British Food is Bad—Myth or Reality?

British food may once have been the butt of jokes, but no longer

Plate, knife and fork on Union Jack
Adrian Burke / Getty Images

British cuisine has long been categorized as "bad" for its supposed poor food, lack of imagination, stodgy puddings, and weak tea. With a history of wartime rationing, industrialization, and now the domination of giant supermarkets, it is no surprise that this false impression has developed.

But, like anywhere else in the world, there is both good and bad food throughout England. The delusion that the country's food is bad comes from the misconception of what passes off for British food, not what British food actually is. You may discover that many of England's current dishes are actually modern, well-prepared, and quite delicious. So let's tear down some of those British bad food myths.

There Are Limited Choices

Myth: The Brits only eat fish and chips and roast beef, and the Scots just consume porridge and haggis. The Irish live on potatoes and the Welsh, leeks.

Yes, the British do eat some of this, but they also eat many other foods, including classic foods which come with a long history. There are meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, bread, fresh fish, and seafood on the menus. The repertoire of British food includes great puddings, pies, pasties, bread, soups, and stews. And who was it that invented the sandwich and the afternoon tea? The Brits of course.
All of this culminates together in a cuisine steeped in history with a strong food heritage. British food is also diverse. It has encompassed and absorbed the food of many other cultures—the Indian dish chicken tikka masala is considered the third national dish of England.
In recent years, the need to know the provenance of our food has become an important factor in choosing and cooking food—and Britain is no exception. The explosion of cooking programs on TV, cookbooks and cooking apps, and celebrity chefs has also raised the profile of British food and cooking.

There Are Only Four Vegetables

Myth: The British only eat carrots, peas, sprouts, and cabbage. And let’s add to this that these vegetables are also cooked for a minimum of 30 minutes and are usually mashed before eating.

As both Great Britain and Ireland are mainly agricultural countries, they do produce more than just the above—in fact, the variety of vegetables is too long to list here.
As for the cooking method, it was a national joke that before the Sunday roast was placed in the oven the vegetables would be put on to boil. Thankfully those days have gone, and you will find in British food that most vegetables are now steamed, or have the minimum amount of cooking to keep their freshness and nutritional value. Thank goodness for education.

There Is No Decent Place to Dine

Myth: It’s hard to find a decent restaurant, and pubs have all but disappeared.

It may have been true 30 years ago—British restaurants consisted of mainly steakhouses with the ubiquitous steak, chips, and onion rings—but thankfully those days are long gone. And it’s not just in London. Throughout the British Isles and Ireland great places to eat are found everywhere. Just make sure you look at reviews before you choose where to dine.
They may not have completely vanished, but the great British pub sadly is in decline. Most pub owners find that sales from drinks alone no longer pay the bills. Many have turned into "gastro-pubs" where British food is the emphasis, and the community spirit which held a pub together has moved away making room for more tables. But through the UK and Ireland, decent proper pubs can be found and again, if you don’t know a good local use one of the good pub guides to find one.

There Are No Normal Meal Times

Myth: The British eat dinner at lunch, have tea instead of dinner, and eat supper at bedtime.

This one is confusing, as it depends on where in the UK you are—in the north, for example, dinner refers to lunch but not so in the south part of the country. And to add to the confusion, the vocabulary varies across the British Isles. (The word choice is often considered an indicator of social class in Britain.)
Here’s a quick translator of British mealtime terms:

  • Breakfast—also called brekkie, the same everywhere.
  • Elevenses—morning coffee break.
  • Lunch—in some areas it is called dinner. Sunday lunch is also often called Sunday dinner, lunch in schools is also referred to as school dinner.
  • Afternoon Tea—traditionally eaten around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m.
  • Tea—eaten early evening and the main meal of the day (dinner), and is considered a mainly northern working-class term.
  • Dinner—eaten from early to late evening.
  • Supper—an evening meal and a snack before bedtime. (An invitation to supper would mean the arrangement is more casual than an invitation to dinner, which is usually more formal.)