The BBC television programme Eat Well for Less, now entering its sixth round of production, first aired in the United Kingdom in January 2015. Co-presented by ex-costermonger and MasterChef personality, Gregg Wallace, and ‘award-winning’ Green Grocer, Chris Bavin (a figure then comparatively unknown) this new foodie-mentary sought to show families at financial ‘breaking point’ how to drastically reduce their food bills whilst improving their dietary health. Dealing jointly with the problems of over-expenditure and under-nutrition, the programme follows a relatively simple format. First, Wallace and Bevan happen upon a family ‘in crisis’ — typically a two-income family looking to afford an expensive holiday or home extension. Through an introductory sequence that invariably includes ‘mock’ espionage in Tesco (picture ‘the boys’, that’s Gregg and Chris, tutting loudly from a supermarket warehouse as The Jones’ lift expensive BOGOFF items from end of aisle displays), the family are alerted to the horror of their twenty-first century ways. Thus, in episode one, we learn that The Booth Family of Lancashire spend an average of £13,000 on food shopping each year. This, we are told, is more than two times the national average for a family of four.
What follows over the course of the programme is a process of culinary re-education. Faced with the realisation that their shopping and hoarding habits are ‘out of control’, Dad Howerd and Mum Jenny are implored to admit that a change of food lifestyle is needed; in step Wallace and Bevan, here to take them on a journey of alimentary discovery. Throughout the main body of the show, we watch as the BBC production team remove all regular items from the Booth family kitchen, replacing said items with different brands disguised in plain packaging in an effort to ‘open their eyes to new varieties that could save them money’. Lastly, and not forgetting occasional forays into the worlds of food production and dietetics, the presenters step jointly into the role of culinary educator, teaching mum and dad how to cook nutritious family meals ‘from scratch’ with little to no effort and maximum lifestyle gain. The Booths save a significant amount of money, putting them well on the way to affording their new home extension, and all, we imagine, eat happily ever after…
Intervention, ordinariness, and the ‘bloke’ as expert
On the surface of things, Eat Well for Less offers an up-to-date alternative to the ‘campaigning culinary documentary’ (CCD), a form of lifestyle programming described by media critics Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones. In this sub-genre of food television, one epitomised by Channel 4 shows such as Jamie’s School Dinners (2005) and Hugh’s Chicken Run (2007), producers apply a ‘problem-solving narrative’ to a perceived food ‘crisis’; more often than not, this crisis is childhood obesity or ‘unethical’ consumption. At the heart of the CCD, then, is ‘the attempt to make-over ordinary people, institutions or industries’. Yet crucially, this depends on ‘a strongly middle-class gaze at the culinary underclass’. In its raw and unprocessed form, the CCD has also been read as implicitly gendered: while problematic lifestyle practices are commonly attributed to working-class mothers, it is often the male professional chef who models improved ways of shopping and eating.
Eat Well For Less occupies a subtly different space in the food lifestyle television genre. It is deliberately light-hearted in tone, its food ‘crisis’ more prosaic in nature, and its purpose ultimately to entertain rather than convert. Nevertheless its core messages — messages that ‘naturalize neoliberal forms of governmentality’ by encouraging personal responsibility for ‘lifestyle’ practices — remain much the same: big brands and convenience foods are bad — while cooking with ‘real’ ingredients and eating together as a family is good. In these messages, a post-war shift towards what one historian has termed a lifestyle-oriented public health discourse is writ small through the familiar moral language of food.
Much like the campaigning culinary documentary, each family in Eat Well for Less is made over through a process of male intervention. Though Wallace and Bevan do not quite encapsulate the ‘male inspirational figure’ of the CCD (we might think here of Oliver, Fearnly-Whittingstall, and, to a limited extent, Ramsay) — they are positioned, through their gender, to motivate nonetheless. Indeed, the ‘blokey’ masculinity embodied by Wallace and Bevan seems crucial to the show’s format and success: it enables the pair to stroll comfortably into the home of an ‘ordinary’ (read: comfortably off) family and to playfully critique their domestic attitudes and practices. One might reasonably compare this to the opposing gender dynamic in female-fronted shows such as Channel 4’s SuperNanny (2004-2008) or How Clean is Your House? (2003-2009), in which the central figures are presented, in large part through their femininity, as unwelcome, know-it-all interferers.
