Victorian food and what was eaten varied hugely at the time between the rich and the poor and this was the same for children too. Rich children ate extremely well whereas as a generalisation the poor had limited choices and availability.
At the beginning of the Victorian Period the food of choice was that which was in season, available locally or had been pickled or preserved. With the advancements of the industrial revolution however and the invention of the railways and steam ships food began to be sent across the country and imported from overseas. The choices then began to increase.
Refrigeration and the lack of it was still a problem which everyone in the Victorian era had to endure. Food was therefore bought locally and consumed within a small time frame. Things couldn’t be bought in bulk like they are today.
The Victorian era consisted of local producers. Similar in the way we are urged to ‘shop local’ now. This was the only option within the Victorian era and families would go to the local butcher for meat and Grocers’ for tea and coffee. Shopping at a number of small shops was common.
Victorian Food At A Glance:
The diet within the Victorian era changed dramatically. Children typically ate what they were given by their parents so whatever was on the menu for the adults was available for the children.
Rich vs Poor Victorian Diet
1: Rich and Poor Children had vastly different lifestyles when it came to food. The rich children would dine on significant amounts of food and waste food too whereas the poor would have limited meals of low quality. A large quantity of the population were living on dripping, bread, tea and vegetables. Certainly not the greatest diet!
2: The diet for those Victorians who were very poor was terrible. Potato pairings & rotten vegetables were sometimes the dish of the day and for children born into this background this was exceptionally difficult for growth.
3: Poor children had few food luxuries and ate poor food. The rich however would be well fed every morning and would have extra luxuries accessible.
4: The level of meat ratio at meal times decreases through the classes. The wealthy Victorian family would have meat daily and cheese and bacon for supper. Where wages begin to decrease meat would only be on the menu 2-3 times a week with a now increased volume of potatoes/vegetables. This would continue to decrease until the lowest rung of the ladder where the poorest would have potatoes as the sole food. The difference in eating habits was substantial.
5: The Typical poor urban family would have around 12 schillings per week to spend on food, and most of this would be spent on bread. They could afford to buy meat only once per week and they would try to make it last as long as they could.
Farmers Had A Better Diet
5: Those from the farming industry tended to eat much better. A diet of meat, vegetables, fresh milk was commonly available and they were available to feed their children the nutrients they needed for growth and development.
6: Children living on farms would have a far better diet than those within the city. Vegetables could be stored all year round in a root cellar whereas in the city you had to consume what was in season.
The Most Important Meal Of The Day
7: With the start of school for children and industrialisation breakfast was seen as the most important meal of the day. Middle class breakfast was substantial with everyday consisting of bacon, eggs, ham, haddock, coffee, fruits and bread. Think of a modern day hotel breakfast.
8: Street vendors within the Victorian times would sell a number of ‘different’ foods including Rice milk, Ginger beer and Sheeps trotters. Never a dull moment within the Victorian times!
Certain foods were incredibly popular which was partly down to how readily available they were. These were:
- Vegetables in season,
These foods would form a stable of most diets and would be a basis for most meals.
In the last quarter of the 19th Century, with the advent of refrigeration, freezer ships and a change in how food was stored and sold, things started to improve. The price of the average food bill started to fall, by up to 30%. This had a significant impact on the nutrition and the food available to the average working household.
Popular Victorian Food Recipes
Here are some examples of popular Victorian dishes.
In the early Victorian era, Yorkshire pudding was traditionally made by baking it in a pan placed beneath a beef joint roasting on a spit. The ‘beef dripping’ juices from the beef would add flavour and colour to the pudding.
While today we serve Yorkshire Pudding alongside meat and vegetables as a side, in the Victorian era it was typically served with gravy before the meat. This was to fill people up on cheaper food, to conserve as much meat as possible for later meals. Not so important in wealthy households, but very important in poor households where malnutrition was a constant hurdle to overcome.
After Queen Victoria was named Empress of India in 1876, dishes with curry flavours became a hit in England. A famous example is kedgeree, a breakfast meal made from rice and smoked fish. It’s seasoned with curry powder and topped with slices of hard-boiled eggs. Unlikely to find this on a poor table, imported spices were a thing reserved to those with the money. It was a favourite though, for those that could afford it.
Jellied eels are a traditional English dish. Like the marmite of their day, you either love them or hate them. They were particularly popular however, among the working-class in Victorian era London. The dish consists of chopped eels boiled in a spiced stock that is allowed to cool and set, forming a jelly.
The dish originated from the Thames River in London. Eels were abundant in the river, making them a readily available and inexpensive source of food for the poorer, surrounding communities. The preparation of eels was not only economical, but also a way to preserve the fish before the advent of refrigeration.
Jellied eels became a staple in London’s East End, often served in pie and mash shops, which were common in the area. The dish is still enjoyed by some today, (like I said above, marmite) representing a piece of traditional London cuisine with roots in the city’s history.