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Meg Mason: On the daily terror of what to cook for family dinner.

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“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.

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Every-single-day chefs who cook because they’re legally-obligated to can have no truck with recipes. We can’t be spending $100 a pop on speciality ingredients; the preserved lemons, pomegranate molasses and tiny little viles of whatever “zahtar” is, that are called for by something from the new Ottolenghi. Ours is a life of pantry-staples and inventing more iterations of meat, starch and grated cheese than others would think possible.

And anyway, reliance on recipes puts us at risk of discovering only after we’d started on the Lamb- and Rose-Stuffed Quails with Harissa and Apricots that buried in the fourth paragraph of the Method is an injunction to “marinate the birds overnight”. F*ck that, it’s cheese toasties and everyone please just go to bed. Really, any dish that requires 12 hours of advance prep should carry an “NSFP” warning. Not Suitable for Parents.

I have heard of people who spend the best part of Sunday drawing up meal plans or batch-cooking freezer-friendly dishes for the week ahead. But I am not those people. To me, the best part of Sunday is for drinking wine and chain-watching episodes of Fleabag, not spooning individual portions of stroganoff into Ziplocs bags.

They are probably the same people who love making dinner as a family, so that the children learn to cook. Which is such an admirable thing, it’s just that nothing could induce me to let under-12s into the kitchen between 5-and 6pm, weeknights.

I understand the logic of it, I really do. Make that investment of time and one day your offspring will be whipping up a many-layered lasagne while you sit on the back-steps vaping and scratching off your shellacs. And technically, depending on how many children you have, eventually they could cover off the entire weekly roster.

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My roster will always read Monday-Sunday: Meg because I come from the “It’s Quicker To Do It Myself” school of parenting. Leaning against the counter watching the clock as an eight-year-old slices onions for Bolognese and complains about stingy eyes is just infinitely less preferable to whanging the bol out myself while an eight-year-old complains about a maths worksheet in another room. It’s a decision I may one day regret but for now, it means less mess, fewer dishes and fewer runs to A&E. Also, the best me-time I get at the moment is shut in the pantry, with the cooking wine.

In my defence though, there is one bit of domestic food services I’m amazing at. That is, making the next day’s school lunches, simultaneous to stirring this evening’s stir-fry and setting steel-cut oats in the slow-cooker for breakfast, which essentially means I’m a cook across three-dimensions, like some kind of epicurean time-lord. Literally, the Dr Who of average-tasting stuff.

(I should point out that the steel-cut oats business is nothing to do with my aspiring to Goop-level kitchen excellentness, and all to do with the fact that a giant vat of porridge can be dolloped out at 7am like we’re on a never-ending school camp, and nobody gets ideas about à la carte, off-menu breakfasting.)

There are moments though, in weekly grind, when it all comes together. I make something surprisingly delicious that everybody likes. We sit around the table, chatting and chewing with our mouths closed. Nobody knocks their water over onto their sisters’ plate, nobody complains the sauce has “bits”. We finish the day feeling closer, more connected, nourished in every sense. They’re the sort of moments I hope I’ll remember when the living together part of family life is over. I really should write them down, but it’s 4.30pm and I need to start thinking about dinner.

Meg Mason’s new book, You Be Mother is published by HarperCollins Australia. You can buy the book at apple.co/mamamia

Listen to the full episode of This Glorious Mess here:


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This content was created with thanks to our brand partner GSK.

Parents, make sure to ask your GP about meningococcal disease, and what vaccines your child can get to protect them.

For further information, visit KnowMeningococcal.

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