If Wallace and Bevan represent a soft-edged masculinity in the show, then the theme of gender extends also to the female dietician — someone who is typically presented in a clean, studio environment away from the home and domesticity. In the Booth Family episode, for instance, Bevan visits dietician Lucy Jones in one such white-washed setting to learn about the fat content of mass-produced sausage meat. Not only does this scene facilitate the presence of female expertise in the show (though crucially without the charge of domestic interference) but it also enables Bevan to perform his ‘ordinariness’ by learning from Jones along with the viewer at home. Here emerges a second point of overlap with the CCD and with lifestyle formats more broadly: a ‘growing intersection between celebrity, expertise and the ordinary’ that has been linked to the decline of intellectual authority in post-1980s Anglo-American culture. Hollows and Bell note similarly of the River Cottage series that the idea of the ordinary expert is all important. Since ‘too much professionalism can threaten to undercut the “ordinariness” of a television personality”, Fearnly-Whittingstall is presented as an ‘enthusiastic amateur rather than a didactic expert; his role is to extract the expertise of others and to thereby show viewers that new skills… are easily acquirable’. Similarly in Eat Well for Less, this balance is delicately struck via Wallace’s carefully cultivated working-class image. One minute he is the teacher of bourgeois ‘dispositions’ (teaching Howerd how to cut an onion properly in episode one) — the next a cockney Everyman, learning new skills from experts and professionals. In spite of his elevated class position (one acquired by virtue of a multi-million pound fortune and recognisable celebrity status) it is the ‘blokey’ working-class Wallace that we meet in the show, the Wallace who is able to empathise with the Booth family in their efforts to save pennies on baked beans. Indeed, as he tells them at the supermarket counter in episode one, ‘we’ll do it together’.
Whilst Wallace’s identity as a former green-grocer is in this way positioned at the heart of Eat Well for Less, qualifying him to talk confidently about thrift and simplicity, his large fortune and family circumstances are not. We never learn of his own relationship to ideal family and food practices, presumably because our knowledge of such practices would risk undermining the didactic narrative of the show.
Men as cooking subjects
Within the literature on European food culture and masculinity Jonatan Leer has written about two televisual models of men as ‘cooking subjects’ in the decades prior to the 1990s. The first is the hyper-masculine chef of the professional kitchen, a model closely associated with the origins of the cookbook itself, and the second the ‘hedonistic bon vivant figure’, epitomised by untrained celebrity cook, Keith Floyd. In contrast throughout this period, the dominant female cooking subject remained the stay-at-home housewife. This was a figure exemplified first (in the 1950s through 1970s) by Marguerite Paten; second (in the 1980s and 1990s) by Delia Smith; and more recently — some have argued, with feminist inflections — by self-styled ‘domestic goddess’, Nigella Lawson. Leer goes on to suggest that
the tough exterior of the male professional chef was softened in the 1990s, a decade marked by the rise (and then further rise) of Essex-born ‘lad’ and family-man, Jamie Oliver. Crucially, however, the opening years of the twenty-first century saw reversals in this trend, with boisterous professionals Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay contributing to a ‘re-chefisation’, and thus re-masculinisation of the popular cultural space. The rise of the male celebrity chef as a ‘moral entrepreneur’, and a new tendency to present cooking as a form of ‘masculine escapism’ in the 2000s meant that the ‘reconstruction of the traditional gender order’ within TV cookery was complete by the 2010s.
Such tensions in the relationship between food and gender are clearly at work in Eat Well for Less, a programme that seems conscious of a need to present gender parity as a desirable aspect of family life. Dad Howerd (of episode one fame) is thus presented as the main cook within the family, whilst Mum Jenny (inverting gender stereotypes) barely knows the basics of a fry up. Nevertheless, the presentation of Howerd as male cooking subject is shot through with inconsistencies. Described as a ‘passionate foodie’ who ‘loves being the chef’, his relationship to food is apparently a world apart from the ‘care for others’ role associated with women. Howerd is visually introduced to viewer, furthermore, not in the domestic space of the kitchen but lifting burgers from the family barbecue, a site coded masculine through its associations with red meat, dirt, and the great outdoors. Such motifs align closely with the research of Julie Parsons, a sociologist whose work on contemporary family foodways in Britain suggests a dominant conceptualisation of male cooking activity as ‘play’ rather than ‘work’. In particular, notes Parsons, ‘a commitment to epicurean foodways becomes a field for the performance of hegemonic masculinities’; the identity of the ‘gourmet food adventurer’ enables men to conceive of food as ‘pleasure’, and to thus disassociate cooking from the feminised realms of food provisioning and food control.
