I was raised in a family with two working parents who outsourced most domestic labour, including quite a lot of what cooking was actually done (very little, in truth). Our 'junk cupboard' (full of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Chips Ahoy, Ruffles potato chips, etc) was precisely half the size of the 'real food' pantry, which was stocked with tins of vegies, soup and other highly refined items. There was minimal fresh produce in the house beyond bananas and apples. My mum hated to cook, but would occasionally produce a dinner of pork chops cooked to cardboard consistency (to ensure we didn't get salmonella) and mashed potatoes (made from real potatoes). Many dinners were toast or a bowl of Cheerios we made ourselves, though we could sometimes convince Ma to make french toast, waffles or pancakes (from Krusteaz). She also made oatmeal to order as we all chilled out in front of the tv at night.
Stuart, on the other hand, was raised in a family where fresh food was paramount and readily available. Hardly any refined foods sullied their pantry, and his mother was a steady and plentiful cook of quality meat and three veg. Neither of our fathers cooked, though mine would man the barbecue at parties (Stuart's still doesn't like to do so) and mine also taught my mum to whip up a damn fine southern-style fried breakfast (he's from Alabama).
The point is, I certainly wasn't raised with any cooking skills, let alone positive food memories from childhood, except for the beautiful restaurants my folks would take us to during our regular travels. Our housekeeper did teach me a lifelong love of quesadillas, which I have passed on to my own children, though with many added vegies and my own refried beans.
So here we are, late thirtysomethings, both working full time, with three children. I work as well as doing my PhD, and this year my role as President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) sees me interstate on average one night a week. Yet this year is the year I am learning to make sourdough, it is a year we are slaughtering chooks and eating them, a year our garden has proven extremely bounteous (and we rent, by the way), and we manage to put a home cooked meal on the table nearly every night. How do we do that, we're often asked?
I've written plenty on the importance of skills – competence is the friend of efficiency. The other thing I've written about is the pleasure of competence, and the need to take pleasure in the everyday, including 'chores' such as cooking, gardening and tending the chooks. Finally, I've also pointed to the benefits of teamwork and the further efficiency of a larger household to reduce waste, a point supported by last year's report on household waste, which showed that smaller households waste more, though large share houses that are not families still tend to waste more as well. Just briefly then, here's how we do it:
We don't do exhaustion. Our philosophy is that everything is achievable if it's a priority, and cooking when you're tired can actually be a way of relaxing if that's how you see it. For Stuart, this extends to foraging on the way home, doing a bit of harvesting or staking tomato plants, etc, and for me it extends to finely chopping a number of ingredients for a quickly fried Thai basil, chili garlic fish instead of ordering takeaway. This is not to say we never get tired. We do, but perhaps we think of it differently to others, and reasonably expect ourselves to still cook a meal for the family, which may be something as simple as rice and avocado on a really lazy night. (NB We do order takeaway sometimes – perhaps once a month.)
We share the shopping, and make do with what's in the house when necessary. Stuart pops into the Vic Market once or twice a week on his lunch break to pick up mostly fruit or a bit of meat. I stop in at the butcher, Italian grocer, organic grocer or fruit shop in our local shopping street after dropping kids at school on a day when I work at home, or on the way home from working in the city. When we're really low on fresh food and too busy to go get some, we raid our freezer, which is always full of stock, homemade pasties and sausage rolls, and frozen meat for 'emergencies'. Plus we keep a lot of beans, both dried and tinned, for quick and simple meals. Having chooks means we always have eggs on hand, and my breadmaking obsession keeps us in bread!
Although I'm the primary and more passionate daily cook, we share the cooking as well. Like I said, if we're very busy, sometimes the meals are incredibly simple: rice and avocado, pasta with a jar of passata from last summer's harvest, lamb chops with roast potato and a simple salad, or Stuart's stir fry, much beloved by the children. When there's time to do something more, we do. I love nothing more than having time to get into the kitchen by 5pm so I can serve something delectable between 6:00 and 7pm. Sometimes I'm overly ambitious and dinner is late – in which case I let the children graze on nuts and fruit to tide them over.
But you even make bread during the week? Yes, and I can do this because I believe in a lackadaisical approach that makes it possible. You can see my post on how I wander through the kitchen, giving a dough a quick knead here and there, before letting it rise overnight to pop into the oven when we get up. This takes me no more time than someone else might spend reading the paper or watching the news (in fact, much less). Much of my bread is fairly flat because I leave it to rise for too long – it's still totally scrumptious! Stuart also regularly brews beer of an evening, and does so quickly and efficiently after more than a decade of practice.
What about all the preserving? Harvesting and processing the masses of plums, tomatoes, pumpkins, olives, apricots, and more is one of the pleasures of our 'down time', though some of it can be rather tedious as well (ie pitting plums!). We do most of this on the weekends, though Stuart, who never rests, will often do some after work as I make dinner (does this cause some tension in the kitchen occasionally? Yes. ;-))
How do you manage to have a social life, take children to lessons and sport, and do any exercise, etc? Okay, a confession: I'm a little allergic to exercise. When I commute to the city I try to ride my bike (8km), so I get exercise that way sometimes, but admittedly not enough. Stuart rides every day, rain or shine, so does about 20km a day. He also brings crazy amounts of stuff home on his bike, so perhaps he is a little superhuman and not everyone is inclined to do what he does. We socialise plenty, but often by having people over or going to their houses for dinner. Our kids are not heavily scheduled, though Antigone now does gymnastics (shared between 3 families, so only have to drive once/three weeks) and piano (the teacher comes to us). The boys aren't keen to do lessons, and we don't push. We'd rather have more homely time here, cooking, reading and playing, which we think will give them what we regard as more important life skills than many other things we could outsource, though we're not knocking the value of those other things – they're just not priorities for us.
So how can everyone 'find time' to cook more delicious and nutritious foods? First of all, through practice. The ability to use limited time well requires skills. Skills lead to competence, which is pleasurable. It feels great to know you've dashed in with a few ingredients and knocked up a lovely meal for the family, which leads to you wanting to do it again. Rushing in and throwing a frozen or takeaway dinner on the table doesn't feel that great, but you'll probably do it again if you don't know how to cook something better, leading to a dreadful cycle of bad food and related guilt/bad feelings. It's a no-win cycle, but skills are the way out.
An important part of this skill-building is reframing cooking and food shopping as 'fun' and 'relaxing', leading to 'delicious'. It's also great to spend time as a family doing the harvesting and cooking – we think it's 'good parenting' to cook with your kids. :-) Ultimately, the creative process of imagining what's in the garden/fridge/pantry and how you might transform it into a meal to nurture yourself and others is deeply and viscerally joyful, in my experience. 'scuse me while I go knead the bread...