“I know what you’re thinking about,” my daughter said, snapping me out of a moment of reverie at the kitchen table. “You’re thinking about what’s for dinner.”
I was. Of course I was. Even though we were eating breakfast at the time and dinner was still ten hours away, I was mentally turning over the contents of the fridge, wondering what we had. Wondering if I could get a third night out of that chicken curry by adding another can of chickpeas. Thinking, perhaps I could do it with naan instead of rice, in a nod to variety. Or would I discover too late for a supermarket dash that we’re out of naan and I’d have to try and sell “curry with pasta shells” as some kind of Indian-Italian fusion?
Of the many, many domestic tasks involved in family life, dinner is surely the most demanding, certainly the most repetitious. As the novelist Karl Ove Knausgård observed, dinner comes around every night, yet always manages to be a surprise.
How can it be 5.30pm again?! How can I be staring down yet another kilo-pack of lean mince, thawing in a sink of hot water because I forgot to take it out of the freezer before work, trying to decide if it wants to become meatballs or kofta or burgers or just sort of cooked-mince-with-canned-tomatoes tipped on it.
Knausgård’s six-volume novel is called My Struggle, which I can only assume is a direct reference to the job of turning out nutritious, varied, non-ruinously-expensive meals that cater to the very specific and individual culinary predilections of every child in the house. I’ve not actually finished the first volume, even though I’ve been reading it for three years, because dinner is also very much My Struggle.
Listen: Meg joins the This Glorious Mess podcast to talk about her struggle with family dinners.
But thanks to a survey I conducted this week, I know I am not alone in my hate-hate relationship with relentless nightly meal prep. To the question, “if you could pay someone to do one of your jobs, which one would it be?” all eight respondents – which is to say, mum-friends in a school WhatsApp group – replied “dinner.” Or more specifically, “are you joking? definitely dinner,” “ffs, cooking” and most ambitious I thought, “food prep/grocery shopping/dishes etc”.
That the survey’s participants were all women is not to suggest that dads don’t pitch in and make three out of six weekly meals (because no one cooks Friday night do they?) It’s just I’ve no personal experience of that enviable arrangement, since my husband works much longer hours than I do and starting a boeuf-bourguignon when he gets home at 9pm is exactly four-hours past useful. The children would be mutinous by the time he began plating up at ten-to-ten. I would be hiding under the table, weeping and trying to fend them off with cereal bars.
I’ve also noticed that occasional home-chefs – those like my husband who cook every now and again for pleasure or because they somehow find it relaxing or because their own tastes extend beyond the one-protein/one-carb/one-green-thing formula of family food – have a tendency to use recipes.