Tropes and motifs of a similar kind appear repeatedly throughout Eat Well for Less. At a different moment in this episode we encounter Howerd preparing meatballs for his family in the kitchen: Wallace is pictured in the foreground chanting ‘Howerd the chef! Howerd the chef!’ In a different room, meanwhile, Mum Jenny ‘learns’ from Bevan how to shop and meal plan effectively. (It is she, we are told, who is ‘over-buying and buying the wrong things’). Space is left in the weekly schedule for Howerd to ‘experiment’ with his own meal ideas; thus, Saturday is chalked in as ‘Howerd’s free day’.
A more recent episode based in the seaside town of Blackpool is framed around a narrative more typical of the campaigning culinary documentary. Here, the viewer is introduced to ‘the Atkinson Family’: Mum Michelle (who works in retail); Dad John (a joiner); and their three sons, aged seven, twenty, and twenty-two. The problem at the heart of this episode is the family’s out-of-control ‘takeaway habit’. Although Michelle is willing to cook for the family, the family are unenthusiastic about her food, her two eldest sons in particular preferring to order takeaway meals from the chippy. We watch over the course of an hour as this family is gradually transformed: Dad John learns from Bevan how to make a chorizo pasta dish, resolving to prepare it ‘once a week’ for Michelle, and sons Liam and Gary are seen conquering the preparation of a steak sandwich.
Yet despite these scenes of shared labour, the programme regularly resorts to gendered stereotypes, apparently uncomfortable with the issue of how best to represent men in the kitchen. In teaching the boys how to prepare a steak sandwich (itself coded highly masculine) Wallace declares that he is taking them on a ‘massive foodie adventure’; we watch as he ignites their pleasures and senses — only incidentally, it seems, teaching them how to cook food for others. More intriguing still is the scene where Bevan ‘surprises’ John at work in his joinery. John’s workshop, full of metal tools and hard wooden surfaces, forms the backdrop to his cooking apprenticeship, quietly reinforcing the idea that food must be masculinised (that is, divorced from the domestic) in order for it to be thought of as a legitimate working man’s activity. One final example sees John and his two eldest sons preparing a slow-cook gammon steak meal back in the family kitchen. The cameraman zooms in on John symbolically carving the meat, his position as masculine head of the household (visually) reinstated and the feminine care work involved in cooking for others offset.
In these and other ways, Eat Well for Less complicates scripts around food and masculinity without ever fully challenging the cultural frameworks that distinguish family food work from ‘manliness’.
‘It’s like a pear that’s gone off’
According to media critics David Bell and Joanne Hollows, the genre of “lifestyle programming” ‘operates around a series of dispositions associated with the new middle classes… which are naturalised as ‘“universal” and “appropriate”’. In such a way, this form of programming lends authority to the habits of the educated class, ‘implicitly or explicitly [working] to render other lifestyle choices less legitimate and less “ethical”’. These ideas are particularly clear in the case of food television. Food practices commonly associated with working-class lifestyles — antisocial eating patterns; the consumption of processed foods; late-night eating etc — are here presented as in need of eradication, whilst the bourgeois values of eating ‘healthily’ and ‘cooking-from-scratch’ are upheld, normalised, and encouraged.
Although Eat Well For Less toys with various messages around food and taste, it is arguably dependent on a similar ‘middle-class gaze’. In a scene apparently intended to get viewers’ eyes rolling in series five, for example, a single mum of three declares loudly, and quite clearly for the benefit of the camera, “I can’t be bothered to cook tonight, so shall we go to McDonalds?” Viewers watch as Mum Jo and her three boys, aptly named the McDonald family, arrive at their home from home, the local drive through. Characteristically, the programme gives voice to Jo’s rationale: ‘I find time quite precious and what time I have I want to spend with my boys doing things; I don’t want to be just stood in the kitchen for hours’. But despite this, the programme fails to engage fully with Jo’s circumstances and constraints. Rather than permitting the possibility that convenience foods might be useful for single mothers — that other ‘everyday ethics’ might be ‘governing’ their lifestyle choices, as Bell and Hollows have suggested — the programme seeks ultimately to eliminate fast food from a narrative of acceptability. Frozen foods are gradually stamped out, and Jo is transformed over the course of the programme into an ideal mother figure. Finally, she is able to prepare a ‘Speedy Spatchcock Roast Chicken Dinner’ for the family, even if ‘speedy’ really means forty minutes’ cooking time and a further twenty minutes’ preparation.
