my kitchen rulebook

I don’t go in for food-fads. My dress size hovers around a UK 8-10, & I never do yoga in a bikini on the beach. If going gluten-free is the cure for all human ailments, I’m going to be falling into a blissful bread-induced coma any day.
That said, we eat well and happily in our house. These are the practical and sensible rules we cook and eat by.

simple rules for eating well

1. Buy the best quality of the things you eat the most. AKA, no point having an organic avocado once a month but always eating horrible longlife bread. If you can’t afford to buy everything in brilliant quality (who can?), prioritise what you eat the most.

2. No single-purpose gadgets. I’m looking at you, salad spinner / pasta maker / egg poacheriser. There’s always a trick or skill to learn in it’s place, and in the end you’re a better cook because of it.

3. Really really good knives. No, I mean, really good knives. Most people’s knife ownership tends to follow the same path: as a student you buy the cheapest Ikea set and struggle through. Then at some point you’ve enough disposable income or have started to cook enough Saturday Guardian recipes that you decide you need to buy better ones, and so go to somewhere like John Lewis and spend £150 on a new set. Here’s what I’ve discovered: they’re not good knives either. Really good knives will cost you about £150 each. On the plus side, they’ll last you forever, save you time and energy in the kitchen and you’ll probably only need a couple.
We bought ours from Blok Knives and it’s been a total revelation. The waiting list is a year or so long, I think, but he does a flash Friday sale every week where you can jump the queue. When you watch chefs cook on TV and wonder why you can’t chop like them, it turns out it’s 90% because you have crappy knives. Great ones change everything.

blok knives

4. As whole as possible. I was so disappointed when I heard about the whole 30, only to discover it was actually nothing to do with wholefoods at all. Here’s the actual definition of a whole food: food that has been processed or refined as little as possible.. We buy and work with as much whole food as possible, with an aim to reducing the amount of processing that happens before it hits our kitchen. So, an apple is a whole food, but a carton of from-concentrate apple juice is not. If we juice apples ourself at home, that ticks the box again for us.

5. No obsessing. What I want most for Orla is her to grow up with a healthy, well adapted relationship with food. Not to be too picky or frightened of new things; not to exert control over her life through regimented limitations on her diet. Food is one of the few pleasures we haven’t stripped away from our busy daily lives, and I feel so strongly that we should all be free to enjoy and embrace that. So, we buy cheap dried pasta from the supermarket, because life is too short to do any of the alternatives. Orla’s really into those hideous Peppa Pig yoghurts that are no doubt full of sugar, but she also eats hundreds of organic carrots, so I reckon it averages out. So, on a similar note;

6. Food has no morality. Foods are not inherently good or bad, clean or dirty. Something might have no nutritional value – a packet of Haribo, let’s say – but that doesn’t make it or the person eating it bad. You’re not ‘being naughty‘ if you eat these foods, and you don’t become a more nice & worthy person by eating brown pasta and juicing everything. Food has nothing to do with morality, and using it in this way is really just a 21st century form of guilt and penance.

simple rules for eating well

7. Except for reformed ham. Reformed ham gets me exceptionally angry and therefore I shall declare it is the devil’s work. If you live in the UK and ever buy supermarket ham, you are almost definitely buying the reformed variety. That means ham that is minced, fluffed up with salt and water, then re-moulded to look like an original joint of meat with fat veins and all. I, like I’m sure many of you, have known this for years, but being the obsessive type, I always read the tiny print on the packaging. Our local Tesco does not sell any non-formed ham; the deli counter, the Finest range, all of it is ‘formed‘. Even actual joints of meat, like gammon – “formed meat from selected cuts of cured pork leg with added water”. This gives me such rage because it totally messes with rule 4, sneaking an awful lot of extra processing steps onto our tables without most people realising. It’s gross and sneaky and puts profit above taste, texture and pleasure, and I don’t know why it isn’t classed as false advertising.
If you want real meat, head to a butcher or one of the budget supermarket chains. Aldi and Lidl sell a surprising selection of affordable, un-messed-with meat.

8. No table manners.
Were you raised with the concept of ‘table manners’? My lovely Grandparents were quite strict about it – no elbows on the table, no drinks with meals, always use the back of your fork. Nowadays I’m fascinated by these archaic social constructs – the idea that I could be rude by simply resting my arms; the complex counterintuitive use of cutlery that was designed to be simple. I’m not teaching Orla any table manners, other than don’t be gross, and wash your hands. That’s enough, surely?

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9. Eat together. On week days we’re too busy to have breakfast and lunch together, so at dinner we sit down together and eat the same thing (or an adapted version for Orla – usually before I add the chilli kick!) at the table. It comes back to that pleasure thing – so while there are times when I like nothing better than to mindlessly consume calories in front of the TV, when it’s something we’re sharing together, we try to do it mindfully.

What are the rules you live by for food? How do you prioritise when shopping and cooking?

  • Lorrie Hartshorn

    YES to the evil of reformed ham! *crosses self*

    I used to work on the deli counter of a supermarket that shall remain nameless (DM me and I’ll spill everything), and we sold ‘turkey’ that was 44% turkey. We had to turn it every half-hour to cover up the brown, wrinkly bits.

