When I was first pregnant with my son, we had invited guests to lunch. It may have been nearly a decade ago now, but for various reasons (other than my savant-like food memory) I remember what we served them: pan-fried lamb back straps, a roast beetroot and feta salad and lemon and garlic roast potatoes. Their lovely children struggled with it and we were informed that “we would have to stop that kind of cooking once we had a family”. I’m not sure what they meant by “that sort of cooking”. Nutritious? Tasty? Whatever, really, my immediate reaction was: balls.
And balls it remains. When did feeding your family become so fraught and complicated? Why are we all so wound up about it? Is is our horrendously busy lives? The fact that cooking is a dying art? Is it the experts who are constantly freaking us out about how our children should be born / raised / educated? I’m not sure, but being the home-birthing, co-sleeping, intuitively driven parenting mammal that I am, I’ve always been pretty happy to give the experts the conceptual big finger. Food is rarely a drama at my table. My kids don’t eat everything, but they’re pretty good and extremely open minded. I am a long, long way from being a food nazi, but they tend towards healthy choices most of the time. We enjoy eating together, we like talking about food and they are interested in all aspects of cooking. Now all this may be nothing more than sheer, dumb luck but I suppose it is possible that some of the choices I’ve made have shaped this result. So here are some of my thoughts on the family table (in order of importance):
Eat together at every possible opportunity. This means at the table, people, not in front of the telly. We have our best conversations around the table and our kids see their parents eating a huge variety of foods. Eating at the table together weaves food into the fabric of everyday life. Dinner is a ritual, a place of bonding. Our kids talk to us and we talk to them beyond the usual routine of answering questions and issuing orders.
Don’t make separate meals for your children. Every parent wants their child to eat well. The risk in making separate meals for your kids is that you will repeatedly make the few things you know they will eat. If you shape their tastes towards a limited range of foods, surely the outcome will be unadventurous eaters.
Keep cooking the same way you always have. Your kids have come into your life. You don’t have to change anything much. And this doesn’t just apply to food, by the way. Listen to your own music, not the bloody Wiggles, keep up your hobbies, go to music festivals, travel, whatever it is you do that makes your life meaningful. Your children are adaptable and they will learn to eat what you teach them to eat. A good trick is to put a few things on the table, a combination of stuff you know they’ll eat plus some potentially more challenging items. That way, they can try a few different things without the pressure of having to commit.
Don’t worry if they don’t eat it. Seriously. Let it go. They’ll be fine.
So having said all that, the following recipe is a prime example of how these ideas work at my place. A south-east Asian meal served on a number of dishes in the middle of the table for everyone to pick at as they choose. The chicken is golden with honey and easy for little people to eat, the beans sweet and salty with deep tropical flavours. Fresh red chili optionally available on the side. Bland steamed rice is their comfort food, will always be eaten and fills small stomachs. Your kids are great, food is great. Enjoy them together.
Grilled honey chicken with Thai green beans
For the Chicken:
- 2 Chicken breasts, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon of honey
Toss the chicken strips through the soy, juice and honey and set aside while you cook some rice and prepare the beans. When the rice is cooked, quickly cook the chicken on a BBQ or stove top grill plate. Set aside and cook the beans.
For the beans:
- 500 gm trimmed green beans
- 1 red onion, finely sliced
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons grated ginger
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander.
Heat oil in a wok or frying pan over high heat until very hot. Throw in the beans, onions, garlic, ginger and cumin and toss briefly to mix. Add the water, toss another 10 seconds and then cover. Leave to cook until the beans are just tender. This will not take long. Remove the lid and add the fish sauce and sugar. Toss briefly then add the coriander and serve. Serve the beans and chicken on separate plates with a bowl of steamed rice and some sliced red chilies on the side.