Perhaps to avoid the charges so often levelled at the likes of ‘do-gooders’ Oliver and Fearnly-Whittingstall, the subjects of Eat Well for Less are never the working poor. Instead, they are ‘ordinary’ UK families, with room enough in their owner-occupied homes for a sizeable BBC camera crew. But despite the absence of poverty and deprivation in the show (there is no mention of UK food banks, for example)— the programme manages to perpetuate a subtle downward gaze. Families such as the McDonalds are there to stand in for the ‘culinary underclass’, and viewers are encouraged to distance themselves from such incompetence with reference to their own cultural knowledge and capital.
A clear example of this occurs with the Atkinson family in series five. Confronted with the swap from usual food shopping items to a mixture of old and new ones, Mum Michelle is seen holding up a Hass avocado and asking, ‘What is this? Seriously what is this?’, to which her husband John replies ‘it’s like a pear that’s gone off’. Of all items characteristic of the new middle-classes, the avocado is perhaps the most notable, and the programme here operates on the clear assumption that viewers will find this foodie faux pas chucklesome. As if we were in any doubt that the Atkinsons’ food practices are bad lifestyle practices, we are also informed that Dad John drinks three and a half litres of Coca Cola per day. Indeed much of the programme is devoted to John’s personal struggle to ‘quit’ cola, a journey that involves a visual display of his typical added sugar consumption per day, week, and month. Contrasting with an apparently higher tone of broadcasting on the BBC, the programme draws on the same fascination with immoral eating practices characteristic of commercial television. One might think here in particular of Channel 4’s SuperSize versus SuperSkinny (2008-2014), in which viewers were encouraged to watch aghast as the annual food intake of a morbidly obese individual was thrown down a transparent shoot.
But if certain food practices are de-legitimised in Eat Well for Less, then the taste discernments of the brand-buying classes are also called into question. The format of the programme itself plays around with ideas of taste and social distinction, suggesting that many food products are indistinguishable when it comes to appearance and flavour alone. Prior to the food swap experiment, participants are heard declaring their allegiance to certain products and brands: ‘I don’t think the cheaper stuff tastes very nice’. Yet during the process itself, old favourites are often confused with cheap alternatives; Howerd of series one states that the jam provided is ‘ok, I’m not mad about it’, as the voiceover smugly informs us that this is his usual purchase. Such themes resonate with historical research into consumer prejudices around food throughout the twentieth century. As Alysa Levene shows, when it came to industry taste tests for cheap alternatives to butter in the decades prior to the Second World War ‘the supposed perception of a taste difference was much more of a psychological factor than one which was really experienced’.
And yet, to position Eat Well for Less as an exercise in lifestyle-levelling would be to view the programme as it would surely like to be viewed. Whilst certain prejudices and distinctions are poked fun at through the show (supermarket-own brands taste the same as any other) the programme would also have us believe that certain food lifestyles are morally repugnant. These same food lifestyles are, of course, those of many low income families up and down Britain, mums and dads with little money to spend and little time to spare, who would deign to feed their children pre-packaged food. Indeed, families of this kind remain an implicit target of criticism throughout the programme, such that ‘eating well for less’ really means dismissing the food lifestyles of those at the heart of the UK’s food poverty crisis. In this respect, the show upholds the class narrative underpinning the campaigning culinary documentary. The practices of low income working families are poor practices; those of middle-class families morally and nutritionally superior.
In this discussion I have touched upon issues of class, gender and family transformation in the programme Eat Well for Less and suggested that — despite the BBC’s brand image as a responsible broadcasting corporation — the programme replicates many of the tropes apparent in Channel 4’s ‘campaigning culinary documentary’. There has not been space here to consider viewer responses to the programme, although the analysis highlights how lifestyle television programmes may work upon those who view them. Indeed, ‘factual entertainment’ programmes regularly construct roles and personalities for the audience, as well as their own dramas and plots. Addressing the realities of food inequality in the UK — a country in which an estimated three million children encountered food hunger over the summer of 2018 — means paying attention to processes through which ‘reality’ television creates and glosses over ‘ordinary’ life. This should be a key focus for food scholars and television critics alike.
