BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour: Girls Should Eat Man Food


Why, after all this time, do women and men still bring different expectations to the table when we sit down and eat?  And why does the view persist that men are chefs - something glorious and inventive  - while women are cooks - something humble and domestic?

One of the people who has done most to break down this dichotomy is Nigella Lawson.  When her book How to Eat first appeared in 1998, I felt angel trumpets go off in my head. At last, here was someone making a claim to everyday domestic food as something more central and important to human life than the creations of restaurant kitchens - however magnificent those may be when you're in the mood.

So I felt hugely excited to get the chance to talk on the radio with Nigella about this very subject, along with another of my food heroes, the cookery writer Diana Henry. On 9th October, to celebrate the publication of Nigella's new book (Simply Nigella), Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4 gave over the whole programme to the subject of food and women.

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For the first segment, Nigella made a poached salmon, avocado and pumpkin seed salad (it was delicious, by the way, with a gentle acidity from cloudy apple vinegar).  She talked eloquently about her approach to cooking and how the kitchen fits into the rest of her life.

For the final part of the discussion, Diana and I joined in (with Cara Nicoletti phoning in from the U.S.). We discussed the rich - and loaded - topic of food and feminism. My only regret was that we didn't have longer. Presenter Jenni Murray asked 'What are the sexual politics of cookery when chefs are so frequently male and women are generally cooks?' Nigella talked about the 'savage need to denigrate any activity that belonged traditionally to the female sphere'. Cara talked from experience about the complications of working in restaurant kitchens as a woman.  Diana discussed  how troubled she was to hear of a young woman who announced she was going to be 'too important to cook' when she grew up because she wanted to be a barrister.

One of the things I mentioned - it's around 30 minutes in - was the strange and persistent idea that boys and girls are worthy of different food. You wouldn't think, in this day and age, that families would still think that boys needed mountainous portions while girls should restrain their appetites.  This stereotype goes back to the old days when the man was the bread-winner who had first claim on any protein that came into the house. But, as I found while researching my  book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, many parents do still treat boys and girls differently at the table. This is a cross-cultural phenomenon. It can be seen in cultures as different as France, Japan, India and the United States. 

Across the world, many boys are given the impression that it doesn't matter so much if they eat vegetables, because salad is (supposedly) effeminate.  Meanwhile, girls are brought up with the equally damaging view that they should deny themselves hearty main courses - steak is for men - and somehow survive on lettuce leaves and cupcakes.  

But if anyone needs red meat - or its vegetarian equivalent, which might be a hearty bowl of black bean chilli - it is not men but adolescent girls.  What is so damaging about our gendered approach to food is that it encourages both boys and girls to feed themselves in ways that go against what their bodies require.  

The single greatest nutritional shortfall in our diets right now is not that we don't eat enough superfoods, whatever those might be. It is the iron deficiency of girls. Across the globe, rich or poor, fat or thin, millions of teenage girls are anaemic. When periods start, a girl's iron needs jump from 8mg to 15 mg a day. Plenty of boys are anaemic too, but girls are disproportionately affected. A European survey from 2001 found that as many as 40% of girls aged 15-16 in Sweden had depleted iron stores ( as against 15% for boys).

Too many teenage girls are pressured by their families to lose weight when what they in fact need is better nourishment.  Iron-deprived girls need to be 'built up' with roast lamb or griddled flank steak; filling bean soups and soft boiled eggs; dark leafy greens and seeds.  Pink macarons and diet soda will not cut it.

Boys suffer too from these gendered ideas about feeding. Many boys are stoked with dangerous delusions about how much food they need - and how few vegetables.   Over the course of childhood, the trend is for boys to eat declining quantities of fruits and vegetables. In Thailand, girls eat many more vegetables than boys and twice as many boys are obese.

We need a complete rethink on how we feed boys and girls. We should feed our girls Man Food. And for our boys, a salad or two wouldn't go amiss.