This is something I’ve never seen on Masterchef, a challenge I think even their professionals would find hard: You have to cook dinner for 7 – 5 kids, ages ranging from 1 to 11, and 2 adults. And while you’re cooking you’ve got to supervise homework, stop them from killing each other and breaking the TV and make sure that the meal you serve ranges from cool enough for the toddler to piping hot for the adults. Oh, and it’s got to be something that at least 4/5 kids like. Now I’m no Masterchef contestent – I’d get to the professional kitchen stage in Round 1 where they dump you in a restaurant for a lunchtime service and then I’d prepare egg and chips or a bacon butty for the meal that follows. When I hear them say “It was amazing! It’s something I’ve always wanted to do” I’m wondering how many discarded contestants they’ve had who jacked it in after that. I’m no Masterchef but I do that challenge several nights a week.
You’re feeding them what?
When we first had kids we made the conscious decision to feed them what we were eating. Smushed up, obviously, but the same stuff. No preparing separate meals for each of the kids. We’re having sausage and mash, you’re having sausage and mash. One of us is having curry, we’re all having curry. Right from the start on solids – well, once past the mashed banana stage anyway – they’ve all been on our food and we’ve hardly had to adjust what we ate at all.
Five kids don’t just come along at once. Unless you’re Matt Forbeck (go and read his books, by the way), you usually build up from 1 through the intermediate steps of 2, 3, and 4 until you end up at 5. So you’ve normally built up a repertoire of meals that work for your family.
You’re looking for things that scale easily. Things you can look at a recipe that says “serves 2” and easily triple it. Things that cook in big pans. If you go digging in the Recipe Shed and Cook-Along Friday sections of this site you’ll find a few, I’m sure. Lemon Chicken and Pasta, Red Lentil Dhal, Ham and Pasta. Things like that.
Kids, though do tend to defy certain basic mathematical laws. F’rinstance: If a recipe for 2 uses 4 sausages, the same recipe for 7 should use 14. 2 sausages each, no? No. 18 at least. There’s always one (our middle kid, Thing 3, can eat an infeasible quantity of sausages for his size. I honestly don’t know where he puts them. Thing 4, by contrast, eats much less but appears to be made of some super-dense material as-yet-unknown to science). Conversely, if a recipe calls for 2 tomatoes, then 3 will usually do when you’re scaling up for the kids as there’s at least one who will declare “but I don’t like tomatoes” – this only holds true if they can see the tomatoes whole. Blitz them into the sauce and they’ll eat as much as you can make.
Substitution, Substitution, Substitution
I cook a lot of curry for my kids, Indian and Thai. My wife makes a mean chilli. We were taught Gulas by a Slovakian who really knew their stuff (and learned more watching their parents prepare it out in Slovakia one summer). All these dishes are assumed to be hot and spicy. But there’s a handy set of substitutions you can make…
- Paprika for chilli powder. Same basic idea, same colour, very similar flavours. One burns the hell out of you, the other doesn’t.
- Bell peppers for chilli peppers. I know they don’t taste the same but they are similar enough to work. We make our own dried peppers that we substitute for dried chillies when called for
If something calls for cayenne pepper, cut it down so 1tsp becomes a pinch, 1/2 tsp a small pinch, and so on.
Then… as adults you add the heat back in at the end. Dried chillies, crumbled into a meal work wonders. And there’s the old standby of Tabasco sauce – or Dave’s Insanity Sauce, Tree’s Don’t Dance Hot Pepper Sauce… take your pick.
But I don’t like…
Fortunately, I don’t get this a lot. Tomatoes are the main problem but, as I said earlier, only if they’re visibly recognisable as tomatoes. Said child has no problems with chilli or lasagne, eats pizza without concern. I used to hate mushrooms. Having had a couple of superb mushroom dishes over the past year, and using both dried mushrooms and mushroom ketchup in making gravy I think I’m past that now. The important thing is not to communicate these problems to your kids. If they see you having a mental block over something, they’ll pick up on it and use it to justify their own. “Daddy doesn’t like ketchup, so I won’t like it either.” As it happens, I don’t like ketchup. Fortunately the kids see it as 1 of their 5 a day and a right when eating sausages.
I’ve never lied to my kids about what they’re eating – if asked directly. I might omit certain things if asked “what’s in this?” if I know they think they don’t like it – and I’ll never tell them afterwards “you know you don’t like walnuts? Guess what was in that?” But if they ask “does this have walnuts in it?” I won’t lie. I can’t remember where they picked it up, but one of them came out with this:
You get what you get and you don’t get upset.
It’s glib enough to blame on Cbeebies, I suspect, but it’s true. If I’ve been good enough to make them dinner, the least they can do is eat it without complaining too much.
Never Experiment on your own.
I fell foul of this with a superb recipe from the “Cooking with Beer” book I’ve got. Read down the list of ingredients, swapped out the ones that would add far too much chemical heat and cracked on. It was gorgeous! But none of the kids liked it because there was still too much heat. Reading the recipe again I’m still not sure where I went wrong but – and here’s the key part – my wife was away at the time, had been for a few days, and the kids were missing her. Small things become big things. If you’re on your own, I heartily recommend sticking to classics you know they like.
These are a few of my tricks for feeding the family. Got to say that none of the kids are fat, none of the kids are skinny. The almost-teenagers behave like almost-teenagers and everything’s as close to “normal” as you can get when you don’t really know what “normal” is and are just muddling along. Parenting’s a learning experience and thanks to the blogosphere we can all learn from each other’s mistakes. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and all that jazz.