My mum, a teacher, raised my sisters and I on her own from when we were aged two, six, and nine. Every day after work, she’d come home and start cooking. Frozen chicken Kievs, big pans of pasta, pressure cooker stews, and spag Bol were some of our staple weeknight meals.
Like many other single mothers, my mum worked hard to provide nutritious food and a family dinner time for her children, while holding down a demanding job. Yet a recent study has been criticised for implying that working mums and single mums are responsible for augmenting their children’s BMIs.
Researchers from the University College London Centre for Longitudinal Studies have since clarified their research findings, explaining that though “great social progress” has led to more women in the workplace, professional obligations “place increased demands on parents’ time.” Time, or lack of, is also why the results were more pronounced in the families of single mothers.
Affordability is also an issue, says Sharon Hodgson, Shadow Public Health Secretary and Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West. She tells MUNCHIES that a third of British children are obese because of “a range of complex reasons, such as the affordability and availability of healthy food, compared to food that is high in fat, salt, and sugar, and the powerful advertising of such foods.”
She adds: “The government’s Second Childhood Obesity Plan promises consultations, but no serious actions.” Conversely, Labour has promised to ban the sale of sugary drinks to under-16s and certain foods from being advertised.
Labour also promises to an end to austerity. More than 30 percent (4.1 million) of the UK’s children now live in poverty. Children in single parent families are twice as likely as those in couple parent families to be among those millions, according to the UK’s single parent charity Gingerbread, which also reports that 90 percent of single parents are women.
"As I’ve grown up, I’ve understood how hard it must have been to think of dinners every night after work."
Michelle Obama is neither a single parent nor living in poverty, but she has done much to expose the pressures of time and money affecting single and working mothers.
In her recent memoir, Becoming, she recalls how, in the early 2000s, her daughter Malia’s “BMI was beginning to creep up,” a doctor warned. Not technically a single mother, Michelle was raising the children for half of the week on her own, due to her then-congressman husband’s work commitments elsewhere in the state. She writes that “with Barack gone all the time, convenience had become the single most important factor in my choices at home.” Take-out, Lunchables, Capri Suns, and McDonald’s were regular elements of the Obamas’ diet and the doctor advised Michelle moderate. However, she points out in her memoir: “Every solution seemed to demand more time: time at the grocery store, time in the kitchen, time spent chopping vegetables or slicing the skin off of a chicken breast. All this coming right at the time when time felt it was on the verge of extinction in my world.”
Michelle could afford to hire a cook. But later, this experience informed her White House Let’s Move! campaign. Aimed at reducing childhood obesity, one of its five goals was: “empowering parents and caregivers,” including those who aren’t wealthy enough to hire a cook.
In an attempt to do a little of the same this Mother’s Day, MUNCHIES spoke to several children of single and working mothers to find out what they ate growing up and what it means to them, then and now.
Yasmin, 30, who grew up in Rippon, North Yorkshire
My mum was single from when I was two until I was eight, when she remarried, but my stepdad was an alcoholic, so it always felt like it was her by herself. She was a teacher and didn’t have the money for nice microwave meals, so made us things like pasta sachets, Turkey Twizzlers, chicken nuggets, sausages, and beans. She always insisted we ate a good breakfast, though, and every night before bed, would chop up fruit for us to eat the next day.
My brother and I learned very young how to prepare quick meals. Adam made his first omelette when he was about six. At the weekend, we went to my granny’s house and ate cheese and onion pasties as a treat. For my fourth birthday, my nan made me a teddy bears’ picnic cake. I still remember the taste of the marzipan bears. The checked picnic blanket made of icing. The Victoria sponge with jam in the middle. Sometimes, if my mum was really stressed and had had a long day, we’d get fish and chips, which was amazing. If we ever ate out, I was under strict instruction to order the cheapest thing on the menu. On monthly access visits from our dad, he’d take us for Chinese food and never leave a tip. I still cringe.
Tessa, 58, who grew up in Wanstead, East London.
I was brought up on convenience foods. When you’ve got a parent who’s busy, they go to convenience and there’s nothing wrong with that. My dad left my mum when I was five, my little brother was three and my older brother was six, and he never gave us a penny. My mum was a music teacher, working in the days, evenings, and on Saturdays as well. When you’re overloading somebody with too much responsibility, that one person cannot earn and wash and clean and care and cook and wash up. So, something has to give—and it was food.
That’s fine by me. The classic dinner would be something protein-y—fish fingers or frozen beef burgers—plus a mix of frozen veg, sweetcorn, frozen peas. Nearly everything was frozen. Occasionally we’d have mash with it, or boil-in-the-bag cod, sausages. Sometimes we’d have stuff from tins, like baked beans. My mum also didn’t have a car, or the time to go to the shops. Small local supermarkets didn’t exist that much, so we had to get stuff from the Londis or wherever.
Fabian, 19, who grew up in South London
My mum was 19 when she had me and my parents broke up when I was five. Me and my mum moved in with my gran, and we all lived there until I was 14, when my mum met my stepdad and we all moved in together.
My mum worked full time as a civil servant, not getting back sometimes until late, so my gran's been a big figure in my life. Each morning, she’d cook me a bacon sandwich before school—it was pretty indulgent. She was a teacher, so could pick me up from school for tea time and would make roasts and mac and cheese and other pasta. At the weekend, she’d make jerk chicken, rice and peas with plantain and salad. I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth and she’d give me strawberries with sugar on for dessert, or apple crumble that her mum—also a teacher—learned from the dinner ladies at the school she used to work at.
If someone asked me about single parent eating, I’d say grandparents. My dad’s mum would make me food too when I went round. My mum didn’t really have a signature dish, but she’d make things like pasta, chorizo with chicken, or stir-fries.
Emma, 27, who grew up in Essex
I was three when my dad left, any my sister was one. Mum worked full time as a nurse. We had a sausage and mash and veg at least twice a week, nuggets and chips, or chicken in a white sauce that tasted like nothing. Bless her, she tried her best. We had a good crisp cupboard full of pickled onion Monster Munch and Quavers and chocolate cupboard, so we could raid that when we came in from school. We always had those pots of trifle.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve understood how hard it must have been to think of dinners every night after work—to think of dinner for two kids. Usually, on a Friday, we’d have a Chinese takeaway: noodles, seaweed, prawn toasts, and sweet-and-sour chicken, which we’d have leftovers of. There were always leftovers in the fridge, and I’ve picked that up from her. She’d try and do a roast on a Sunday, too. At the time we were maybe somewhat ungrateful—friends with two parents would get mums cooking fajitas or curries, but we were definitely happy.