It was considered a crime to waste food during the war, according to 92-year-old Marguerite Patten.
And she should know, being the woman who helped housewives make the most of their family’s rations during World War II.
Nowadays planning a week’s meals down to the last carrot or saving a few pounds by chopping, mixing and cooking leftovers into a new dinner would seem like too much hard work to a lot of people.
But it’s these lost skills that are to blame for much of the 6.7 million tonnes of food we throw away each year. A third of all the food we buy is now thrown into the bin and half of it is still perfectly edible, according to the government’s waste reduction agency, Wrap. You’re throwing away one bag of shopping in three, it says.
This wanton wastage is not only costing us money – up to £400 a year – but is hurting the environment: the methane released by decomposing food in landfills is the most potent of greenhouse gases. Cutting it out would be the same as taking one fifth of cars off the road, says Wrap.
Put simply, we waste too much food and need to return to wartime values of thrift and resourcefulness, says Wrap.
But the simple basics of food planning have been scraped into the bin, along with the leftovers, say those who lived through rationing and still live by the lessons it taught them.
“Youngsters don’t seem to know anything about shopping,” says 82-year-old Maureen Smith. “They don’t even make a list, they just pluck whatever takes their fancy of the shelf. It just seems daft to me, you probably end up with a lot of food but nothing you can make a decent meal out of.”
“Back then if you didn’t use every bit of food you’d end up with nothing to eat,” she says. “You were proud to use everything because you felt you were helping the war effort – we all felt we were pulling together. Using leftovers also felt like getting a free meal and that was satisfying in itself.
“Today people are used to getting whatever they want, they feel entitled to everything and think nothing of throwing stuff away. I just felt lucky to have a good meal in my belly – I still do.”
Price of progress
The skills of managing the larder – fridges were nothing more than a dream to most – were valued and passed down the generations.
“I just grew up with it, I don’t remember my mum throwing away anything,” says Ruth Bond, who at 55, was born in the era of post-war austerity. “It was just part of life and in our psyche – it still is. The skills were passed down through generations, you’d sit and watch your mother cook.”
But over the years such skills have become less and less valued, argue some. There are many reasons for this, often political.
“Teaching proper household skills wasn’t seen as important for years. Part of the reason for this was progress, that women were able to get out of the kitchen and into work.”
But one of the costs was home economics slipping off the school timetable and this has been storing up trouble for the future, says Mr Lang.
“Instead of slipping off the timetable, home economics should have been expanded to boys as well as girls. The problem we now have is that people are being told to plan meals, to use leftovers, to eat more healthily – but who’s going to teach them?”
In fact, the subject remains on the school timetable, although under the aegis of design and technology. Earlier this year, then Education Secretary Alan Johnson promised there would be a greater emphasis on cookery lessons in school, as part of review of the national curriculum.
If teachers are looking for inspiration, they’d be wise to turn to the Women’s Institute. While popular myth portrays the WI as an army of jam sponge-making middle-aged women, the institution was set up in the early 20th Century to help women make the most of the food they had.
The WI is backing Wrap’s campaign with a list of recipes and tips on how to create leftover dishes such as bubble and squeak, shepherd’s pie, chutney and bread and butter pudding.
“They were basic dishes years back but my grandchildren would have no idea how to make them now, they’d just buy them already made,” says Mrs Smith.
One thing that has changed for the better is that such dishes are now considered British classics and seen on the menus of the country’s top restaurants and if it’s good enough for Gordon…
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This reminds me of my fathers green potato scones. Leftover potatoes would be mashed with flour the following day and fried as potato scones. The following day any leftover potato scones were mashed with leftover peas and more flour to produce his green potato scone mix. Leftover green potato scones were thankfully discarded.
George Masson, Glasgow
It’s all very well blaming the loss of skills on schools dropping home economics, but what about learning at home? I’m one of the generation who haven’t received any official education in cookery, but I still have (and use) the skills that are mourned in your article. My mother and grandmother took the time to teach me, and I am taking the time to teach my sons in turn. As a result, my son has been known to guide his pre-school teachers during cookery activities!
The first time I saw ready made bubble and squeak in the shop I knew that I was in another world. Simple cooking is what is needed to be taught, but the basics are no longer just that. How many times do you have the correct leftovers to make a traditional leftovers meal, or anything near it? But fried rice is much easier and more likely to be found. To have leftovers you have to make a meal to start with! Liam
Liam Turner, Oslo, Norway
Like Ruth, I was born in the post war era and my mother always saved lefovers, usually in little pots in the fridge. They were recycled into what we unkindly referred to as ‘Mud Soup’; though it was generally delicious it did look like mud. Your article doesn’t mention that many people kept animals, particularly but not exclusively in the country. A lot of left-overs were recycled to feed the chickens/ducks/goats/pigs which were, in turn, recycled into food. Part of the modern shopping experience is that there is no connection with where the food comes from so neither is there any connection with where it ends up. Food exists in a bubble of convenience, outside which everything is taken care of by someone else.
Edward Alport, Colchester, UK
Re-using left-overs is most commendable, but you have to wonder why so many of us have so much food left over. It would be cheaper, more practical and more sensible to buy less food in the first place. The current figure (from organisations such as WRAP) claims that we waste about 40% of the food we buy and cook. Put another way, every household that buys £100 of food per week is throwing away £40 every week – that’s £2000 per year! To me it’s a no-brainer.
Having been raised in the fifties, with home ec classes and my mother’s instruction in cooking, I’m familiar with all the work that saving money and waste in cooking food requires. How do you think stay at home mothers spent their time? My daughter, a single working mother, simply hasn’t time for that, no matter how much money it would save. And, since I work also, I’m very aware of the small amount of money I can save versus the income I could be earning from the same amount of time. Great idea, but who are the non-working people who will put it into practice?
Mara Grey, Langley, WA, USA
Surely if meals were organized so meticulously and people were hungry due to rationing there wouldn’t be any leftovers?
Oliver Pearmain, Fleet, Hampshire
I wonder how much of this is down to the supermarkets and their “use by” dates. For instance, my local one suggests that loose cheese should only be kept for two days in the fridge and makes no distinction between soft, listeria ridden, cheeses and harder ones like Cheddar. Then there’s the prblem of food miles; veg that I buy from a local farm shop keeps fresher much longer than the stuff from the supermarket which is ready for throwing after a couple of days. There’s also the attitude of the consumer; my wife will throw away packets at midnight on the day the “use by” runs out where I think there must be some safety margin built in and often prepare meals with food that is slightly out of date. I don’t tell my wife and we haven’t died yet.
Chris B, Sudbury, Suffolk
We at home reuse shopping bags as bin liners, mean we don’t have to buy bin bags for all the small bins around the house and now the government are talking about making plastic bags illegal. This would be bad the first thing is that Sainsbury’s bags biodegrade in one year, second I trust a plastic bag more than a paper one, the number of time that American TV and films have shown them ripping, thirdly we would have to start buying bin liners witch would cost us lot and may not be biodegradable We are guilty of throwing food.