/ Food and Recipes

Making a meal out of basic family nutrition

  • Lucy Thomas     -
  •      October 12, 2016     -

With the growth of obesity alongside the trend for multiple choice dinners, it’s time to go back to traditional methods

I know a woman who cooks three different dinners for her family members every evening. That was before her daughter left home: back then she was cooking four different meals. One picky son, a husband who has gone almost vegan and a daughter who was permanently on a diet all had to be catered for before my friend and the remaining, unfussy son finally sat down to eat normal food.

It was announced this week that Mary Berry is going to be a judge on a new rival to the The Great British Bake Off, called Britain’s Best Cook. There will be ten competitors over the programme’s eight episodes. (Does this remind you of anything? Me neither).

Berry said that her new show was “going to encourage proper home cooking”. Good luck with that.

Berry is a great proponent of home cooking, and a lot of us these days cannot cook a simple cauliflower cheese. You would be amazed how difficult it is to get a cauliflower cheese just right; but Berry would not. Her cookery book released in January is called Everyday, and presumably it is part of her commendable mission to fill these gaps in our education. The old basic dishes are still very popular, as long as someone else cooks them; to observe this just place a traditional rice pudding (recipe from Delia Smith) on the table with spoons and retire to a safe distance.

Berry’s show is not called Four Dinners a Day, which is what my friend was faced with cooking. The irony of it is that she is an excellent cook, of whom Berry would really approve. Her kids were not the tiny tots who had taken it into their heads to live on nothing but naked spaghetti and fish fingers. The parents of such children must be treated with sympathy: it is no joke watching a white-faced five-year-old who is willing to starve rather than eat a piece of meat or a vegetable of any kind. My brother kept vigil over mounds of green vegetables as they chilled to revolting temperatures; although strangely enough he always loved sprouts.

And we must sympathise with children in general because they cannot drink: food is their great mood-altering substance, as well as being their weapon of choice. A lot of destruction has been wrought through the power of the sugar rush, and we must respect that.

However we are not talking here about people who don’t like certain aspects of the family meal, we’re talking about people who are getting separate meals presented to them by a harassed parent, usually but not always the mother.

A survey from 2013 found that about one third of children routinely ate an individually catered dinner at home. It is tempting to say that this is all the fault of McDonald’s, or the consequence of the revolution in the number of Irish families who eat out, but in fact nobody knows what has brought the kitchens of Ireland to such a pretty pass. In an academic paper from the same year on the eating habits of British dual earner families with the catchy title, Family meals and synchronicity, the researchers found that it was not only the schedule of the adults that broke up traditional family mealtimes but also the schedule of the children, what with crèches, after-school clubs and sports activities. One woman told the authors that the only time her family ate together was on Christmas Day.

We are now behind closed doors in the consumer society and, like many aspects of the consumer society, on closer examination the multiple choice dinner appears more trouble than it is worth; particularly for the person who has to buy all those dinners, serve them and then clear up after them.

I do understand that vegetarianism and the fashion for food intolerances have made even giving a dinner party a nightmare, let alone catering for the family on a daily basis. However, with one in four Irish children now obese we’ve got to start looking into Irish family life to find out what the hell they are being fed by their parents, and also how it is being fed to them.

We now have a couple of generations of kids who think that you can order dinner every night — at home. As the streets of our towns choke up with Deliveroo couriers seven nights of the week — or is that just in my neighbourhood? — it is hard to ignore the fact that the home-cooked dinner is dying. Nobody blames tired workers who don’t want to turn around after a long day and start peeling potatoes. Although it is the truth universally acknowledged that everyone loves mashed potato. Just saying.

Naturally kids are part of this great kitchen change — they’re encouraged to order off the takeaway menu like everybody else in the family, but at least a lot of these family takeaways are eaten around the kitchen table or in front of the television together, aren’t they?

Some divisions about home cooking are much older and cannot be blamed on modern life. The idea that children will be fed different food, at a different time from the adults in the family, is an old one. In some of the country’s more prosperous homes this led to the adults sitting down to steak and wine at eight o’clock while the children were fed noodles at six. Or it is the job of the babysitter or the au pair to feed the kids spaghetti while the parents go out for . . . dinner.

No one begrudges hardworking couples the time to talk to each other, to kick off their shoes and say “Bloody hell . . .” without being shouted at, wee-ed on or corrected for swearing, but one has to ask if this is a healthy system of eating. And it should be noted that online discussions on the best way to feed families sometimes feature women, now mothers themselves, who grew up under this system of food apartheid, where the grown-ups got better food, and they still resent it all these years later.

People will no sooner talk about what they feed their children and eat themselves than they will talk about what they earn and exactly how they spend it. Food at home has always been protected by the privacy taboo, particularly strong in this country, but unfortunately we are being betrayed by our spreading waistlines, and our salty secrets are becoming public knowledge. I’d like to see a research paper on how many families will end their multiple choice dinners just in time to watch Britain’s Best Cook.

In the 1970s the lifestyle guru Shirley Conran famously said that life was too short to stuff a mushroom. Now it is too short even to buy a mushroom, and it will take more than Berry to truly persuade us otherwise.