COVER STORY

It’s the con­stant bat­tle that plays out in homes around the coun­try ev­ery night – time-poor, work­ing par­ents try­ing to serve nu­tri­tious, ap­petis­ing meals for din­ner that ev­ery mem­ber of the fam­ily will hap­pily eat. So what’s the best strat­egy to win this

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - DAN STOCK re­ports

How to cope with meal­time drama.

“Mum, what’s for din­ner?”

It’s the cry that car­ries across the land, cut­ting to the core of ev­ery work­ing par­ent. In our era of finicky eaters, di­etary quirks and un­pre­dictable sched­ules, fam­ily meal­times have be­come a high-wire act. No longer will chops and a cou­ple of veg­eta­bles do.

Be­tween shop­ping for in­gre­di­ents, or­gan­is­ing spe­cial meals, and deal­ing with chil­dren and adults more crit­i­cal of your hand­i­work than a bit­ter food re­viewer, fam­ily din­ners can place tremen­dous pres­sure on cooks.

And yet the pos­i­tives of home-cooked meals make it all worth­while. Eat­ing din­ner to­gether ben­e­fits fam­i­lies – phys­i­cally, men­tally and emo­tion­ally – and saves money in the process.

Just as the modern fam­ily has changed over the past 50 years, so too has what it eats.

Rewind a few decades and typ­i­cal gro­cery items in­cluded flour, sugar, rice, tea, tomato soup, spaghetti and baked beans, and these were gen­er­ally home de­liv­ered un­til the ad­vent of the su­per­mar­ket in the 1960s.

We’re still eat­ing flour and sugar, of course, but they now come pro­cessed, and served up in a mind-bog­gling ar­ray of op­tions. It’s this pro­lif­er­a­tion of prod­ucts that food his­to­rian Pro­fes­sor Bar­bara San­tich says has ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed the con­cept of fam­ily meals.

“The sheer va­ri­ety of foods has mul­ti­plied, along with the ways of

cook­ing them, which means peo­ple have to make a choice, and that’s dif­fi­cult,” says San­tich, an aca­demic at the Univer­sity of Ade­laide and the au­thor of Bold Palates: Aus­tralia’s Gas­tro­nomic Her­itage.

Fifty years ago a snap­shot of the fam­ily meal was ev­ery­one sit­ting at the ta­ble, eat­ing with a knife and fork.

“To­day, it’s not nec­es­sar­ily at a ta­ble, and not nec­es­sar­ily with a knife and fork. They are big changes,” she says.

“It could be a dish just eaten with a fork, or with the hands. The ease and sim­plic­ity of the one-pot dish brought about this change.”

The one-pot dish fea­tures promi­nently in the cat­a­logue of self­taught cook and TV pre­sen­ter Anna Gare, who says it’s a key weapon in the modern cook’s mid­week arse­nal.

“If your fam­ily team is two pro­fes­sion­als with kids it’s re­ally hard to come home and think, ‘Now I have to be cre­ative and put a beau­ti­ful meal on the ta­ble,’” she says. “Onepot won­ders are great to have when you’re on the run and don’t have time.”

Gare’s new cook­book, De­li­cious Ev­ery Day, fea­tures such one-pot dishes as chicken proven­cale, sausage and lentil casse­role, and veg­etable tagine that can be pre­pared in less than an hour.

But is this part of the prob­lem of feed­ing the fam­ily now? That ev­ery­one de­mands a de­lec­ta­ble meal to be served ev­ery day? Gare doesn’t think so.

“Maybe I’m a bit of a lush, want­ing ev­ery­thing to be de­li­cious. I know that peo­ple don’t al­ways have the time,” she says. “But if you can gather to­gether a clutch of sim­ple recipes with a few in­gre­di­ents, with the ad­di­tion of fresh herbs from the gar­den, you can bring magic to the ta­ble.”

TV chef and cook­book au­thor Ed Hal­magyi says there’s a dis­so­nance be­tween food ex­pec­ta­tions and day-to- dayd prac­ti­cal­i­ties. “The re­al­ity is that most Aus­tralian fam­i­lies have only seven main dishes in their reper­toire a at any one time,” he says.

His num­ber one rule is to have a t three-day sup­ply in the freezer of the o one dish the whole fam­ily loves.

“Ev­ery­one should have a soup, stew or bolog­nese-type dish in the freezer. Just like ready money in the event of an ac­ci­dent, you need ready food, be­cause noth­ing makes a dif­fi­cult week more stress­ful than feel­ing like you failed to feed your fam­ily,” he says. “So use the freezer wisely. It’s the in­surance pol­icy.”

Find­ing one dish that ev­ery­one eats, let alone loves, can be a myth­i­cal quest.

“The prob­lem for many kids is that be­cause they have so many op­tions in so many parts of their life, they of­ten don’t re­ally know what they want,” Hal­magyi says. “That’s when the con­fu­sion sets in, and sub­se­quently bad be­hav­iour.

“One of the im­por­tant things for par­ents to re­mem­ber is that you’re the par­ent, not the friend, and it’s our job to make good de­ci­sions on be­half of our kids. And some­times they’re not go­ing to agree with them. That’s OK.” Pro­fes­sor San­tich says, in the­ory, it should be eas­ier now to feed a fam­ily well com­pared with even 20 years ago.

“There’s so much more knowl­edge avail­able about what’s good to eat, and what’s less good.” Gare has a sim­ple so­lu­tion for fo­cus­ing on nu­tri­tious food: get the kids into the kitchen. Fram­ing it as a fun ac­tiv­ity as op­posed to a chore helps shape health-con­scious think­ing.

“I’ve al­ways en­cour­aged my kids to cook. It’s one of the hand­i­est skills you can have in your life,” she says. “If you get your kids in there early, it be­comes part of their life. Then, when you’re com­ing home at night your teenager can have din­ner on the ta­ble. It’s a good in­vest­ment!”

But when it’s up to you and there’s noth­ing in the fridge or freezer, Hal­magyi says there is noth­ing wrong with serv­ing up some­thing sim­ple.

“Par­ents need to stress less and give them­selves some breath­ing space. If it’s OK for break­fast, it’s OK for din­ner. A boiled egg, toast, a few salad leaves. It’s a per­fectly balanced meal.”

“I’ve al­ways en­cour­aged my kids to cook. It’s one of the hand­i­est skills you can have”

MAD­CAP MEAL­TIMES: Food doyenne Anna Gare in her el­e­ment.

De­li­cious Ev­ery y Day by Anna Gare, Mur­doch Books, $ 39.99, out now.

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