What’s for Dinner?

A loaded question, and one that I get asked on a daily basis, and most days I’ll get asked it a few times. It conveys expectations that the reply will be something the questioner will be excited about and the reply can elicit a variety of responses, from “Yay!” to “Ugh”. Also the question that seems to throw me into a tailspin of stress if I haven’t got dinner planned yet. It’s interesting how especially dinner forms such an important part of the rest of my family’s life and seems to be something exciting they look forward to every day. A highlight in their day whereas in my non-chef world where it’s just one of many other things to take care of, it’s often a source of pressure and bewilderment as I scratch around in my mind as to what to cook.

I don’t mind the cooking part itself and actually quite enjoy it and like to try out new things when I have the time, but I’m not talented or creative in the cooking department in the sense that I could just throw together some ingredients and whip up a gourmet dish without pausing to think or look at a recipe. I’m good at following recipes and I’ll add to them or change them as I see fit but that’s the extent of my culinary artistic licence. I can’t just wing it if I have to have dinner ready by a time that’s appropriate for hungry and growing children on a daily basis.

It so happens that sometimes I haven’t planned dinner and when I then get asked what’s for dinner I’m in turmoil because I just can’t think of what to cook, because quite often those will be the days when I’ve had a million other things to do and probably don’t have much time to spend on a lovingly prepared thoughtful dinner, and the last thing I have is the headspace to think of a dish that will be a pleaser for the whole family’s varied tastes as well as easy and quick to prepare and nutritious, plus something that I’ll have the ingredients for at home so I wouldn’t have to go out to buy it, but the thing that throws me the most is that question and all the expectations that go along with it, not the actual cooking part.

I’ve taken to planning meals a week ahead so I can do the shopping in one go and not have to worry about planning meals on a daily basis, and then when I get asked what’s for dinner it’s a quick, confident, decisive reply to which I sometimes get a pleased and excited response and sometimes a disappointed one (if the menu is not someone’s favourite), but then the pressure has been taken out of the equation.

Some days I don’t feel very domesticated at all, but other days I’ll be spending the entire day cooking up a storm. I am domesticated enough though, to find it very gratifying when I’ve put a lot of effort into a meal and it’s a crowd pleaser. When my husband and I were newly-wed and I cooked a meal that I’d put a great deal of thought and effort into, I asked him if he liked it and his response was: “Hmm, it’s edible”. My spirits plummeted. I was incredulous. What would it take to impress him? When my face showed exactly what I thought he was quick to add: “That means it’s delicious!”

“It’s edible” has since become his standard great-dinner-compliment although I have to admit that it took me a while to recover my sense of humour about this one, but it’s still not quite the description I was looking for, and the other day when he cooked a steak on the barbecue for dinner, I said that it was “edible”, and his reply was: “that’s the ultimate compliment”. Seeing that, in his view, cooking the meat on the barbeque constitutes taking care of the entire meal it’s great that he’s able to cook us some edible meat. I love how the barbequed meat gets carried back into the house like a trophy and discussed afterwards like it was the only thing on the menu and didn’t require any planning, it magically appeared in our fridge and there was no other preparation involved in dinner at all, including salads and other sides. When the man of our house has barbequed the meat it means he’s taken care of everything involved with the meal.

I’ve gone through phases of getting the kids to take turns to cook a meal once a week so they can learn to take care of planning a meal and cook it, with the added bonus of me getting a night off cooking duty, but after a while something always seems to get in the way and it gets too hard to follow through. They’ll either have exams and then I take over the cooking duty again so they can concentrate on their studying, or they can’t make up their minds about what to cook until it’s nearly dinner time – never mind having time to go and buy the ingredients – which is an expert tactic of child No 1 (and about as subtle as a sledgehammer)! All three of them are actually quite capable of producing a filling meal but child No 2 is probably the one that loves it the most, having sometimes in the past prepared us 3-course sit-down candle-lit dinners with printed menus and a beautifully laid table. Child No 1 can make a mean stir-fry and child No 3 is an expert at making nachos and oat haystacks, but when it comes to producing a meal once a week between the three of them somewhere along the line it just seems to have become hard work. It’s a pity, that. Somehow I don’t get away with it.

Entrée, as prepared by No 2 for one of her dinners when she was 12

Entrée, as prepared by No 2 for one of her dinners when she was 12

Dessert by No 2 for the same dinner

Dessert by No 2 for the same dinner

The only remaining family member, Ironman, has never really enjoyed the cooking department and made that quite clear when we were still sharing the cooking duties many years ago and he’d cook us some “gourmet” baked beans on toast, which would have been great if we had it once in a while, but he made it night after night. I kept quiet because if I dared complain I’d have to take over that cooking turn, but after a while the cooking somehow reverted back to my department. It stayed in my department for many years (except for when he does a barbeque, of course) until recently when he decided to help out by taking care of two meals per week: one which consists of buying a roast chicken and pre-prepared salads and the other of cooking frozen chicken or fish fillets in the oven accompanied by some cooked (from frozen) vegies, of which he’s very proud and wanted acknowledgement of his great skills in the kitchen to which child No 3 replied: “You’re very good at heating things up.” I don’t mind either way, it’s quite palatable and I’m just very happy that there are two meals per week I don’t have to worry about!

Thinking back to one of my most relaxing holidays ever, so not taking away from all the other great places we’ve visited and spectacular scenery we’ve seen or amazing experiences we’ve had as a family, it has to be our trip to Bali, staying in a beautiful 5-star resort and not having to think about meals, planning it, buying the ingredients, preparing anything or cleaning up afterwards at all for a week. I felt so spoilt to be able to sit down at a table, order a meal, enjoy it and get up afterwards without doing any of the work. It was fabulous!

Cooking is an inevitable and unavoidable part of life though, and we all try to manage it as best we can. I thought I was on top of it now with my weekly planning, until I was asked the other day, after I was asked what was for dinner that particular night, “What’s for dinner tomorrow night?”

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