Katrina-Louise Moseley is a History PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Her AHRC funded doctoral project explores relationships to food and body weight in Britain after the Second World War (1954-1990) with a particular focus on ideas of selfhood and identity. Katrina is a co-founder of the Cambridge Body and Food Histories group, an interdisciplinary network for graduate students and early career researchers working on issues of consumption, material culture, or embodiment from past to present. Website: https://bodyandfoodhistories.wordpress.com/
 Joanne Hollows, “The worst mum in Britain”, Class, gender and caring in the campaigning culinary documentary’, in Jonatan Leer and Karen Kiltgaard Povlsen (eds.), Food and Media: Practices, distinctions and heterotopias (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 113 and pp. 116-7.
 Hollows, ‘The worst mum in Britain’, p. 117.
 Hollows, ‘The worst mum in Britain’, p. 118.
 Jonatan Leer, ‘What’s Cooking, Man? Masculinity in European Cooking Shows after The Naked Chef’, Feminist Review, 114 (2016), p. 80.
 Hollows, ‘The worst mum in Britain’, p. 118.
 Hollows, ‘The worst mum in Britain’, p. 114.
 One might add to this the characterisation of Gillian McKeith in Channel 4’s You are What You Eat (2004-2006) and, latterly, Anthea Turner in the ITV show, Perfect Housewife (2006).
 On the performance of ‘ordinariness’ see David Bell and Joanne Hollows, ‘From River Cottage to Chicken Run: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the class politics of ethical consumption’, Celebrity Studies, 2:2 (2011), p. 189.
 Tania Lewis, ‘Branding, Celebritization and the Lifestyle Expert’, Cultural Studies, 24:4 (2010), p. 585.
 Bell and Hollows, River Cottage to Chicken Run, p. 197, 183.
 Bell and Hollows, River Cottage to Chicken Run, p. 183.
 Leer, ‘What’s cooking man?’, pp. 75-6.
 Leer, ‘What’s cooking man?’, p. 76. See also Rachel Moseley, ‘Marguerite Paten, Television Cookery and Postwar British Femininity’, in Stacey Gillis and Joanne Hollows (eds.), Feminism, Domesticity, and Popular Culture (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 17-32; Joanne Hollows, ‘Feeling Like a Domestic Goddess: postfeminism and cooking’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 6:2 (2003), 179-202.
 Leer, ‘What’s cooking man?’, p. 77.
 Leer, ‘What’s cooking man?’, p. 77.
 Consider here, for instance, the homosocial cooking ideal embodied by Newcastle duo Dave Myers and Simon ‘Si’ King, better known as ‘The Hairy Bikers’.
 Leer, ‘What’s cooking man?, p. 86.
 Leer, What’s cooking man?’, p. 76. See also Marjorie DeVault, Feeding the Family: The Organisation of Caring as Gendered Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
 Julie Parsons, ‘The joy of food play – an exploration of the continued intersectionalities of gender and class in men’s auto/biographical accounts of everyday foodways’ Special Issue on Food in Women, Gender and Research, 24:3-4 (2015), p. 1, p. 5.
 This is redolent of the feminist argument that the less ‘visible’ tasks of feeding (including meal planning, budgeting and food shopping) fall disproportionately upon women in modern western societies. See DeVault, Feeding the Family and Daniel Miller, A Theory of Shopping (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998).
 Bell and Hollows, ‘River Cottage to Chicken Run’, p. 183.
 Bell and Hollows, ‘River Cottage to Chicken Run’, p. 189.
 I use ‘taste’ here, in the Bourdieusian sense, to denote the ways in which class distinctions are cemented through lifestyle practices. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 1984, 2010).
 Bell and Hollows, ‘River Cottage to Chicken Run’, p. 187.
 Leer, ‘What’s cooking man?’, p. 80.
 Aylsa Levene, ‘The Meanings of Margarine in England: Class, Consumption and Material Culture from 1918 to 1953’, Contemporary British History, 28: 2 (2014), p. 153.