Home truths #2: Food and what we’ve really saved (does it include our sanity?)

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I’m so tempted to tell you that Johnny’s eating habits have transformed, miraculously, over the last eight months. “Yes,” I want to simper, “He literally won’t touch processed foods now, the little devil. Ohhhh you can’t imagine what a pain it is, if it doesn’t have organic chickpeas and raw super foods in it, he’s not interested. I guess he’s just got a really precocious palate. It’s such a bore, but then frozen fish fingers just don’t taste the same as Mummy and Daddy’s fennel and feta focaccia, do they?”

The truth? Not so much. His eating has got better since the introduction of the food rules. Definitely. But in a ‘toddler learns to walk’ kind of way: two wobbly steps forward, one back, a crazed dash onwards, a hideous crash and total meltdown, mended by some chocolate. Then repeat.

Cutting out all toddler/kiddy foods, ensuring that I am only cooking a single meal for all of to share at each stage in the day, and cutting our food bills substantially has come down, as always, to a compromise: he eats more variety than he used to, we eat less.

Because insisting that he eats the same as us hasn’t meant that he’s suddenly happy to try (less still ingest) the weird and wonky vegetables, spices, textures and combinations that we used to try at adult supper time. Instead, he’s gradually, oh so slowly, broadened his horizons. So we’ve had to change what we cook for ourselves, tone down the experimentation, in order to fit all our tastes.

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On an average week, last year, adult suppers would look something like this:

  • Monday – Moroccan tagine
  • Tuesday – Spaghetti vongole
  • Wednesday – sausage and mash
  • Thursday – Pad Thai
  • Friday – Spicy vegetable curry

Meanwhile, Johnny’s suppers would look like this:

  • Monday – Fish fingers and peas (peas would be thrown on floor)
  • Tuesday – Omelet (any vegetables would be forensically picked out and chucked)
  • Wednesday – Supermarket bought toddler fish pie (shoved in oven while desperately trying to meet work deadline)
  • Thursday – Something I’d found in the River Cottage Toddler Cookbook (involving a guilt trip over the lack of vegetable consumption in the past three days, a special trip to the supermarket for ingredients, thirty minutes in the kitchen and, four times out of five, complete rejection by Johnny and a fuming, frustrated me)
  • Friday – Pasta and pesto (this arrives late – because I’m juggling a million different deadlines so have forgotten to cook – so is preceded by a packet of toddler rice cakes, meaning that when supper eventually arrives, only 1/4 is eaten.)

Now, I can’t pretend our new schedule is exciting. It’s going to make pretty dull reading. So prepare yourselves. But sweet jesus, it is soooo much easier, less stressful and cheaper. Just reading the list above makes me feel a bit queazy now.

What was I thinking? All that time in the kitchen, all that effort and expense. Who was I trying to impress? Myself, I think. I’d got into a headspace where I thought cooking had to be exotic and exciting. Can I blame too many TV cookery shows, too many glossy cookbooks? Maybe. But I think part of me was also trying to boost my self-esteem. Almost as if I could rub out the reduction in freedoms and ‘cool’ that came with becoming a parent by cooking in a slick, sophisticated, cosmopolitan way.

What actually happened? Ironically, I ended up spending way more time than was necessary in the kitchen, tethering myself to the kitchen sink so that at some times and in some ways I resembled a traditional 50s housewife far more closely than the liberated ‘have it all’ modern woman I was aiming for. It was expensive. And tiring. Hear me roar? More like ‘hear me yawn’.

Food should be exciting, sometimes. But mostly, it should be nourishing and enjoyable. And that doesn’t have to mean complicated. Most importantly, cooking it should usually leave you with enough of the evening free to do something for yourself.

So here comes our new food mantra. Are you ready? And while you yawn, remember the following: less packaging; less food waste; less time in kitchen; less pressure; less conflict with my kid; more nutritious for him too; and way, way less money: Three meals for the price of one. Basically, I make a base at the beginning of the week that can be saved and, with a few additions, tweaked to create several different meals throughout the week.

For example… Last week:

Monday: Shepherd’s pie. Since it takes the same amount of time as making a small portion, I cooked up a huge batch of basic tomato sauce (two onions, three garlic cloves, three tins of tomatoes and whatever herbs I have to hand). Three quarters of this was put aside. The last quarter was added to some browned lamb mince and some peas, topped with mashed potato and stuck in the oven. Voila, shepherd’s pie. We saved 1/4 of the pie for Johnny to eat for supper on Tuesday.

Tuesday: Tomato dahl and rice. Took a few scoops of the tomato sauce, added red lentils and vegetable stock plus a few pinches of cumin and coriander and stuck it in the oven on a low heat, checking on it periodically and adding water to make sure it didn’t dry out. Served with rice and, again, a Johnny sized portion set aside for him to eat the following day.

Wednesday: Chili pasta. Served up a few scoops of the tomato sauce with pasta, a little chopped fresh chili and some olive oil. Johnny had the same the following day (minus chili)

Thursday: Veggie chilli with baked sweet potatoes. Added some kidney beans to the last of the tomato sauce and served it over baked sweet potatoes. Same for J’s supper on Friday.

Friday: A real meal! Something that wasn’t cobbled together from leftovers. In this case: roast shoulder of lamb with friends (for clarity: we didn’t eat them, we ate with them)

So yeah. It might not sound inspiring. And these meals may not blow our minds. But they get eaten, more often than not, by all of us. And, mostly, enjoyed too.

I estimate I’m saving almost £20 a week cooking this way, since the cost of our ‘adult’ meals has decreased so much at the same time as cutting out special kiddy foods. That’s £80 a month. So almost £650 in our first eight months. Almost a THOUSAND pounds by the end of the year. And SO much time. In which I could have done something really inspiring. Like learn Mandarin or motor maintenance.

Maybe next year…