    • Urghhh. Oh god I’m not sure if I want to know or not, y’know? It’s such a grim and total con. We’ve been buying from a local deli / butcher place and of course it’s lovely, but stupidly expensive and ridiculously middle class & privileged. People are buying the supermarket stuff for their kids, and think it’s real food :(

      • KGP

        My thought on lunch meat (our version in the US of what ya’ll are talking about I think)is that if you’re not supposed to eat it while pregnant, maybe you should NEVER eat it! As for the table manners, I’m all for teaching proper etiquette. My parents used to always threatening manners classes (and named a family friend whose child actually had to go spend a Saturday at the department store’s fine china department!). I’ve seen people my age who weren’t taught these things get embarrassed when everyone else at the table knows what to do and they don’t! Although I don’t plan on being a Natzi about it at home with my two littles.

        • Ah, there must be a difference – you’re fine to eat this ham stuff when pregnant here because it’s basically processed to the point of being plastic. What they tell us not to eat is cured meat, i.e. meat that is kept a long time and not ‘cooked’ in the traditional sense, because of the risk of bacterial sickness (small).

          I wonder if there’s a difference in etiquette / manners between the US and the UK. The stuff I was taught is utterly useless – it slows you down and means sitting stiffly eating like a Victorian whilst everyone else has a normal, relaxed meal. I’ve never met anyone who uses it or has needed to!

      • Lorrie Hartshorn

        It’s so difficult, isn’t it? I’m vegetarian, so I don’t face this issue, but I completely agree re: processed meat – supermarket chains selling chicken drumsticks 100 for a pound. That’s not going to be good for the animals or the consumers.

        The only real solution is to buy less but better quality but, as you say, it’s not always simple for people on a tighter budget.

  • I love this! I wrote something similar recently – but I didn’t even think of the table manners thing. I think you’ve got it nailed – don’t be gross is pretty much the only rule I want at my table! I’m grateful that I’ve somehow managed to grow up with a pretty good attitude to food – I hope that I am able to pass that on to my future children. And I definitely want to implement an ‘eat together’ policy when we have a proper kitchen and dining table (not long now!) – it’s my favourite thing and I’ve missed it.

    • Yay! I wonder if I saw your post on twitter and took inspiration? Sorry if I copied your idea! A good attitude to food is surprisingly rare in this day and age, and it’s so important to happiness. The table manners was a last minute addition as it’s been on my mind a bit lately – such a funny concept, I can’t believe it ever took off! haha! x

      • Oh, not at all! It is strange – especially since it seems to have no basis in reality. Like, why would putting your elbows on the table be rude? That doesn’t make any logical sense!

        • DaisyPullsItOff

          Certainly in the UK it was seen as ‘low’ ie working class or indeed, from the peasantry class. Also in medieval times you were so packed in at the table that there wasn’t room to put your elbows up without annoying your neighbours!
          I think I would add to your one rule that you should wait until everyone is sitting – especially the chef! The chef puts in a lot of effort regardless of how simple or elaborate the meal is and that should be acknowledged!

  • Your one table manner rule tickled me! “Don’t be gross & wash your hands” – brilliant. As for the rest of it – I hate cooking – it bores me to tears but the one thing I do try very hard to do is eat unprocessed food which at this time of year means lots of salads!! Easy!

  • Actually, I feel compelled to post another answer because one thing that gets my goat as much as reformed ham (yuk) gets yours is “no added sugar”. What this actually means is ok so no sugar just nasty synthetic tasting sweet stuff added instead which is probably far worse for us anyway. Oh & and don’t get me started on decaffeinated drinks!!!

    • YES! How is this not false advertising? What use is the information about sugar when they don’t have to explain what other nasties are in there?
      Curious about the drinks as a decaf drinker. I don’t drink soft drinks though – perhaps you mean those?

      • Well apparently the chemical process used to decaffeinate is worse for you than caffeine!! Best to stick to naturally decaffeinated tea!!

  • I have so much time for this post. I’m getting increasingly concerned with the amount of moralistic language attached to food when it really is down to common sense. ‘Clean eating’, ‘sin free’ etc; I’m not sure that’s a healthy attitude for anyone. As pure as possible and cooked from scratch as much as is practical seems like a good idea to me :)
    x

    • Yes yes yes! It seems to be getting worse all of a sudden, after decades of being quietly subversive. Maintaining strict control over what we eat is exhausting, and I’m just not sure it’s worth it. Humans have never been healthier, we’ve never lived longer or with fewer chronic health conditions!

  • This was SUCH a great read! I love your approach to food – we were brought up on principles not dissimilar to the above and i wholeheartedly believe it’s what has shaped my attitude to food. I really wish that there was more of this around and about – not even just for younger audiences – but for everyone. Food is something you should enjoy and now, it’s so very often associated with morality – with reward and good v bad, diets and points and this and that, that quite frankly it’s just exhausting.

