“WE can’t be fussy - we’re on rations.”

The prospect of cow heel pie for tea didn’t go down well with Lesley Ellis’s children. But as a 1940s housewife, feeding a family on post-war rations, she had to come up with inventive ways of using the food in her larder, and making it last. And when they sat down to eat her cow heel and mutton dish, mixed with tinned dried egg, the Ellis family admitted it was much tastier than their bland pre-war meals.

As the stars of BBC2’s Back In Time For Tea, Lesley, 46, husband John, 50, and their children Caitlin, 18, Freya, 16, and Harvey, 14, lived as a family in the North did over the past century. In the six-part series, spanning 1918 to the present, they experience the diet, work and leisure of working people, reflecting broader changes of society.

The show was filmed last summer, when the family’s Low Moor house was taken over by a production team and transformed into the style of each decade. From the start, the family’s spacious Victorian home was halved to a two-up two-down.

It was a year ago when Lesley spotted an ad for the programme on Facebook. “I had a word with the kids and they said, ‘Go for it’. So I sent off the application - then told my husband. He doesn’t watch much TV so he didn’t realise what he was letting himself in for!” she says. “Filming lasted from mid-July to mid-September. We moved out at the start of July and next time we went into our house it was ‘1918’. We had much less space than before, my kitchen was fairly basic to say the least.”

The first episode, between the wars from 1918 to 1939, saw the family eating bread and lard - and tripe. “What the heck is tripe?” gasped Freya. Lesley was given recipes from each period to work from, using food placed in the kitchen.

“One of the most challenging things was having a different kitchen whenever we entered a new decade,” says Lesley. “I had to get to know my kitchen all over again. Normally I know exactly where everything is, but in each episode it was a completely different layout. I had no idea what equipment there was, or where it was. We’d come down for breakfast to find random people putting food in cupboards!”

As a keen cook, Lesley enjoyed making making family meals from the past. “I used to run a catering company and I enjoy cooking from scratch. But with limited supplies, it wasn’t easy trying to come up with ways of making things like tripe appetizing! Once when the director's back was turned I tried to sneak in a stock cube...” she smiles.

“I really enjoyed the first episode because it was a simpler time, with a strong sense of family and community. But in the 1940s, when we lived on rations, our food improved. Rationing was a great leveller; regardless of class or income everyone had the same amount of food.”

Last week’s episode began in 1945. The formidable kitchen range of the 1920s and 30s was replaced by a gas cooker, but there was still only one cold tap. Lesley juggled housework - pre vacuum cleaners and washing-machines - with evening mill shifts. "It's hard physical labour," she sighed, scrubbing the front step.

And, with grimaces all round, the family tried a post-war dish blending tinned pilchards and semolina. “Can I have jam on toast?” piped up Harvey.

The family also collected eggs from two hens in the back yard. They named them Sara and Polly, after the show’s presenter, Sara Cox, and social historian Polly Russell, who guided the Ellis’s through the decades. From custard tarts to curries, mangles to microwaves, the series looks at how modern Britain came to be. The family experienced northern soul, treacle sandwiches, dining out at one of the first Harvesters, and a ride on Blackpool’s historic Big Dipper. Bradford-born Anita Rani took them rambling, 1930s-style, on Ilkley Moor while, at Oakworth station, John Craven introduced Harvey to his boyhood hobby, trainspotting.

In the 1950s the family had the luxury of a fridge and a 14-inch TV. It was the decade of the teenager; Catilin and Freya leafed through the fashion pages of early Grattan catalogues and got dressed up for a night at a 50s-style dance hall, accompanied by Bradford singer Kiki Dee, who started her career in such venues.

“It was an immersive experience throughout; we had no technology, no phones. We didn’t have a TV until the 1950s, and even then we could only watch 50s programmes,” says Lesley. “The kids struggled a bit without their gadgets, but on the whole they loved the experience. It surprised us how much we settled into it. One night, when we were in the 80s, the girls and I sat together and watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It reminded me of being a teenager in the 80s.”

Lesley enjoyed the 1970s most, but not the convenience food. “Life got more interesting in the 70s - there was more leisure time and housework was less labour-intensive. In that episode I was a school cook, which I loved. We filmed at Bradford Grammar School. I made meals I remember from school dinners,” she says.

“At home we had processed food, something we don’t normally eat as a family. After the fresh, healthy food we’d had from earlier decades, the rise of branded dehydrated food seemed like progress in the wrong direction.”

Her least favourite was the 1960s. “Back then it was a sign of affluence if your wife didn’t work so, because John had a good salary in that episode, I was a stay-at-home housewife. It seemed everyone had a life except me. Youth culture had kicked off; the kids loved the great clothes and hairstyles, and they went off to the cinema and coffee shops. John was in the pub and I was at home, playing Patience and listening to the radio. I was on my own a lot and felt isolated and fed up. All I had were old newspapers and magazines - but thankfully a pile of wonderful 60s records to play.”

Lesley says doing the show as a family was hugely rewarding. “Like most modern families, we’re scattered around the house - kids in their rooms watching Netflix, John on his laptop, me pottering in the kitchen. Going into the past, we spent more time together, which was fantastic,” she says. “We have a comfortable life, a lovely home, nice holidays, and the children have grown up with that. Doing the programme, we realised how hard life used to be. Housework was back-breaking - I’m so grateful for the labour-saving devices we take for granted.

“It’s been a big eye-opener for the girls; they can do anything they want but it wasn’t always that way. My grandma was born in 1912, women of her generation had very limited opportunities.”

Adds Lesley: “Overall, John and I enjoyed the simplicity. Just spending time with the kids, around the kitchen table or on a day out.

“Caitlin started university the day after we finished filming, so it was lovely to have that summer together as a family. It’s been a wonderful opportunity.”

* Back In Time For Tea continues on BBC2 tonight at 8pm.