Have you eaten anything ‘sinful’ today? What’s your dirty little food secret, the bad food you reward yourself with when you’ve dutifully eaten the foods that are meant to be good for you? Or are you holding yourself in check, eating miserably, but obediently, while looking forward to a food binge at the weekend in line with the ‘I’ve been good, so I can be a little bit bad’ principle?
I hope this warped language that frames so much of the public discussion around food in Britain bothers you as much as it does me. Almost without noticing it, we’ve allowed our modern food vocabulary to become dangerously skewed by a ‘saints and sinners’ dialogue that’s ruthlessly exploited by the processed food industry, big retailers and slimming organisations.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to spot the tacit messages here. Good food, the stuff that keeps you alive and healthy, is no fun, a penance even. Bad food, usually in a highly commercial, sweet, or deep-fried form, is what we all secretly crave. This warped thinking is expressed most vividly when we attempt to bribe children into eating by dangling tantalising treats before them. ‘If you eat your broccoli you can have sweets after.’ How can this foster a positive, sensible attitude to food? You’re effectively telling a child that the food that compromises their health is more desirable than the one that doesn’t.
But you can’t blame parents because this mentality is enshrined in government eating advice. The official line is that there is no such thing as unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets. Providing we balance our diets, we’re assured that we can eat all the ultra-processed treats as long as we don’t consume them to excess. It’s a bit like saying that it’s fine to smoke a couple of cigarettes a day as long as you go for a walk to compensate.
Is it any wonder that many of us are thoroughly confused about what healthy eating is? Manufacturers have hijacked the concept of pleasure to feed us concoctions that are addictive, palate-corrupting, and often, pretty gross.
Let’s try to shift the clamour of conflicting food noise in our heads and recalibrate our eating habits. Any food philosophy that encourages yo-yo eating, or sin followed by atonement, is a non-starter. Instead we need to refocus our idea of edible pleasure around normal, everyday eating – fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, dairy – purchased in as near to their natural state as possible, and mainly prepared at home.
There’s no universal law that says we can’t take great delight in a warming soup, toast with a proper crust cut from a homemade loaf, newly dug potatoes dripping with butter and parsley, the crisp skin of roast chicken, fresh salad leaves picked from a pot on the balcony, a simple cake or scone that’s been homebaked from simple classic ingredients. Pleasure and indulgence needn’t come in a packet.
Redefining food ‘treats’
In a world where shops stock the same things all year round, anything truly seasonal, British asparagus in May, for instance, is a treat.
Whether you’re talking chocolate, coffee, or cheese, any product made with a high level of craft or skill counts as special.
Foods farmed, made or grown patiently using slow, traditional methods, such as matured cheese, grass-reared meat, traditionally cured salami, pickled and fermented foods.
Homemade tastes better and shows the love and effort of the person who made it for you.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman…
Stop plastic waste – sit and sip your coffee
Britain has gone daft for national ‘food days’
Wonky veg isn’t second best
Cheap processed food comes at a high cost
A sandwich is not a proper meal
Can no-death meat replace the real thing?
Enough with the supersized sweets
Will the coffee bubble ever burst?
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.