    This is simple! And i just love it. It’s something i think everyone should read!xxxx

  • Hannah Straughan

    I loved reading this Sara, it’s easy to follow rules ‘just because’ without really thinking if they make sense. These all make sense. I especially like your point about food and morality, something I really hadn’t thought about before.

    I really want to know what you made with your artichokes?!

    • Risotto! A bit addicted to risotto tbh.
      I’m glad to hear they all make sense to you – I’m big on only doing stuff in life that makes good sense! Morality with food goes so far back, and seems to tie in with old ideas about class and guilt and sin. It’s hard-wired into our language and our culture, but it makes no sense at all when you step away from that! & as I always point out to people – Hitler was a vegetarian!

  • This is a fantastic post and how I feel about food too. Especially when you talked about how food has no morality and it isn’t good or bad and it doesn’t make the people eating it good or bad. I just try to avoid comment sections now on news articles or blogs when people are trying to push their own diets onto others (paleo, vegan) in a really mean and awful way. I grew up in a household of processed and unhealthy food and I learned in my early 20s about how unprocessed and whole foods helped me in all sorts of ways. Suddenly when I got sick I wasn’t sick for weeks, only a day or two. And I had so much energy! I lost weight too. And I didn’t follow a single diet. I just started to cook more and cook whole foods and tried to make sure I followed the food pyramid servings. Now all my meat is grass fed, free range where it’s possible. I still eat sugars and chocolates and icecreams, just I’m more mindful of it and I eat it on purpose, not eating hidden sugars in every meal/snack.
    Thank you for writing such a great article.

    • It’s funny how militant people can become about sharing their diet and restrictions. I’m sure it’s because they feel passionate, but it also usually seems like it has a lot to do with control – controlling what we eat because other things in our life feel totally outside of our influence. It’s a slippery slope to eating disorder territory from there.

      My theory is that unprocessed food just has more of the stuff our bodies were designed to handle. It makes sense. Like you, I still enjoy sweet treats (and alcohol) but mindfully, knowingly – and happily!
      Thanks for your great and insightful comment x

  • Reformed ham?? I’d never heard of it or it being a thing… I barely buy ham and buy all of our meat at the local butchers, but still, incredibly useful (albeit very sad!!) information!
    We pretty much only eat wholefoods at meals and then there’s ice cream 😀
    Eating together is my favourite, even though my teenage self had other opinions 😛

    • It’s like the best-kept secret of the food industry! Horrible.
      We never ate together when I was growing up – my Mum would watch TV on her own, and we’d all eat different microwave meals. I knew I wanted family mealtimes to be different for Orla. Plus kids eat best when they see other people doing the same! :)

  • I’m gonna be super patriotic here – I really recommend trying the variety of ham from Polish/Eastern European shops. The quality is really nice and they are super cheap! And the choice is huuuge.

    • Oh, that’s a great shout actually! I’ve found the meat in European ‘budget’ supermarket chains to be much better too – Aldi and Lidl sell barely any ‘chopped and shaped’ ham etc!

  • Fi Cooper

    Absolutely with you on the knives thing – but however good they are they do need to be sharp. I have a Sabatier I’ve used for 10 years now, it’s sharpened before each use and it hasn’t disappeared yet. Sharpness is why chefs chop so well (that and the training I guess!). The first time you thinly slice a tomato without it squishing everywhere is a revelation!

    • Ah yes, sharpening is R’s new obsession. There’s never a day goes by where I don’t hear the telltale sing of the sharpening stone against the blade and find him at it! Chopping tomatoes without squishing is, I agree, a game changer! And slicing bacon like it’s butter!

  • Have you read Michael Pollan’s Food Rules? He is brilliant. Very similar idea. His Netflix doco Cooked is worth watching too. Great post. x

    • I’ve heard him talk on Radio 4 a couple of times – always meant to grab his book! Thanks for the recommendation! x

  • so many good things here. I have a terribly messed up relationship with food due to my upbringing and it is so dammed hard to undo. I see my niece picking up on it from my mum and sister and it UPSETS ME SO MUCH, but aside from being conscious of it around here there isn’t much I can do

  • What a wonderful post and I enjoyed your approach to the kitchen, utensils, eating, etc. I’m especially one of those peeps who need to purchase new (and nice) cutlery! hee xx

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  • These are many good guidelines! Dependable knives make SUCH a difference. We have a set of Cutco knives (which used to be made much better in the past, I think), but we sharpen them whenever they get dull. It amazed me when I first realized that a dull knife is a more dangerous knife!

    What is using the back of your fork? Is that, when you bring the fork to your mouth, the back is facing out? Was that a thing? I like your approach much better. Kids are squirmy, anyway. I think I do want to teach my future kids what usual manners are, and then maybe we can practice them at restaurants and stuff (just in case they get invited to dine with the queen, I don’t want them blaming their mother for not knowing how to behave, haha). At home, though, you’re at home! So who cares!

    My husband and I care a lot about nutrition, which doesn’t feel restricting at all. What it means is, we have KILLER food to eat all the time, because we make things from scratch with fresh and (usually) organic ingredients! I love it!

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