Should we really be eating just like our grandmother did — or were some of her habits unhealthy? Stephanie Osfield travels back in time.
Flashback to when your grandmother or perhaps your great-grandmother was rustling up the evening meal 50 or 70 years ago — to a time when cooking was a completely different affair.
She’d shell peas by hand, boil rather than steam the broccoli, and make all sauces from scratch. Meat and three veg were standard fare most nights, and meals like stir-fries were almost unknown. If gran was running late, she couldn’t microwave the corn, and if she ran out of rice she couldn’t duck down to the local supermarket for a pouch of quick-cook rice at 7pm.
Cut to the present, where the food we eat is more readily available and more processed, with huge impacts on our health and longevity.
“Obesity, which increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, has been steadily increasing since the 1950s,” says Professor Clare Collins, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson.
“Along with a more sedentary lifestyle, people are consuming more snack foods, sugar-sweetened drinks and larger portions of fast food and meals away from home.
“These types of foods are often more highly processed and displace more healthy choices, increasing chronic disease risk.”
In response, a growing number of health experts, writers and bloggers are encouraging us to eat the way our grandmothers ate. But were all of grandma’s food habits really that much more healthy than ours? Or were some of her favourite nutrition and cooking practices best left behind? Let’s find out.
Take a leaf out of Grandma’s book
These simple daily practices are worth copying — because they helped keep your ancestors healthier (with the science to prove it!)
Sit at the dinner table as a family
“Eating food mindfully, without watching a TV or phone screen, makes people feel significantly more satisfied after a meal and more connected with others,” says Collins. “Studies also show that eating meals as a family is associated with better mental health, self-esteem and school performance in children.”
Spend less on takeaway
“Some Australian households now spend nearly 50 per cent of their food budget on discretionary foods, such as cakes, lollies, biscuits, soft drinks, crisps, takeaway food, meals out, and alcohol,” says Collins. “But cooking meals at home, as your grandmother did, reduces your intake of saturated fat, salt, sugar and kilojoules — promoting a healthier weight as well as lowering your risk of heart disease and diabetes.”
And when you cook meals at home rather than buying them from a takeaway, you’re much more likely to use grandma’s healthier methods like boiling, or modern steaming.
Cook from scratch
“This ensured grandma’s family ate less salt, sugar, fats, kilojoules, preservatives and artificial flavours,” says Aloysa Hourigan, Senior Nutritionist with Nutrition Australia. “Your grandma knew all the ingredients that were in her home-cooked meals and she hardly ever ate processed foods.” The food was simple — but often more wholesome.
Use smaller plates
“Dinner plates and other crockery were usually smaller, so portions were smaller and ‘a plateful of food’ automatically had fewer kilojoules,” says Hourigan. You ‘eat’ with your eyes too — so dining off a small, full plate can make you feel full. Recall the ‘70s lifestyle mantra: ‘small is beautiful’.
Have three square meals
Far fewer people went on diets in grandma’s day — yet people weighed less, not more. “Severe restriction of food groups makes a diet difficult to maintain in the long term, and less likely to be nutritionally adequate,” says Collins. “While diets may help with short-term weight loss, once you divert from the diet back to your old habits, the weight is regained — in fact, you may possibly even gain more.” Start with small, sustainable changes, such as choosing fruit as a snack, and replacing white bread with wholegrain.
Take time for breakfast
This is a double win for waistline and health. People who skip breakfast tend to eat more kilojoules at lunch and experience greater hunger, which can lead to snacking, according to a study from Cornell University in the US.
How to shop like Gran did!
Step back in time and add these not-so-new ‘superfoods’ to your trolley next time you shop!
Slow-cooked oats are not just filling — they can help lower your levels of harmful LDL cholesterol.
Brussels sprouts can reduce your risk of colon cancer, University of Western Australia research shows.
Green beans are rich in fibre and calcium for strong bones, as well as folate to boost healthy cell function.
Prunes not only help combat the discomfort of constipation — they also boost your bone health. Chop them up and add them to muesli for brekkie.
Pearl barley is a good source of protein and fibre. You can use it in salads and hearty soups and stews to help reduce bad cholesterol.
Parsnips were a popular veg often added to soups and stews. They’re high in fibre, vitamin C and potassium — good for heart and kidney health.
Habits we should leave behind
We now know that certain cooking and eating habits — although once commonplace — are in fact unhealthy. Here’s where gran went wrong.
Cooking with lard
“Lard, which is the fat left in the roasting pan after cooking pork, contains a lot of saturated fat, which increases your risk of high blood cholesterol and heart disease,” says Collins. Instead, you should aim to use unsaturated fats such as olive oil in cooking, and fry food in a non-stick frying pan.
Storing milk and butter at room temperature
“This increases the risk of bacteria growth, which can then make you sick,” says Collins. “You should place perishable items such as milk, yoghurt and cheese straight back in the fridge after use, and make sure you store them below 5°C.”
When our great-grandparents were in the kitchen they added plenty of salt to boiling vegies, and even to porridge and stews. They also added salt to meals at the dinner table. “Too much salt leads to high blood pressure,” says Collins. “Over time this can increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke and serious kidney problems.”
To cut your salt intake, try using herbs and spices for flavour and choose packaged foods that have ‘no added salt’ labelling, or are ‘salt reduced’ or ‘low salt’.
Eating cakes for arvo tea
Though these may have been home-baked cakes, better snack choices include a tub of plain yoghurt, a handful of mixed nuts, vegie sticks and hoummos, or a piece of delicious fresh fruit.
Overdoing it with potato
Instead of too many spuds, we are now encouraged to put a rainbow on our plates to gain a larger variety of vitamins and minerals. “We also recognise that people who are putting on weight may need to reduce their portion size of starchy vegies like potatoes, corn and peas, but eat a bigger variety of low-carb veg like broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, spinach, tomatoes, salad greens and capsicum,” says Collins.
‘Healthy eating’ then and now
As our nutrition knowledge has deepened and evolved since granny’s day, healthy eating advice has also changed in some surprising ways.
Then: Full fat
Whole milk dairy foods, such as full-cream milk and butter, were once eaten by most families.
Now: Mostly reduced fat
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that anyone over the age of two eats reduced-fat dairy foods. But fat isn’t off the menu. Aim to eat more healthy fats from avocados, olive oil and nuts.
Then: 2 per week
Nutritionists once recommended that people limit eggs, as they were thought to raise cholesterol.
Now: 6 per week
Research has identified that saturated fat has a much larger impact on LDL cholesterol than cholesterol in foods like eggs and prawns. The Heart Foundation says up to six eggs a week is OK.
Sandwiches and toast were usually made with white bread.
Wholegrain, rye and sourdough breads are higher in fibre and have a lower Glycaemic Index, so they fill you up for longer and don’t cause a large spike in your blood sugar and insulin levels.
People were encouraged to eat plenty of red meat to ensure they had an adequate intake of iron.
Now: 2-3 times a week
Eating more than 455g of red meat a week is considered a risk and is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, according to the World Health Organization.
Then: No problem
A classic backyard barbecue was considered a great way to cook your meat.