By 1939 the Second World War was underway and enemy u-boats targeted goods vessels bound for Great Britain hoping to weaken the home front. Food supplies were threatened and to help keep control of potentially dwindling provisions, rationing was introduced. But did food rationing also have a positive side that we could learn from now? Jasmine Phillips has tried and tested a Forties diet for a week. Here’s her verdict.

Endured by the British public for 14 years, food and fuel among other things were strictly limited, meaning that people were forced to eat less and walk or cycle to their destinations. Such thin, active women wore naturally small clothes and, as I was once told by a vintage dealer, there are now reams of beautiful but tiny vintage dresses to be found from the period.

He had picked up a number of these petite dresses over the years, but discovered, much to his dismay, that he simply could not display them in his shop; the reason, ‘None of my customers could fit into the dresses, and it just depressed them.’

In order to wear the dresses, should a true vintage queen adopt the lifestyle and eating habits of another era? Taking inspiration from the dietary transformations that the ration book necessitated, I began to actively consider if Forties living could be a sustainable way of life in these modern times.

The ration book was very strict about what your allowance was, and a significant number of staple food items were regulated. Every individual was issued with one alongside an ID card, and in turn had to be registered to a specific shop so that the shop keeper could order in exactly the amount needed for the number of customers they had.

rationEven the shop keepers were frugal with their stock. Your allowance of these items would have varied slightly throughout the war depending on what was available, but I took figures from 1945 and, while perusing my local supermarket, worked out that in today’s terms you would be allocated on a weekly basis the equivalent of:

2 Rashers of Bacon
Any Meat to the value of £2 (meat was rationed in monetary terms)
57g Cheese (1/3 small block)
57g Butter (1/3 packet)
57g Cooking Fat/Lard
57g Tea (15 bags)
230g Sugar (1/2 small bag)
One jar of jam per month
340g of sweets per month

rationsAfter this, a rationed shopper would have 16 points (to be used over the month) with which to buy other unrationed items, such as oats, pulses, tinned tomatoes, corned beef etc, although a shop’s stock of unrationed items was often also low. Alcohol was not as readily available as imports ceased and supplies to breweries and distilleries were cut – it looked as though I would have to go tee-total.

Due to a shortage of white flour, bread was always brown, densely wholewheat, and subsequently a nutritious alternative to the white sugar-filled bread provided on our shelves today. Fresh local vegetables and fruit could also be bought, although households were prompted to grown their own produce through the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. Everywhere you looked parks and tennis courts were turned into allotments, which also added yet another physical pursuit to the Forties lifestyle.

Despite the fresh veg and lovely brown bread, my basket was looking a little bland to say the least, and I feared that this would translate into the kitchen. What on earth was I going to make with this little lot, and for the whole week?

mpThe Forties woman turned to Marguerite Pattern for inspiration. Working for the Ministry of Food, she helped people with suggestions of how to best use their rations through cookery books and radio programmes, and as a result became ostensibly the first celebrity chef. Among the many adaptations of her recipes on the internet, I came across one woman, with quite a fan base, namely Carolyn Ekins, who has herself adopted a Forties diet.

She is the first to sing the praises of the period and boasts her loss of 57lb (just over four stone) in three and a half months from embracing Forties eating habits. While conducting her ration book experiment, after the first few weeks she also noticed increased energy levels and a lowering of her high blood pressure; ‘I felt great! My back pains subsided, my blood pressure became normal and I was able to be more active.’

She started work on her own victory garden and above all admired that the Forties style was: ‘A very environmentally friendly way of living. People grew their own, bought locally and consumed very few air miles!’

I personally discovered that a 40 minute cycle ride could replace my one hour daily bus journey to work, saving time and money, while giving me a work out, which I felt much better for.

In addition to the health benefits there are also financial advantages to be had as the diet focuses on simple, local non-luxury foodstuffs. As a now single mother of three, Ekins certainly appreciates the financial value of the frugal Forties way, and sees it as a definitive method of saving money. Indeed, I calculated that to make the popular dish of the period, Woolton Pie (named after the head of the Ministry of Food, Lord Woolton), would cost  £3.30, less if you managed to home grow some of the vegetables, and would feed you your evening meal for three days.

