Rationing memories

Judith Wills / 20 March 2015

A new BBC series looking at British food of the 1950s brings back memories of rationing for diet and wellbeing blogger Judith Wills.



I expect many of us watched the first part of the BBC's fascinating new series, Back in Time for Dinner, on Tuesday evening. This part asked a typical modern family to go back to the Fifties and recreate some common meals from that decade.

Rationing of goods such as sugar, meat, cheese, eggs, butter and many other items was still in force in the early days of the Fifties until, finally, rationing of all foods ended in 1954.

Born in 1949, I've few memories of family meals before I was three, but I do remember rationing and can still picture my father (not, as the programme suggested, one to sit and be waited on by his wife, even in those days, but more than happy to muck in and cook or prepare food for us all) handing me a plate of bread covered with dripping for my breakfast or lunch, and how I would tuck in and enjoy every mouthful. I still like the dripping from a roast meal today.

I can remember having a bowl of 'bread and milk' for supper – bread soaked in warm milk with a little sugar sprinkled on top, which I also thought was delicious. And I can picture now the tempting stews both Mother and Father would cook using a variety of root vegetables, greens and onions, plus small amounts of mutton or beef from the meat ration and sometimes with baked beans added for flavour and extra protein. Indeed, one of my favourite suppers was canned baked beans on toast with a sprinkling of grated cheese from the quite meagre cheese ration, on top.

We loved liver and onions (offal wasn't rationed after 1944) but my parents cooked the liver well, unlike the cardboard offering cooked by Mum in the TV programme, and toad in the hole was another favourite (sausages weren't rationed either), often made with dried eggs, as the fresh egg allowance was small.

Our portions of the rationed goods were always small, often tiny, and needless to say, we were all slim.

When confectionery and sugar rationing ended in 1953, it made little difference to the way we ate. Sweets weren't something we ever thought about and sugary things weren't something we craved – not like the young son in the BBC's family, who jumped up and down and screamed with delight when his (few) days of sugar rationing ended!

Maybe I was an unusual young kid; maybe most people hated the diet of the times but honestly, I don't think we did. We ate to live but, because we were properly hungry by the time a meal time came around, we DID enjoy our breakfasts, our lunches, our teas, our suppers. And we appreciated the rare treats all the more.

Our family, like many others I suspect, continued with many of its 'ration' habits even when rationing ended, and it wasn't until the late Fifties that we would even consider the very occasional treat between meals of a bag of Smith's crisps or one of the exciting new Bounty bars. I guess that was the start of the slippery slope to overindulgence.

I look back with fondness on the Fifties, rather than in horror as the Back in Time for Dinner participants no doubt do, of their short while attempting to recreate the diet of the day. It was an almost perfect blueprint for how to stay slim and healthy.

At the start of World War Two, the renowned UK food researchers Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson conducted an experiment for the Government, getting volunteers to eat the most meagre form of a food rationing diet for three months, while performing strenuous outdoor activity. At the end of the trial, the guinea pigs' health and fitness were very good, their nutrient intake – including vitamins - had met official guidelines and, unsurprisingly, no-one carried surplus weight. The fact is that rationing improved our health; infant mortality declined and life expectancy rose.

The last thing we want is another war. But it might be good somehow to find a peaceable way to stop the proliferation of food imports that are the major cause of our chronic obesity problem, just as the last world war stopped most of our food imports back in the day and was the major cause of the rationing.

Around 40% of what we eat today is imported. So maybe 'eat local' 'eat British' is the best diet of all. Oh, and small portions, of course.

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