At the beginning of July I took on Cambridge Sustainable Food’s WWII Rationing Challenge. It was the week of my daughter’s first birthday, and we were having a BBQ so maybe not the most sensible week to try and improve the sustainability of my diet!
The challenge was simple, each week you have a ration of the following items: meat, bacon & ham, butter, cheese, milk and eggs, margarine & lard (or veg oil), jams & preserves, sugar, sweets and tea, in accordance with the amounts that were allowed when rationing was in force during WWII. There was no limit to seasonal fruits, veg and pulses. As for items that were not rationed but are imported, such as coffee, avocados and bananas it was at the discretion of the individual as to how authentic they wanted to be with the challenge. Seeing as I get on average 6 hours of (broken) sleep at night with a small child, the elimination of my daily coffee was just not an option, so I decided to just stick to the rationed items.
After signing up to the challenge I received my rationing book which firstly made me feel very retro and secondly was a good lookup to check just how much of each item I was allowed. I also received regular emails with recipe ideas and tips at how to stay on track with the challenge. As well as interesting facts about the environmental impact of different foods, such as the following graphic on the carbon footprint of different foods (I found the comparison of turkey and cheese particularly interesting!)
I had initially thought that the challenge wouldn’t be that challenging. Since I started my postdoc at Cambridge I have attended a number of talks about the impact of food on the environment, and so I consciously try to restrict eating meat to two or three times a week. I also only have a small amount of milk in my coffee, so the milk and meat didn’t concern me. However, what I hadn’t considered was my current daily biscuit/cake/chocolate habit! I guess because these items contain sugar, oil/butter and eggs, but I’m rarely the one adding these items (I don’t have enough time to make my own biscuits and chocolate!) it’s easy to forget them!
My usual daily diet begins with porridge for breakfast, made with almond milk and topped with fruit. This remained unchanged during the challenge, and with the rhubarb plant in my garden producing a bounteous crop at the moment I was able to have very locally produced fruit for breakfast. Morning snack is typically biscuits and coffee, followed by salad for lunch (various fillings, including cheese, fish or eggs) and then something like a veggie stew or pasta sauce for dinner. However, come the afternoon and my energy levels are serious flagging I usually will have a second round of biscuits or cake as an afternoon snack and then once I’ve got my daughter to bed (which often takes a lot of patience) I often collapse on the sofa with a big cup of (herbal) tea and some chocolate!
One of the main changes I made during the challenge was to swap my biscuit habit for dried fruit and nuts or fruit (I tried to have local berries, but I did have a few bananas). I also added nut butter to my porridge in the morning to fill me up so that I wasn’t staving by the time my morning snack came around. I have to say that after baby bedtime I was still in need of a sugar hit and I definitely needed to take advantage of my sugar hit. But because I had a bag of jelly babies (my sweet of choice) to last the whole week, I was much more restrained in the size of my evening treat than usual. The other thing was that I was much more adventurous with my salads that week. In particular I was much more conscious than normal to make sure that I didn’t have cheese or eggs everyday, and swapped these for falafel (on Andrew’s recommendation) instead.
So the general day to day changes I made were relatively small, but as I said at the start I had a first birthday and in particular a BBQ to get through. I think I just about managed it. I had Portobello mushroom burgers with a small amount of cheese instead of burgers, and that week I made sure I only had meet once so that I could also have a (non-veggie) hotdog. I also had none of my sugar, egg or butter ration so that I could have some cake.
Something I really liked about this challenge, and which I think meant I was able to stick to it even with the birthday party was that I didn’t have to give anything up, I just had to be careful of the amounts I was eating. This challenge shows that you don’t have to go a super restrictive vegan diet to make what you eat more sustainable, small changes just to being conscious of the amounts your eating can mean that you can make a big difference to the sustainability of your diet. So you don’t have to give up your steaks or burgers, you just don’t have them ever night!
The one thing that this challenge showed to me was that when your eating processed food it’s difficult to keep track of exactly how much your having of certain ingredients, so without realising you may be having lots of oil or sugar. I not to have too much prepared stuff, but as a busy working mum I don’t always have time to make my own biscuits, cakes and falafel! Therefore I think I went over on my oil and butter ration, as I had items that contained these ingredients only a few times in the week, it was difficult for me to actually work out quantities because this isn’t provided on the food packaging.
Going forwards I am more aware of how much of the different items I’m eating in a week and in particular I have continued with the fruit and nuts in place of my biscuit snacks. I definitely feel healthier and hopefully my diet is that bit more sustainable than when I started.
If you took on the WWII rationing challenge, we’d love to hear from you so contact us via twitter, facebook, email or leave us a comment below.