2538903705_cd2a9bcd92However, Ekins also confirmed my fears; ‘The real issues were the sheer time it took.’ She said, ‘I found that initially it was taking me hours everyday to prepare meals.’ Convenience foods can be a hard habit to break, and as many of us are not, and do not have housewives as in the Forties, the time consuming nature of this diet gives it a dwindling practicality for those with a busy working life and/or hectic social schedule.

Practicalities diminish further if you are of the disposition to entertain guests. This is not a diet for the generous, unless your willpower can stretch to resisting luxuries set aside for visitors (although this, of course, would not have been possible in the Forties).

Wartime cuisine was not noted for its variety as it was challenging to think of new things to do with the available ingredients. Making do with what you had was a well used and implemented phrase, looking at my rations I still felt bemused, and asked Ekins how she had felt.  ‘When you try cooking with this you realise just how little this is,’ she told me, and mentioned her initial hunger pangs. Creating meals from rations all week would certainly require some innovation. I’m not sure I shall be stooping to the likes of bread and dripping mind you.

Furthermore, with a little help from Ekins and her recipes, and with the speed of preparation which will undoubtedly come from familiarising oneself with the ration book ingredients, this era appears to set a shining example for health and wellbeing. Perhaps we would all be better off if we adopted the wartime motto, ‘Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, and Do without’. I certainly shall.

17 Responses

  1. Sophie Wood

    I got into this a few years ago and bought a helpful book entitled ‘The Ration Book Diet’, (a quick search on Amazon throws up a number of similar titles) and unlike Pattern’s recipes have been adapted for modern life, my personal favorite was corned beef hash with beans. That said, women of the forties were thinner because they ate less and got more exercise and you don’t need to follow a forties diet to do those things, but it could be a novel way to get started.

    • Naguere

      Sophie wood,
      I liked your post. Most people would like to be slim and watching the films of the 30’s/40’s/50’s how elegant most people looked (because they were slim) .
      Mostly in my life i have been slim and at the moment this is the case, as i have given up eating potatoes , and carbs in general.
      My evening meal today is:
      1. a small beuf bourginon pie (thanks Lidl).
      2. frozen broad beans.
      3. ten baked sweet chestnuts (it is the season).
      4. some red wine for my healths sake.

  2. Carolyn Ekins

    Having lived 100% on a 1940’s wartime ration diet for around 4 months, I found your tastes changed too. For instance suddenly having no convenience foods such as fatty snacks like crisps, collecting dripping from your bacon rashers (yeah I know sounds disgusting) and using that to cook some potato pancakes in or even to spread on bread and toast it lightly so the dripping melted into the bread became a REAL treat!!!! (seriously)

    These sort of taste changes only kicked in after a month or so and really surprised me!

    Anyway- great article Jasmine. Do you think you will do this again or was it just too time consuming to cook from scratch everyday?

    Carolyn Ekins

  3. Fran

    I have been interested in adopting this type of lifestyle/eating habit type of thing for quite some time. I don’t have the money to order the book that you spoke about however…I was wondering if you could possibly send me some stuff via email such as recipes and the ration amounts?

  4. Lindy Hopper

    Thank you jasmine for an interesting article. This is something i have thought of trying for some time, although i’m a vegetarian so i’d have to use meat substitutes. I’d also miss pasta dishes, although i guess that macaroni would have been available. Do you know if it was rationed?
    I was lucky enough to meet marguerite patten 5 years ago at one of her talks. She’s a wonderful speaker & very elegant and slim, a lovely lady.
    I do hope you’ll let us know how you get on, jasmine. Good luck! X

  5. Louise

    Another big difference from today was that the average person rarely ate out. Most meals were made at home and there really wasn’t much in the way of conveinence food.
    My dad, who was born in 1940, told me that he remembers in 1946, after the war had ended, having Christmas dinner where 25 people shared one chicken. Hard to imagine in our modern world of plenty.

