Mothers returning to work with young children often felt particularly bad about resorting to ready-made meals

‘Out of touch’ television chefs contributing to stress for working mothers with no time

It used to be enough to open a can of spaghetti hoops and shout “Dinner’s ready”. But today’s mums now feel like failures if they are not rustling up family meals from scratch every night, a new study claims.

The findings, which will be presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual Psychology of Women conference, will heap the guilt on working mothers who already fret that they are not doing enough for their children.

The issue is compounded by rising obesity rates among children, according to Maxine Woolhouse, a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University who conducted the research. “Mums who don’t cook from scratch, either because they can’t for practical reasons or because they don’t want to, feel like they’re failing,” she said. “They are blamed for storing up future health problems.”

She added: “Most mothers want to provide the best diet they can for their children. However, due to contemporary culture, the healthiest diet is now seen as being ‘cooked from scratch’ with food you have grown yourself. For many working mothers this is simply unachievable.”

Dr Woolhouse blamed “TV shows presented by professional chefs who are out of touch with real lives”. She said the problem was also class-related. “Now convenience food has become relatively cheaper, middle-class mums who want to distance themselves from the working classes have taken up cooking from scratch.”

She interviewed 10 pairs of mothers and teenage daughters about food, eating, femininity, and the female body.

Experts said mothers returning to work with young children often felt particularly bad about resorting to ready-made meals after they had taken care to make their own purees while weaning their babies.

Annabel Karmel, who has written several best-selling books about cooking for children, said mums often lacked confidence in the kitchen. She added: “It’s very stressful. There’s a lot of guilt associated with giving children the wrong thing. But sometimes we just want to give children what they want. When they become independent, we can lose the will to live. We don’t want [mealtimes] to be a battle or to have to sit for hours with them.”

She had some words of advice for parents of very fussy eaters: “It can be hard to break the pattern, but a hungry child is a less fussy child. It might be better if you don’t give in and give them something else.” Despite being a fan of cooking from scratch, she had some words of encouragement: “It doesn’t have to be every day.”

Jill Rutter, research manager at the Family and Childcare Trust, said was it was “unproductive” just to blame women for not staying home and rolling up their sleeves in the kitchen when families couldn’t afford for both parents not to work. She called for flexible working to free up both parents and ensure they could do their share of the cooking.

Case study: I do the best I can with the time I have

Kath Piggott, 35, from south London, is mother to Hannah, five, and Josiah, nearly two. She works three days a week as a speech and language therapist for the NHS.

“My two spend three days a week with a childminder, so on those days I only give them breakfast. At weekends, part of me wants to make up for it, but it’s my weekend as well.

“On the days I’m feeling organised I make a batch of food and freeze it, but on the days I have off I want to spend quality time with my children rather than spend hours shopping and cooking. I do the best I can with the time I have.”