/ Food & Drink, Parenting

Mummy, please can we plant a cheese tree?

A pig with some pasta on a plate

New research suggests that some UK children aren’t sure where the food they eat actually comes from. When you were a child, did you think cheese came from a plant, or tomatoes grew underground?

The British Nutrition Foundation has uncovered some surprising sources of confusion when it comes to kids and food. Its research found that almost a third of primary school pupils in the UK think that cheese comes from a plant.

And it’s not just the little ones who are a bit mixed up. Nearly one in 10 secondary school students think that tomatoes grow under the ground. Almost one in five primary school pupils think that fish fingers come from chicken. Out of all the interesting stats in this research, I have a personal favourite: more than a third of five- to eight-year-olds think that pasta comes from animals.

What happens between farm and fork?

Is it the case that these children simply don’t have enough experience with food preparation to join the dots between the farm and their fork? Thinking about my five-year-old nephew, if I asked him where pasta comes from, he’s most likely to say ‘Tesco’ or ‘Mummy’, rather than give me a more accurate response.

For the older children in the survey, their confusion may stem from spending little time around farms to see where their food actually comes from. I grew up in a town that was quite industrialised, but surrounded by agriculture. It was easy enough for me to make the connection between the cows in the field near my school, and the beef in my dad’s shopping trolley.

I’ll admit that there was a grey area in my mind about how exactly the cow became beef, but I was happy not to worry about that too much until I got a bit older. As a five-year-old, however, my only knowledge of pasta was that it came in lots of fun shapes and was covered in orangey sauce. I don’t think I connected that sauce to fresh, red tomatoes for some time.

A hunger to learn about the origins of food

Hopefully the confused younger children from the survey will grow up to have a healthy understanding of the food they eat. They’ll probably joke about their misunderstandings when they get older. It’s the older children I’m more worried about. How do you get to secondary school without realising that tomatoes grow above the ground?

Still, I don’t believe my early misunderstandings about food have had a long-term impact on me or my food habits. I take an active interest in where my food comes from now and I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to the provenance of certain products.

Can you remember wondering ‘where does food come from?’ when you were little? Did you ever get food sources a bit mixed up?


As Pasta is a processed food (i.e. from wheat) your 5 year old is probably right in citing Tesco or mummy rather than a wheat field (or a large industrial plant).
Not that easy to look at a cow (or bullock) and think of rump steak, nor the white liquid emanating from an udder. It is all about education – preferably hands on – but many without access to gardening or the countryside will have to rely on parents, school and television to gradually learn.
I think today’s children are far more savvy about a lot more topics because of enhanced communication than previous generations. But not always about the best of topics.

I’m afraid that the revelations do not surprise me: it is now almost 3 decades since anything approximating to real education about food and nutrition was removed from the National Curriculum and in the same time period the inexorable rise in range and availability of “fast foods” , take-aways, and “convenience foods” has compounded the effect on people’s ability to cook or to recognise what is required or where to get it in order to cook.

I’ll share with you a couple of horrendous (if, sadly, laughable) statements which came from the Facilities manager where I work. To put this in context, the facilities manager is the line manager to the cafe manageress.

A member of staff bought a Chicken Salad Sandwich form the cafe a while ago. The person concerned does not follow a Halal diet, but the sandwich did carry a Halal sticker and we do have a large number of Halal diet consumers. Whilst eating the sandwich my colleague found a rather salty tasting piece of “chicken” in the sandwich and investigated only to find that the sandwich contained a lot of pieces of BACON. My colleague took the sandwich and wrapper to the cafe manageress who was, at that time, in a meeting with the facilities manager, and pointed out the problem. The Facilities manager’s response was to turn to the cafe manageress and say “will you please ensure that you buy Halal Bacon from now on?”. The cafe manageress replied “I’ll ask the butcher what he can do for us”.

In a similar way, on a different occasion, I was queuing for lunch one day and a student in front of me was laughing and joking about he menu. When I asked her what was so funny she turned the menu around and pointed to the “vegetarian” option ……. fish fingers. I took this up with the facilities manager who replied “What’s wrong with that? Fish isn’t meat so it must be vegetarian”

Now, with a facilities manager in his late 40’s and a cafe manageress in her mid-50’s, both with children of their own, making such appalling and crass mistakes, can we really wonder that youngsters don’t understand? If the parents don’t knwo themselves how are the youngsters going to learn?

I wish I had an answer to the problem as it is a major issue.

Nice anecdotes, Dave. I wouldn’t have expected those remarks from that generation.

I haven’t seen you around this site for some time so I hope you’re well. We could have done with your friendly input on a number of conversations lately. We’ve missed you and your ginger cat.

@John – thanks – good to know I’ve been noticed by my absence.
I’m afraid I got a bit bored of (re)stating the obvious whilst it was equally obvious that Which? and relevant industry people were not taking any notice (I’m thinking mainly issues about Smart Meters and CFL lamps, but a few others too), and when the lighter days started I got out in my garden instead! I’ve still been watching though.

I expect there are many teenagers and young adults who would think fish is OK for a vegetarian and not know the meaning of Halal.

Perhaps kids should learn a bit about farm animal welfare and mechanical recovery of meat. That may help them to differentiate between a vegetarian and a vegan.

