Before I had kids, I had a vision of what life might be like when they eventually did arrive. They’d sleep through from day one, of course, walk and talk early and never have a tantrum in the supermarket like other people’s toddlers.
I knew just how they’d be when it came to meal times, too. Rosy apple-cheeked cherubs with lovely manners sitting down to meals of home cooked goodness around a scrubbed pine table.
Like most things, the reality bears little resemblance to the fantasy. It started early with both my kids. I carefully cooked and puréed organic pear and broccoli only to have them resolutely throw it all over the cat.
We insisted they sat at the table and even took them to nice restaurants in the hope that we might instil in them not only a love of good food but also the importance of the social activity of eating.
I’ll tell you now, we’ve failed. I grew up eating together at the table as a family – apart from Friday night fish and chips after swimming, which we ate on trays on our knees watching Magnum, P.I.
My mum was, and is, a great cook. Sunday lunch times were legendary growing up, although we called it dinner never lunch. Yorkshire pudding, always eaten as a starter with buckets of gravy, roast lamb and fluffy roast potatoes, homemade mint sauce with mint from Uncle Cyril’s garden next door.
OK, the veg were always over cooked (sorry, Mum) and tasted faintly of bicarbonate of soda (something to do with keeping the cabbage green) but no matter how hard I try, to this day my Sunday dinners still don’t taste as good.
And the way I remember it is we ate together at the table, set with a cloth and place mats and a jug of tap water that my dad called “corporation wine” – every week night, too. Bubble and squeak on Monday nights, stew on Wednesdays (my Nan came for tea and she could only manage soft stuff with her teeth) and rabbit and neck of lamb hot pot with chips on Saturdays.
I cook. I like to think I’m good, I wouldn’t have thrown myself into Celebrity MasterChef if I didn’t think I was at least passable. It’s very much homely dishes rather than fine dining, but it’s mostly edible.
While we were good at family mealtimes when the kids were small enough to be strapped into a high chair, as they’ve grown older (my son’s 13 and my daughter’s just turned 16) it’s become harder, partly because it’s more difficult to tell them what to do, but mostly because we’re very rarely in the house and all hungry at the same time.
The teenagers tend to cook for themselves, mostly a carb fest of pasta, noodles and bread. And to my shame they often eat in front of the telly or, and this is really embarrassing, in their bedrooms. Occasionally they bring the dirty cups and plates downstairs.
Like most people, I’ve been led to believe by the Bisto ads, cuddly sitcoms and episodes of The Waltons that the goal of every happy family is to sit down to eat home-cooked goodness together, every day.
We do manage it occasionally – Christmas, sometimes on a Sunday and at my mum’s house. But like lots of things in modern parenting it’s become another stick to beat ourselves with, another thing to feel bad about – the ping of the microwave being the announcement of my failure as a mother.
But perhaps it’s less about beating myself up for the times we don’t manage it and rather to celebrate and enjoy the times when we do. My mum remembers our own family mealtimes differently.
She agrees there were lots of meals around the table, but she also remembers the pile of dirty plates under my bed, the skipped suppers in favour of a piece of toast, and my brother’s downright refusal to consider rabbit stew, no matter how much she told him it was chicken.
Food sparks nostalgia. We remember things the way we want to. I’m hoping my kids will do the same.
Rev Kate Bottley is a contestant on this week’s Celebrity MasterChef, at 8:00pm Wednesday, 8:30pm Friday, BBC1
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