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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 September 15; 335(7619): 566.
PMCID: PMC1976491
From the Frontline

An inconvenient truth

Des Spence, general practitioner, Glasgow

As a child I was good with a knife. Preparing 4 kg of potatoes in 10 minutes—anything was preferable to milking the goat. No ready meals for us. At school the air was thick with the smell of burnt toast and the sound of bubbling cauldrons of custard, for home economics classes were compulsory. At university I worked in a restaurant washing dishes, graduated to vegetable preparation, and eventually specialised in making the starters. Later, armed with a Delia Smith idiot's guide cookbook, I discovered a passion for food and cooking. Cooking, however, has become mere “entertainment,” ever more voyeurism, and about the celebrities rather than the food. We are losing our food culture.

This is the era of the convenience meal in all its guises. Our main streets are full of takeaways: fish and chips, Chinese, kebabs, pizza, and Indian. But at least there is a degree of honesty in these colourful shop fronts. We pull into the supermarkets and stuff our trolleys with ready meals of couscous, duck, Jambalaya, deluding ourselves that this is proper food, but these are just takeaways too, processed imitations of real food, stuffed full of hidden calories, salt, and preservatives.

But our children fare the worst; in a society that venerates the needs of children they have become culinary Napoleons. They eat only what they like, and so what they like becomes all that is offered. Junk explanations are offered: food “allergies” or “intolerance.” Behind the closed doors of many of our most affluent households, no one cooks, and kids get processed foods, with fat chance of escaping obesity or eating disorders. Our society is “allergic” to accepting responsibly, so it is all the fault of advertising and the food industry. Our children's diet is parental passivity at its worst. All the excuses about time or cost are just that: excuses. We got what we wanted—wealth, comfort, and, above all else, convenience—but on the way we have lost much.

The Lancet has just published evidence that food additives adversely affect conduct (doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3). This is not much of a surprise. But the real issue is our consumption of processed convenience foods. We need to value our traditional food culture, reconnect with food production, and see cooking as importantly as we do the “three Rs.” Schools should relinquish their blinkered obsession with academic performance and instead be filled with the smell of burnt custard. Likewise, families should give up the pointless merry go round of tutors and extracurricular lessons and use this time to prepare food together. Children can learn to do something positive with knives rather than just seeing them as something that teenage gang members wield. Let them cut their fingers and burn their hands. Believe me, this is considerably safer than milking a goat.

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