Press release

The UK's food history revealed through five generations of data

New data spanning back to the 1940s will take people on a culinary tour through the decades – giving a glimpse into kitchens of the past

Food

For the first time official records of what people ate and how they survived during rationing have been published by Defra. They show 1940s Brits ate seasonally and bought food from butchers, bakers and grocers rather than supermarkets.

Salmon sandwiches, tinned fruit with evaporated milk, fish on Fridays and ham salad for high tea every Sunday were frequently on the menu for 1950s families. People ate four meals a day and relied on gardens and allotments to grow more than double the amount of food they bought.

An appetite for easy to prepare meals began in the mid-1950s, the new data reveals, with convenience foods accounting for nearly a fifth of families spend on food. As technology started to improve and more women began to work full-time - frozen foods, ready meals and takeaways began to transform the British diet.

Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom said:

This is more than just cosy nostalgia – everyone now has access to this hoard of rich data which shows how technology and social change have transformed our diets over five generations. While foodie fads have come and gone, it’s interesting to have seen a recent revival of fresh, British grown, seasonal foods – though today it is through choice, unlike the necessity of the 40s and 50s.

Our Great British Food campaign is all about championing British produce, at home and abroad, and highlighting the exciting and diverse regional cuisine all around the country. It’s also about backing our world leading food and farming industry that already generates £100 billion for our economy and employs one in eight people. In my role as Environment Secretary I will be doing all I can to make sure the industry goes from strength to strength.

For more than 70 years, families across Britain have filled out in-depth diaries of their weekly food and drink purchases for the National Food Survey.

Today (1 September 2016) Defra has published the oldest versions of the survey reports from the 1940s when Britain’s food supply was controlled by rations to the 1970s when technology had advanced and kitchens were equipped with freezers.

In the 1940s rural households relied on gardens and allotments to provide more than 92% of their fruit and vegetables in winter and 98% in summer. This ranged hugely with urban households who grew 12% of their fruit and vegetables in winter and 49% in summer. About a third of the household income was spent on food in 1940 compared to 12% nowadays.

Rationing carried on until the mid-1950s, indeed, when the Queen came to the throne in 1952, sugar, butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fat, bacon, meat and tea were all still rationed.

Our hunger for quick and easy meals had rapidly grown by the 1960s. Frozen peas had grown in popularity and the consumption of flour, a cupboard must-have for decades, started to fall. As more families were able to buy fridges and freezers in the 1970s, the popularity of convenience food reached a new level and by the end of the decade, almost all families across the country (95%) owned a fridge.

Back in 1952 nearly half of all households ate no meals outside of the home and only one fifth ate one dinner a week out. By 1983, the average person ate three meals a week outside of the home.

This data also shows social change through the years - the person filling out the questionnaire was no longer described as a “housewife” in 1991 and instead the “main diary keeper”.

The National Food Survey was established by what was then known as the Ministry of Food in 1940 to establish what people were eating and how much they spent on food during the Second World War.

The survey was mainly directed at workers living in urban areas at first, but in 1950 it was expanded to be a national survey.

This new set of data is part of #OpenDefra – the biggest ever government data giveaway which has seen 11,007 open datasets published already. More than a third of the Government’s total open data has been released by Defra.

Published 1 September 2016