Cooking for your family can be a thankless task. Picture: iStock
Cooking for your family can be a thankless task. Picture: iStock

The question that haunts parents everywhere

Thank heavens the school year has begun.

I've bought the textbooks, let down the uniforms, engaged in a half-hearted discussion about goal-setting and smiled delightedly at my teenager's willingness to continue using a Disney princess lunch box - ironically, of course.

I've even persuaded her to polish her school shoes which, miraculously, actually belong to her unlike the pair which were brought home last year and languished in her wardrobe until the first day when her misappropriation was discovered.

I've even read the first school newsletter of the year, a practice which becomes haphazard by March and non-existent come August. And in the most extreme example of overreach, I've diarised the parent-teacher interviews in late March. But what will really make you want to punch me in the face is that I've found a solution to the most frustrating, relentless, soul-destroying, KILL ME NOW aspect of school-age parenting.

You see, my friends, I now have the perfect response to that truly loathsome question: "Mum, what's for dinner?"

Congrats if you have the time to be meal prepping in advance. Good for you. Picture: iStock
Congrats if you have the time to be meal prepping in advance. Good for you. Picture: iStock

But before I share with you my utter and incontestable brilliance you need to know how deeply troubling the dinner dilemma had become.

There is nothing in the functioning-family repertoire - other than, perhaps, worms - that has caused me so much annoyance, stress and self-pity as the need to put a fully formed meal on the table every night.

In the years BC (before children) I loved cooking. I thought nothing of throwing together a clam vongole or knocking out a deconstructed version of a Caesar salad or making a fish pie from scratch.

But in the scramble from work to soccer practice to supermarket, the joy of making an evening meal largely evaporated. At its worst, I had less enthusiasm for making a tuna bake than I did for sex two weeks after a Caesarean.

About now I can sense all you Tupperware Nazis reaching for your colour-coded Post-it notes to jot down my email so you can write to tell me how every Sunday afternoon you cook and freeze 48 CSIRO-approved meals costing just 96 cents a pop. Please don't. I don't need your defrosted broccoli do-goodery cluttering up my inbox.

Keeping children happy is hard work for parents. Picture: iStock
Keeping children happy is hard work for parents. Picture: iStock

The problem is not producing a meal because anyone with two eggs and an assortment of fridge essentials can do that. Rather, the challenge is to make something nutritious, varied, fast, cost-effective and appetising every night for what seems like the rest of your life.

Mid last year, beaten down and bereft of ideas, I cheated and ordered those meal kits from companies with jaunty names which are delivered to your door. (For two years I'd lied and said I was already a subscriber when they ambushed me outside the supermarket).

At first, it was like Christmas even if the packaging seemed excessive and the cost per carrot exorbitant. What a novelty to be delivered one onion, a handful of spinach, miniature packets of smoked cheese and a 5g sachet of turmeric. What fun to turn out sticky ginger beef and pork dan dan noodles and Indonesian lentil curry, often with enough left over for the next day. The kids loved it and even assembled some of the meals themselves.

But like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, the meal delivery service model is a journey through various emotions. The initial elation that you've been given a paint-by-numbers meal with a pretty picture to emulate gives way to slight irritation when you get a dud - generally something with tofu or a stir-fry masquerading under a fancier name.

This then moves to denial when you realise that the vegetarian curry you're eating has cost $40 when you could have bought the two potatoes, one zucchini, tin of chickpeas and single green chilli for precisely $3.95 including rice.

Gordon Ramsay, to the rescue.
Gordon Ramsay, to the rescue.

Never mind, you're paying for convenience you tell yourself until you go on holiday, forget to cancel your order and are sent the default options of cheesy meatballs and easy beef rendang. You return home to find the local cats have enjoyed a gourmet nosh, the remnants of which are putrefying on your porch.

The rage turns into acceptance that you must cancel your service and cherish the memories by using the recipe cards but shopping for the ingredients yourself. Except you never do this. No one does.

How fortunate then that I have come up with a workable option. Actually, that's underselling it. This is genius, an inspired and failsafe solution to the ongoing business of family food production.

In short, I bought everyone a cookbook for Christmas and they bought me one in return. The youngest was gifted Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course on account of her potty mouth, the eldest received a Jamie Oliver favourite, and I'm working from George Calombaris's Just George, prompting a mate to ask whether I intend to pay my workers.

On Sunday we each have to choose a recipe and a cooking night and write our ingredients on our shared What's App shopping list. My contribution this week will be lamb keftedes with chickpea miso mayo.

Brilliant isn't it! What could possibly go wrong?