“Food preferences are learnt behaviour. Frequent, positive exposure to healthy food and consistently eating less sugar changes our sense of sweetness. Ditto salt.” Bee Wilson, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, 2015
Eighty per cent of processed food has sugar added to it, including some surprising offenders: one of the high-street chain Eat’s soups, for example, contained 36g of sugar (autumn squash and maple soup, Nov 2015) – the equivalent of nine teaspoons, as much as a regular can of Coke. The World Health Organisation recommends that an adult eats no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day.
We’re often told that ready meals aren’t cheaper or quicker than cooking from scratch – and that can be true. There are many cheap, healthy and delicious meals you can make in less time than the 25 minutes it takes to heat a ready meal in the oven, and if you make big batches and freeze leftovers, you can microwave them as quickly as a ready meal too. Cooking from scratch can also be significantly cheaper than buying pre-made, particularly if you’re buying takeaways for a family, which can easily cost as much as a week’s worth of fresh ingredients.
However, cooking from scratch is often not cheaper, particularly if you’re buying decent quality meat, and it usually does take a bit longer. It needn’t break the bank, or take all day, but even so, the benefits of making your own will always hugely outweigh the extra pennies and minutes spent.
Top of the list of reasons to bother is flavour. A plastic tray of lasagne never, ever tastes like one that has been made at home. It doesn’t matter how ‘up-market’ or pricey the ready meal, a dish that has been mass-produced in a commercial kitchen/factory, then sat in plastic for two days before being heated in a microwave will taste like the sarcastic shadow of the tempting photo on the packaging.
Cooking your own meals puts you back in charge of your body – and your families’. You are never going to add nine teaspoons of sugar to a portion of soup made on your hob. You only have one body, do you want to leave it to the mercy of huge companies whose main focus is cutting costs and increasing profits? Cooking puts you in charge of your health, of how much salt and sugar you eat, and how many unpronounceable food-laboratory chemicals. Ready meals often contain a big whack of your daily salt and sugar intake, and the portion sizes are usually misleading – the nutritional information might be for half the pack, when most people will easily eat the whole thing.
The other thing cooking from scratch puts you back in charge of is the food chain, both local and global. Anna Lappé’s quote has become a cliché, but let’s say it again: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” This is never as true as eating: something as mundane as lunch allows you a vote, every day, on the hugely important subject of who has produced your food, and how.
- Was British farming supported, where possible? Buying locally can return £3 to the local economy for every £1 spent.
- How was it transported?
- What conditions were the animals raised and slaughtered in?
- How many pesticides were used on your fruit and veg?
- What were the working conditions on the farm/processing plant?
- Are the ingredients sustainable (foods like seafood, palm oil, meat and asparagus raise big questions – this doesn’t mean they’re off the table, but careful sourcing is important)
It’s not about being holier-than-thou or self-denying, it’s about bridging the gap between where our food comes from and how it ends up on our plate. It’s so easy to pick up a pre-cooked chicken without considering the chain of events that lead to it ending up on that supermarket shelf: what kind of life did it lead? What did it eat? Why is it being sold for less than £5? You’re not just buying a chicken, you’re buying into an entire system of food production – and that is hugely empowering.
Changes for the better are happening all the time because we have not been prepared to accept the standards that accompany the cheapest possible food: caged hens are now illegal across the EU; enormous multinationals like McDonald’s are only using Marine Stewardship Council-accredited fish for better sustainability; over 8,000 schools have been awarded the Soil Association‘s Food for Life Catering Mark, a sign that the meals being served to those children are mostly hand-made from better quality ingredients.
From world affairs to kitchen sink drama: cooking is fun – honestly! Once you’ve cracked the basics, time in the kitchen is time to explore, to research, to play, to create. Where else in life do you get to perform magic tricks with everyday items? Where else do you get to see such immediate benefits, both in health and enjoyment, for yourself and your family? When you’ve built your confidence up sufficiently, which won’t take as long as you think, a world of possibility unfolds and you’ll find cooking becomes a hobby, not a chore: a way to travel the world through food, experiment with flavour and new skills…all while listening to something funny on the radio and, maybe, sipping a glass of wine.
You want the best for your family; you want to stay fit and healthy; you want to save money; you want to create; you want to relax – you want to cook.