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
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.