Ready meals: 25th February-2nd March

posted Mar 6, 2012, 2:00 AM by Dinner Lady   [ updated May 10, 2012, 1:39 AM ]
I despair! Again, we went well over budget in February, £30 of which can be attributed to our indulgent two takeaways. Takeaways. The ultimate in convenience food. For what could be more convenient than browsing an attractive brochure, dialling a magic string of numbers, requesting your favourite dishes and waiting for that ding-a-ling at the door, signalling "chow's up"?  

Culinary life has certainly become more convenient since our grandmothers played their Dinner Lady roles. Their kitchen life necessitated much pickling, curing and preserving. Now we make jams, chutneys and pickles as a fun past time, a way of sticking two fingers up at mass produced, expensive jars and packages. A way of connecting with nature and the past at once. While my grandmother might have spent hours peeling, scrubbing and cutting; kneading, pummelling and moulding, I have a multitude of electric tools to make this easier.  I can reach for a tin or a packet of frozen produce if I don't feel up to it.  And when I feel just too tired or busy to even venture as far as the kitchen, I have a telephone on me and can, literally, call for help. 

As things become more and more convenient with each generation, will our grand-daughters' take away experience involve sending mental images of their favourite dish through the air waves, knowing it will teleport to them the second they desire it? So convenient, in fact, there will be no need for cutlery, mouths or the exertion of chewing.  Will there be some kind of avatar-esque experience where another version of themselves goes through the motion of actually eating it on their behalf? I hope not.

One of our Rules and Regulations stipulates "Eat home cooked meals; no ready meals".  Oh dear, how the mighty have fallen.  And yet it is very hard to define what a "ready meal" is.  Notice the number of tins of baked beans we have consumed since the Four and a half bellies challenge began. I did not consider this to be a ready meal, more of a tin of (sort of) nutrition to be served along side sausages or with a fried egg, or just on toast when the larder is well and truly empty. I realise though, when I think about it, that it is actually a very ready and far less yummy version of Boston baked beans.  Every time I throw a handful of penne pasta into the boiling water, I think
 how marvellous I am to be making homemade pasta sauces and cooking from scratch. But in reality, I am using "ready pasta", not needing to go through the pains of homemade pasta (now there's another story involving The Phantom of the Opera song, tears and slammed doors: obviously for another time).  And every time I reach for the freezer door and throw some frozen peas into boiling water or a casserole, I am using "ready peas", forgoing the hassle of de-podding and washing.  Surely, for my grandmother and the long line of Dinner Ladies who came before her, dried pasta, tins of baked beans and frozen peas are very ready and convenient. So do they count as convenience food and am I breaking my own rules every time I use them?

I would like to think I am not. For while the Dinner Ladies of the first half of the 20th century might have welcomed the convenience of these items, many were not expected to work outside the house once they had their families to feed.  A greater percentage of women could have afforded help in the form of maids or cooks.  There would have been a greater choice of local shops some of whom might have delivered so the "little and often" shopping approach may have been more feasible.  Their children were not paraded to a multitude of groups, clubs and activities, but were expected to entertain themselves and help out more.  Children were allowed to get themselves to and from school by themselves at a much earlier age, saving precious time from the school run. In any event, food was much more simple, no tins of tomato or coconut milk to make exciting multi-step dishes.  In short, for many of the Dinner Ladies of my grandmother's time, life would have revolved around the culinary needs of the family to a much greater extent than it does now.  But I think many of these women were angry and depressed by their solitary role and lack of mental stimulation.  

As women entered the work place after the second world war, it must have been near impossible for them to run around at work by day whilst running a busy kitchen at home. No wonder vacuum cleaners, washing machines and tins of soup, immortalised by Andy Warhol, soon turned up on the shop floors!  My aunt, who edited a well known woman's magazine in the 60s and 70s, described to me the huge culinary change during those two decades.  Previously, the meat and two veg meal was "fodder to fuel the boiler".  Now women were writing to the magazine, wanting to know how to use the increasingly exotic ingredients that were becoming available, and how to cook a wider range of meals.  
I am glad and so grateful that we Dinner Ladies are now able to work outside the house, satisfying our hungry brains as well as the hungry bellies of our family.  And so glad and grateful for tins of baked beans, packets of dried pasta and frozen peas that make both possible. So why have I shunned "convenience food and ready meals"? They are not bad per se. But when they stop us appreciating the tastes and aromas of good food, when we no longer know where our ingredients come from or understand the processes they undergo to reach us, we run the danger of cutting ourselves off from the reality that most of the world experiences, and that is bad. For how can we be concerned about sustainable farming when some of our children don't know that milk comes from cows or that there are many more hundreds of varieties of British apples than appear on the supermarket shelves?  

rotten or gone off - none!

left on our platesmore crusts, loads that Princess Baby throws on the floor but no major casualties

left overs I have forgotten to use up - none!


Carry forward          £347.01
Butcher                £15.00
Local shop             £4
Total February        £362.01 (£59.01 overspend, and that doesn't take into account our week away and the fact that February is a short month.  Oh dear. MUST try harder next month to stay in budget)
Vegetable box           £19.40
Supermarket            £130.85
Total March so far    £ 150.25