Glad to know you are at least lurking, Dave. I thought you might pop in to one of the gardening topics or pass comments on LED lamps and two-pin plugs.

Good points Wavechange.

I’ve clearly missed some interesting topics around here – which gardening topics have been controversial and what’s this about two pin plugs? Are they bringing back BS545??????

Welcome back Dave D. We missed you too 🙂

Dave – For some strange reason, gardening does not merit a tag on the homepage but mobile phones do. A quick search will find the gardening topics. I see you have already dealt with the one about cats killing wildlife. We had a heated discussion about neonicotinoids killing bees, in which some silly bee thought I was posting on behalf of the pesticide industry. I see you have already found one of the Conversations on two-pin plugs.

Fat Sam (blobfish avatar), another early contributor, looked in recently.

The reason isn’t so strange… the order of tags is decided on how many posts are assigned that tag. Gardening isn’t quite up there, but make sure to have a look in the tags A-Z: https://conversation.which.co.uk/tags/ Here are all the gardening Convos: https://conversation.which.co.uk/tag/gardening/

Anyway, back on topic… there’s lots of things that I didn’t know how they grew. Like asparagus, cardamon, pepper, vanilla etc.

Thanks Patrick (and thumbs-uppers!).

I see that the statutor 1 thumb-down on all my posts has appeared again very quickly too.

I must say that one reason I stopped bothering much was that there was (is) clearly someone who reads these convo’s who simply puts a thumbs-down to every one of my posts (and many of those who agree with me) as a matter of course. It got very boring.

Don’t take much notice of the thumbs Dave.

I was always a bit curious about fish-fingers when they became available in the 1950’s as I was under the impression that fish did not have hands. In the days when mother prepared everything at home from fresh meat and fish, veg, fruit and dairy produce bought every day or two, children grew up knowing these things. Most families also had some sort of children’s encyclopaedia with good illustrations. But times have changed and maybe it is no longer important to know about rhubarb and gooseberries – especially as very few people seem to grow them these days so there are none for children to look at or pick except in a packet. The mistaken derivation of cheese is not surprising since so many people have a cheeseplant indoors. The “I-Spy” books provided a rich source of non-classroom education when I was a child, and they are available again now, but it was considered unnecessary to cover the origins of different foods so there is a gap in the market – “I-Spy in the Kitchen” perhaps.

My Grandfather’s 82-year-old Gooseberry bushes and Rhubarb Plants still yield over a stone of gooseberries and easily 3 or 4 stone of Rhubarb every year for me, but even people my age (mid 40’s) seem to balk at the idea of having to pick the fruit, trim it and wash it – they all just want a ready-to-use packet from the freezer. It’s the same with the blackcurrants.

Many of the young people I teach (all 16 – 21) are hopelessly ignorant about food. I’ve even heard one of them complain that “they don’t make eggs strong enough” when they cracked an egg by accident. When a few of her mates laughed she didn’t understand and had to have it explained to her that eggs are not “made” …. when I showed her a photo of an egg under a chicken she shied away from the computer screen and said “Urghhhhh that’s RIGHT dirty! I ain’t eatin’ eggs again now”. She’d clearly reached 18 thinking that eggs were made in a factory by a machine.

Does anyone else remember Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners? In one episode he sent a parent shopping for fresh food to cook at home and she couldn’t find some basic salad item – I think it may have been lettuce but I can’t remember now – and when the supermarket assistant showed her where it was she said “Oh that’s leaves. You can’t eat leaves can you? It must be for decoration – I won’t buy it and it’ll save money”.

ho hum …………….

Off to cook myself a nice gammon steak, mashed potatoes and a side salad of tomatoes, cucumber, yellow peppers and olives. I reckon that’ll be OK for a vegetarian tea containing no fruit won’t it??????

How about Heston Bloomers leaving his scientific experiments behind and doing a series of TV programmes on the origins of food. He could also cover basic recipes with each food.

I’m sure if you asked these same children where babies come from, some would have difficulty answering the question.

It’s something to do with gooseberries, so they come from geese? No, my mum said they come from storks. That’ll be margarine then.

richard says:
5 June 2013

Interesting – when I taught Food Technology it included where food came from – Myself I learned it from personal experience by farms and camping – Pus of course books. In my 40 years of teaching I never came across this lack of knowledge about food in a very deprived Inner London school – Most of the children prepared meals for the family.. And it wasn’t three decades ago

I agree in general that it might not be a great concern that the minor children don’t know where complicated products things like pasta or cheese come from, though I think it’s more of a worry with the other children. I would like to know how many adults would have problems explaining what pasta was made of, where cheese comes from or where different vegetables grow (on a bush, tree, on the ground or under it).

I grew up on in a small village in the (Danish) countryside myself, and had close contact with farm animals. One of my childminders (when I was aged 3-5ish), was on a farm, and the children were sometimes invited to witness slaughterings of animals. I know lots of adults think this sounds horrific, but I think that might be connected to their own distancing to the origins of the food they eat. As I child I found it very interesting and never thought of it as stressful or gruesome (as I think many adults who hadn’t had the experience would). It just seemed natural.

Sarah says:
23 June 2013

When I was little my father told me that I could grow a money tree (I tried but no joy) and that spaghetti grew on trees. But they did teach me where food really came from! (I’m 34 and still want a money tree!)