After New Zealand was settled by Europeans in the early 19th century, the dominant food culture was British in origin – meat-based meals accompanied by vegetables. Traditional Māori foods were not much eaten by Europeans, though kererū (native wood pigeon) and kākā (a native parrot) were seen hanging in butchers’ shops in the early years, and people trapped and ate weka (a flightless rail).
Food consumption data
Food-supply data is used to measure food consumption in New Zealand. For food produced domestically, the amount exported and the amount processed for non-human uses is subtracted from the total amount produced. For imported food, non-human uses are also subtracted. This doesn’t take account of wastage between the farm gate and the home, but it does give an indication of the changes in foods eaten over time. Since 1977 nutrition surveys have measured how much people participating in the surveys ate – these also give a good indication of how the population at large eats.
While non-British immigrants to New Zealand brought their own foods with them, it wasn’t until the 1960s that New Zealand’s cuisine started to diversify beyond the ‘meat and three veg’ tradition to embrace other food cultures, such as those from Mediterranean and Asian countries.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly on farms, meat was eaten three times a day – bacon, chops or offal for breakfast, sausages or cold meat for lunch, and roasts or stews for dinner. Since the 1960s New Zealanders have tended to restrict their meat eating to once a day. By 1982, when a nationwide survey was done, the traditional Sunday midday roast was virtually a thing of the past.
Over the 20th century consumption of sheep, beef and poultry gradually declined – from 130 kilograms per person a year in the 1930s to around 91 kilograms in the early 2000s. The drop in meat consumption is associated with growing knowledge about the role of saturated fats and cholesterol in heart disease and a growing interest in vegetarian meals. Increased trimming of fat from red meat cuts since the early 1990s has reduced the amount of fat consumed by meat eaters.
The amount of meat consumed by 19th-century New Zealanders was remarkable compared to consumption patterns in the United Kingdom. Mr Cooper of Scotland, a visitor to New Zealand in 1897, was reported as saying that New Zealand hotels served too much meat and that it was his ‘firm belief that New Zealanders eat more meat and drink more tea than any other people in the world.’1
Beef and lamb
Although New Zealanders have long thought of themselves as sheep-meat eaters, more beef has always been eaten. Until the 1960s more hogget (one- to two-year-old sheep) and mutton (older sheep) was eaten than lamb (less than one year old). Lamb became more popular in the 1970s. In 2001 each person ate an average of 27.1 kilograms of beef, 9.7 kilograms of lamb and 6.9 kilograms of mutton.
In New Zealand, unlike Britain, pork was considered a special-occasion meat, especially after the price began to rise in the 1950s. Dairy farmers no longer kept pigs in order to feed them excess skim milk, as this was sent off to dairy factories to make milk powder. Bacon and sausages were cheaper forms of pig meat. When pigs began to be farmed commercially pork became more affordable. In 2011 each person ate an average of 20.6 kilograms of pig meat.
The humble pie
While clearly of British origin, the individual meat pie has a special place in both Australian and New Zealand cuisine. The meat pie is seen everywhere in New Zealand, not just at bakeries but also in cafés, corner dairies (convenience stores) and service stations. 66 million of them were sold in 2019 – 14 for every Kiwi. While the meat pie is still evolving – variations such as butter chicken and chicken satay are now common – there are regional variations that go far back into New Zealand’s colonial past. One example is the mutton pie, which has long existed in Dunedin and throughout Southland.
Chicken was formerly a special-occasion meat, and before the 1950s most chickens for sale were either cockerels or hens whose egg-laying days were over. With the advent of mass barn-raised broiler chickens in 1960 production rose dramatically, from 8,000 tonnes in 1962 to over 40,000 tonnes by the mid-1980s. Chicken became increasingly affordable due to selective breeding – by 2008 chickens could be grown to maturity in half the time it had taken 25 years earlier, using half the amount of feed. In 2007 each person ate an average of 36.5 kilograms of chicken, making it the most popular meat.
Since deer farming was legalised in 1970 farmed venison has entered the diet of non-hunting families, but it remained expensive and was mainly eaten in restaurants. Goat, possum and rabbit were seldom eaten in the 2000s, though rabbit was a common cheap meat until the 1950s – the sale of rabbit meat was banned in 1956 for pest-control reasons.
Vegetarians can feel conspicuous in New Zealand, where the economy depends on animal products. In 1882 the Star newspaper said of H. Satchell, the chairman of the Canterbury Dietetic Reform Association, ‘who but a man of pluck and energy could possibly have taken the chair at such a meeting in this meat-raising, meat-devouring community.’2
Vegetarians eat plant-based foods and refrain from eating meat and seafood, while vegans do not eat any animal products, including dairy foods. A very small number of 19th-century settlers were vegetarians and the Canterbury Dietetic Reform Association (founded in 1882) promoted a vegetarian diet.
Vegetarianism became more popular in the 20th century. The New Zealand Vegetarian Society was formed in 1943 and vegetarian recipes appeared more often in cookbooks from the 1960s. However, vegetarianism has remained a minority diet. Around 1–2% of New Zealanders were vegetarian in the early 2000s, though more would have regularly eaten vegetarian dishes alongside meat ones.