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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 October, 2003, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
Could we stomach a wartime meal?
By Caroline Ryan
BBC News Online Health Staff

Potato Pete poster - (With permission of the World War II Ex-Raf website)
Potato Pete encouraged people to eat healthily
An evening meal of cheese soup, Woolton pie and perhaps some eggless sponge to finish ... dried egg for breakfast or carrot sandwiches as a snack.

The World War II diet may sound alien to twenty-first century ears, but it has been shown to be an extremely healthy way to live.

Weekly rations included meat and dairy products, and families were encouraged to grow their own vegetables in gardens or allotments.

The surprise about the diet in the austere war years is how close it is to what nutritionists advise us to eat now - even if some of the recipes might not sound too appealing.

During the war, health experts from the Ministry of Food ensured that the British people ate well.

See what you would have had to eat in World War II

Householders were told they were on the "Kitchen Front" and that they had a duty to use foods to their greatest advantage.

The Ministry devised characters such as Potato Pete and Dr Carrot to put their message across.

Rationing was introduced a few months after the war started, in January 1940, and was not completely phased out until 1954.

It was introduced because of the problems importing food to Britain by boat during the war.

Banana raffle

Marguerite Patten was a home economist during WWII with the Ministry of Food. She went around the country demonstrating to shoppers how to make the best of the food on offer.

She later took over the Ministry of Food Advice Bureau in Harrods, where she came up with new ideas for recipes each day.

What we were eating then is pretty much what we should be eating now
Dr Hannah Theobald, British Nutrition Foundation

Ms Patten, who also appeared on the BBC radio programme 'Kitchen Front' has since compiled recipe books based on the wartime diet.

She told BBC News Online: "People were grateful for the advice. They really wanted to know how to manage.

Terry Charman, a historian at the Imperial War Museum, told BBC News Online: "With rationing, there was a sense that everyone was 'in it together'.

"Most people welcomed it because it seemed to bring an 'equality of sacrifice' to everyone, whether they were a millionaire or were unemployed."

He added: "The unhealthy foods, the fatty foods, were not around, because butter, margarine and sugar, so the diet was very healthy."

But there were foods - such as fruit - that people did not have access to. Bananas were particularly missed.

Mr Charman said people would go to extreme lengths to get hold of them.

"In London in 1943, a single banana was raffled. It went for 5 - the equivalent of a fairly good week's wage at that time."

'They still wanted cake'

People also wanted to have cakes and puddings to fill up with - but did not have the eggs to make them with.

Housewives were told to use up every scrap of food they had
They were advised to chop up old scraps of meat and bake them in batter
Beans could be used as pasty fillings
Marguerite Patten said: "People were hungry, and they turned to cake. So I devised the eggless fruit cake. That's survived over the years. People still make it if they are cooking for someone who's allergic to dairy products."

Ms Patten and her colleagues also came up with 101 things to do with corned beef. Rations only allowed one shilling and two pence-worth of meat per adult each week, so corned beef, which was cheaper than 'proper' meat was widely used.

Dr Hannah Theobald from the British Nutrition Foundation, said: "What we were eating then is pretty much what we should be eating now.

"They didn't have so much convenience foods, and children didn't have lots of chocolates and sweets because they were rationed.

But even though the wartime diet was a healthy one, experts agree neither the dishes nor the advice of Potato Pete or Dr Carrot would be accepted now - because there is more choice available, more conveniently.

Terry Charman says: "They didn't really have convenience foods like we do now. They didn't have frozen foods, or anything like that, so a lot of cooking was labour-intensive.

"They had to exist on wartime rations, but I think it would be very difficult to think of people doing it in today's instant society."

And Marguerite Patten, an expert in creating tasty dishes out of rations, says she would not want to go back to wartime rationing.

"I would hate, at this time of year, to think 'that's the last of the tomatoes until next June'."

But at the time - it was a necessity. "There were lots of problems, but there were problems because we were a fighting country. We were the 'Kitchen Front'."

Let us know if we have tempted you to cook any wartime recipes - or brought back memories of meals from WWII.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Organic, home grown fresh produce. Sounds good to me! So what if it takes longer and is more effort than sticking a frozen curry in the microwave, obesity levels were virtually nil in the 40's, surely that says something? Move over Atkins, lets all try the 1940's diet!
Kate, UK

It's a pity more families don't resort back to good old fashioned cooking - they would be a lot healthier for it. I work full time - as does my husband, but I still find time to cook proper meals every night, yet people laugh scornfully that I even bother.

Churchill didn't look too slim to me
Terry Perkins, UK

I have a collection of some 100 wartime cookery booklets and Ministry of Food leaflets. I frequently use the recipes. They are delicious and healthy; making the most of local, seasonal foods.

Rationing out-balanced what was available. Today, one can eat anything anytime and in any quantity. No wonder they were fitter then.
Simon, UK

I wouldn't mind sampling some egg-free sponge for myself. I hate 'fast' or 'microwave' food, and would be glad to see a healthier lifestyle become common in the UK.
David, UK

I am severely allergic to chemicals (pesticides, additives and preservatives). We eat all fresh organic foods, prepared from scratch every day. I even grind my own organic ancient grains for bread flour. You get used to it and it is a much healthier lifestyle compared to the convenience foods I could once eat. I wouldn't go back even if I could.
Lisa, Canada

I'm a "would you like some bread to go with your butter?" kind of guy, but don't actually consume large amounts of any of the basic food items shown. Give me sushi and crisps and I could probably survive indefinitely.
Brant Boucher, Canada

Can someone tell me whether you could avoid the rationing if you could afford to eat in restaurants? I thought I heard this somewhere recently, but can't remember where!
Marion McDonald, UK

What society needs is fast fit food. Something nutritious and tasty that you can eat lots of and is very readily available. Perhaps the fast food chains that are having problems with people being concerned with health should do more research to create something like this.
David, UK

If people in the first world went back to wartime diets, and the money they saved every month went to the worlds poor, we could kill two birds with one stone - an end to 1st world obesity and third world hunger. Don't forget the World Food Programme desperately needs around US$200 million!
Marc, South Africa

Churchill didn't look too slim to me.
Terry Perkins, UK

Why don't we look to the Japanese and Chinese for dietary ideas? Whilst convenience foods are also infiltrating their diets, much more fruit and vegetables are consumed. These are also presented in a tasty, attractive way!
Clem, UK

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Dig for Victory
Robert Spear Hudson. Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries launches the campaign in September 1940

Kitchen Front
BBC radio show gives housewives recipe advice - May 1942

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07 Oct 03  |  Health
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08 Jun 02  |  Health
Children's diet better in 1950s
30 Nov 99  |  Health


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