of produce thrown away every day. Available at: (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/agriculture/food/11279606/Feeding-Britain-from-potatoes-to-bananas-the-tonnes-of-produce-thrown-away-every-day.html)
- Bite Size Report Available at (https://www.gsttcharity.org.uk/sites/default/files/Bite_Size_Report.pdf)
- Improving wellbeing through healthy choices. Available at (http://www.mas.org.uk/uploads/artlib/improving-wellbeing.pdf)
- “We need a recipe to solve food poverty” Available at (http://foodfoundation.org.uk/we-need-a-recipe-to-solve-food-poverty/)
- “Pressure to cook and ‘eat properly’ leads to more food waste than Bogofs” Available at (https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/food-waste-meals-sustainable-consumption)
- “One in four British people can only cook three recipes, survey finds” Available at: (https://www.independent.co.uk/extras/lifestyle/british-people-cooking-recipes-kitchen-skills-food-dishes-survey-a8409586.html)