How being a working parent has changed my relationship to food

red onion slices
CC BY 2.0 Jan Kraus

Gone are the days of long-simmering braises and homemade bread. Now it's a daily fight to get dinner on the table.

There was a time when I brushed off people’s complaints about being too busy to cook homemade food on a daily basis. “It’s just not a priority,” I’d think with exasperation. Amusingly, I’ve had to eat my own words over the past year. Ever since I started working almost full-time, it has become next to impossible to get homemade food on the table every day – at least, the kind of food I used to make for my family when I was a stay-at-home mom.

Gone are the long-simmering braises, the homemade gnocchi, the freshly baked cookies and fruit desserts of my past. You’ll rarely see the table properly cleared and set, or the dirty dishes under control. Instead, both of us parents are usually scrambling in the kitchen at 6 p.m., chopping and boiling and roasting the fastest, most filling, largest possible quantities of whatever ingredients we have on hand. There’s a lot of yelling at the kids to get out of the way, to go set the table, to unload the dishwasher. Basically, a day’s tasks are condensed into one crazy, exhausting hour.

Having two working parents has resulted in some significant changes in the way we approach food. One is the prioritization of ‘kitchen craft’ (which I wrote about here) and cooking large quantities of food on the weekends. But there have been other shifts that were unexpected.

Food is much simpler. My weekly menu plans have descended from elaborate gourmet to basic categories for each day of the week; these are soup, pasta, egg, curry, tofu, and tortillas. Sometimes a meal ends up being an assortment of random ingredients – olives, pickled peppers, some salami and sauerkraut, a few crackers. I barely glance at my beloved collection of cookbooks and magazines anymore because I know won’t have time to make most of the recipes. Instead I fall back on the ultra-fast staples I already know.

Monotony is standard. I used to pride myself on serving different foods on a nightly basis. Now, we eat rice at least three times a week because it’s the easiest thing to fill up hungry children and serve alongside curry, stew, chili, stir-fry, or whatever we might’ve concocted that night. We repurpose the same ingredients in various forms, such as eating a giant pot of beans in multiple incarnations, often for two or three days in a row. Oatmeal is for breakfast every day; I can’t even remember the last time I made a batch of scones – something I (unbelievably) used to do on a regular basis.

Baking never happens. I have no time to bake bread anymore, and because there’s no decent bakery in town, we usually go without or eat frozen/stale bread from the freezer. (My former self would have turned my nose up at such fare.) Forget cookies, cakes, and pies; they may happen once a month if guests are coming.

There’s been a redefinition of cooking duties. This is a good thing, but I have struggled somewhat to relinquish control of the kitchen. I used to do the vast majority of cooking because I loved it. As a stay-at-home mom, I was eager to hand over the kids to my husband when he got home from work and escape to the kitchen with my music and glass of wine, to prepare a leisurely meal. Now he cooks at least half the family dinners. The kids pitch in, too. They pick basil leaves to make pesto. They peel potatoes and carrots, stir sautéing aromatics, and cube tofu or paneer.

If someone with as much cooking experience as I have can struggle so greatly with putting homemade food on the table, then I can’t imagine how tough it must be for working parents who don’t cook as much. I feel bad for all those times when I passed judgement, because now I can sincerely say, “I get it. I know how it feels to fight every day to put food on the table.”

There are rare, slow Saturday mornings when I flip through old Bon Appétit issues and look longingly at the multi-course feasts, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that now’s just not the time for feasting and experiment. Instead, it’s the time for filling bellies, satisfying appetites, and stockpiling meals, as unexciting as that may sound. And that’s OK.

Tags: Cooking | Diet | Food Miles | Food Safety | Food Security

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