  6. Kat

    Great article. I like cooking wartime style meals occasionally but I don’t think I could manage it every day.
    I’m always amazed at how far you can make food stretch when you have to. It would be interesting to see how people would cope on rations these days.

  7. Carolyn Ekins

    Kat- having lived on a rationing diet 24/7 (apart from a few blips) for 6 months now I can confirm that it is hard… initially because of adapting to a diet where some of the essentials are very much restricted ( eggs I find the hardest to cope with) but also because of the sheer time it takes to cook from scratch which can be quite frustrating at times when you work away from the home and still have your family to cook for too

    Saying that- it is surprising how quickly you adapt to living like this and you are right- it does save a LOT of money!

    C xx

  8. Kiri

    It sounds intriguing but I don’t think I could do it, at least, not at this point in time. Interesting article though!

  9. Keren

    After watching the DVD for ‘1940’s House’ I decided to try this diet (supplemented with some of my grandmother’s depression-era recipes) and found that numerous benefits came of it.
    I saved money, I became better at managing time (let’s face it, grandma worked twice as hard as any of us do, without all of our modern conveniences – and she MADE time), my allergies started going away, I lost weight, and I found I could do without a lot of things that had previously been ‘necessities’.
    It isn’t just a diet, it’s a frame of mind that can be summed up with these words –
    Besides, the food is pretty good if you use the right spice combinations.

  10. Frazer Irwin

    I missed WW2 by a couple of years however was brought up on a rationed ‘wartime diet’. To this day eat within my means. Though at times waver to the odd steak or two. Suppose it’s easier for me, been there, got the T-shirt etc. You could try rationing in reverse. Clear the shelves of everything you don’t really need. Shop every day for fresh food and don’t buy anything that can’t be recyled. In other words tins, cardboard, plastic, you don’t need them. If I can live this way on a pension you should find it so much easier.

  11. Polly

    Sounds good. But even as rations, the fats and sugar seem like a lot?

    I eat way less fat (and no sugar) and am still twice the size I should be. Maybe it is the cycling …

    • Gwen

      Fat is not a problem. If you reduce your fat intake too low, say, under 10% of your diet, you will suffer from all sorts of problems, such as depression, weakness, tiredness, because your nerves, your brain, and your neurotransmitters require fat to function properly. Fat does not make you fat, nor, according to the latest studies, does it cause heart trouble.

      Cutting sugar and carbs is essential. Increase the fat and cut the carbs to under 100g per day, and lower if you can manage it. I found I have trouble cutting starches, but have cut sugar a lot.

  12. Megan S.

    Very interesting. Like one of the other commenters I am also a vegetarian but the recipes in my WWII cook book with a whole section on rationing look very interesting and your article has given me the motivation I need to try out different era’s diets. I’ve also read articles where a woman has followed a 1950s way of eating and a 1970s way of eating but none of those had the health benefits the wartime diet had.
    -Megan (Overpowered by Funk)

  13. Angela

    Very interesting discussion. My mum is 94 and still going strong in every respect. While undoubtedly some of that is genetic, I’ve often wondered if growing up poor through both the depression and WW2 and their dietary restrictions contributed to her health and longevity. One thing she’s told me that’s not taken into account here is that rations were often traded. She realized that sugar was valuable to many people and decided to stop using it and swap it for other things. After the war she never resumed and since she drinks gallons of tea daily, that’s a huge amount of refined white sugar she could have consumed but didn’t over the last 60 years!

  14. Bane

    My only concern with adopting a 40s diet would be the lack of nutrition. Over the last 50 years, health nutritionists have been noticing a drop in nutrient levels of foods available to the general public. most meat has 2/3rds the proteins from 1940s, some fruits as low as 10% and most veggies have half or less fibres, vitamins and minerals and proteins required for a healthy diet.

    Its easy to find references, Googles top 2 search results: