Are pre-cut spuds the best thing since sliced bread?

As Marks & Spencer launches its latest culinary time-saver: Are pre-cut spuds the best thing since sliced bread?

  • Lucy Cavendish and Rose Prince share views on M&S offering pre-sliced spuds
  • Mother-of-four Lucy, says the short-cut allows her to cook from semi-scratch
  • Cookery writer Rose, argues vitamins and minerals begin to fade once cut

Lucy Cavendish (pictured) argues pre-sliced potatoes are a marvellous idea for saving time on cooking 

YES

By Lucy Cavendish, Working mother of four

Shirley Conran famously said: ‘Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom.’ And, in our more harried modern times, I’ve taken her thinking a step further. My mantra is now: ‘Life’s too short to chop potatoes.’

So, when M&S started selling pre-sliced spuds, just right for topping a pie or making a no-fuss gratin (previously an oxymoron), I raised my oven gloves to the skies and said ‘hallelujah’ for every middle-class mum’s favourite shop.

I’m a busy working mother. Every day, come 6pm, I try to work out what on earth I’m going to feed my four hungry children, Raymond, 23, Leonard, 16, Jerry, 15, and Ottoline, 12. It feels like a Sisyphean task.

I’ve spent hours and hours peeling squash, de-stringing runner beans, podding peas, cutting up broccoli and chopping potatoes. Healthy foods are always the ones that need the most complex hacking and trimming into something children will consent to put in their mouths.

Then there’s the shopping and cooking. It’s never-ending, so I’m always looking for short-cuts.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that it is possible to live in a world where stock comes pre-made, broccoli is already in florets, garlic is pre-peeled, beans already topped and tailed. Forget home-baked bread; I need mine sliced and ready for toasting.

And now pre-cut potatoes. What a marvellous idea for people like me, who prefer to do more interesting things than chop veg.

I know the spuds come in an eco-unfriendly plastic bag (sorry) and are treated with antioxidants to stop them going brown but, frankly, you’d get more polluted walking down any High Street. And these new culinary short-cuts mean I can cook a meal from semi-scratch after a long day of work, and that’s got to be healthier than a ready meal or a take-away.

I know, too, that they’re significantly more expensive than standard spuds. But, then, the family car is expensive and I happily pay for that for the time it saves me, whizzing about instead of walking everywhere.

My time is precious. Between work and childcare, I never really manage to find minutes, let alone hours, to do anything for myself. And I know some women adore painstakingly crafting meals from scratch, and feel defined by the food they produce, but I’m not one of them.

My children don’t care if I produce a brilliantly made meal or not. They scoff it down and are done.

And, in the few minutes I save by using pre-cut potatoes — added to all the other minutes saved by the broccoli florets and pre-peeled garlic — I chisel out a little vital time for myself, to do the things I love.

I want to see plays, go to the cinema, read, do yoga and have fun with my children and my husband.

All of which will make me a better and calmer mum than if I stayed chained to my stove.

Rose Prince (pictured) says learning the basics of cooking has been essential in her career as a food writer 

NO 

By Rose Prince, Cookery writer

Are we really so time-poor that we cannot slice a potato? M&S certainly believes so. I find this utterly disheartening — even the simplest task is seen as a chore, not a pleasure.

The task of preparing vegetables belongs in the home, not in a factory.

I have an enduring memory of cooking Sunday lunch with my mother in my teens; her showing me how to cut the potatoes into equal shapes so they would roast evenly.

She taught me the basics of cooking and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was lucky to be receiving a valuable food education — lessons that not only brought me a great deal of pleasure, but gave me essential skills I have used throughout my life and in my career as a food writer.

Supporters will say that the time saved can be better spent. A friend of mine argues that buying ready-prepared food allows her more quality time with her children. But I could not disagree more. Cooking for or with your children can be part of that special time — and they will learn essential lessons as they watch you prepare healthy, nutritious food.

I know I will be accused of smugness, but my children, Jack, 24, and Lara, 21, love to cook. It saves them money while adding to their quality of life.

There’s another reason, of course, why M&S’s pre-cut potatoes are a problem. They come at the most inappropriate time — just as the food industry’s focus should be turning to the environment.

First, there’s the wrapper — surely plastic packaging is something to move away from? Second, the carbon footprint — prepped veg requires energy-guzzling cold storage.

In my local superstore, the number of chilled shelves is on the increase as we look for ever easier solutions to our lack of time. A whole, natural, preferably muddy potato stores perfectly well at room temperature.

Just as important is the nutrient quality, or lack of it. The potency of the vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegetables is at its highest before peeling or chopping and begins to fade once cut. It is no comfort that M&S adds a sulphite preservative to its sliced potatoes — simply confirmation that the spuds are nutritionally compromised.

There is a place for ready-made food as an occasional treat or a necessity. But if a basic task such as peeling and slicing a potato is no longer one that we have time for, we should be reassessing where our priorities are.

Otherwise, we may find ourselves on a slippery slope towards handing the food industry the entire responsibility of feeding the nation — and that doesn’t end well.

As it is, can I share a secret? If you’re careful, you can slice potatoes while watching TV.

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