On the Table

In Britain, they eat well on the go

CORRESPONDENTFebruary 23, 2011 

— Food in the United Kingdom has endured its share of criticism. All those pasties and fried fish and chips never scored very highly on the health-o-meter.

That's why I was so pleasantly surprised this month when I arrived in this college town, home to the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University, to meet with public health students and faculty. Students and visitors who come here from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, I found, have lots of diverse, healthful food choices to fuel the learning.

I enjoyed them, too.

Sure, I saw a McDonald's and plenty of pastries and scones. But by far, the bulk of the convenience food I saw - and it was everywhere (Does everyone eat on the run?) - had little in common with fast food at home.

Take the sandwiches, for example.

The city is the sandwich-iest place I've ever seen. Packaged in cardboard and plastic wrap, they're made fresh daily and sold in convenience stores and supermarkets, on newsstands and side streets and in the Student Union.

They're everywhere, but they don't look like ours. They're better.

They come in varieties such as mackerel and sliced cucumbers, veggies with chutney, hummus and tomato slices, or egg salad and cress on whole-wheat bread. There are entire aisles of them and dozens of varieties.

Vegetarian and vegan options are easy to find.

Alongside the sandwiches is a varied collection of fresh green salads. Colorful, big, fresh salads. It's typical to see a few yogurt and granola parfaits and fresh fruit bowls, too.

If there were soft drinks, I didn't notice them for the piles and aisles full of bottled water. As for hot foods: Fast food stands sold baked potatoes, and ethnic foods, especially Middle Eastern and Indian, abound.

If you want breakfast on the go, that's covered, too.

Cereals are popular - cold cereal sold in single serving cups as well as oatmeal, known here as porridge - and almost as ubiquitous as the sandwiches. Cereal or breakfast bars are popular, and many tout their fresh, organic ingredients. Nothing but oats, dried fruit and pumpkin seeds, one label read, "and nothing dodgy."

Ideas to take home

I'm inspired to import the habits. When I get home, here's what I'm planning to do:

Stock it. Keep fresh sandwich supplies on hand, including watercress, lettuce, grated carrots, whole-wheat loaf bread, chutney, cucumbers, hummus, and chopped, hard-boiled egg whites.

I'll be sure to keep that fruit bowl full of at least several types of fresh fruit, too. It's such an easy take-along.

Seek it out. We have great ethnic restaurants in the Triangle, including fast and good Middle Eastern and Indian food. More hot rice, curried vegetables and cooked lentils.

Supermarkets carry freshly made salads, tubs of hummus and whole-wheat pita pockets. Easy and good for you.

Buy less more often. I buy a lot of fresh produce once in a while, and then some begins to spoil before I can use it.

Instead, I'll buy smaller quantities and shop more often. That way, what I'm using is always at peak freshness and appealing.

Fast food isn't all bad!

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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