Shortcuts in home cooking

There is a spectrum in cooking, from restaurants at one end, to cooking only what you grew yourself at the other. Using jarred sauces or ready meals falls in-between, and you can find people very ready to have an argument about where the line falls between “cooked from scratch” and not, or between “home cooked” and not.

I don’t particularly care whether a stranger – or even a friend, to be brutal – thinks I cook “from scratch” or not. There are so many competing pressures on you when you have children to feed. You have to balance variety against food miles and familiarity, quality against cost, and so on, and that’s before you start to fret about artificial additives and salt content. As long as I think I’m striking the right balance, and my children are healthy, anyone else can get stuffed (with ready-made organic lentil stuffing).

Where on the spectrum do you fall?

Before we had any children I was far closer to the DIY end than I am now. We tried new foods, and I happily spent hours after a full day’s work fiddling in the kitchen. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned before, the children want feeding All The Time, but they won’t give you more than two minutes to prepare anything. Moreover, once they’re over about one and a half they have Opinions about food. I remember a conversation between friends some years ago where one said she tried hard not to give the children the same meal more than twice a month; another friend (with twins, and I think that’s significant) said she felt she was doing well if they weren’t given the same meal more than twice in a row…

In surveys I tick the box labelled “I cook from scratch most days”, because my definition of “from scratch” is “from a collection of ingredients that could have made something else”. If you look in my trolley at the supermarket you can’t tell quite what is on the meal plan this week. Those sausages might be grilled with vegetables, or baked with pasta, or in a Sunday brunch sandwich. Those tinned tomatoes might end up in a casserole, or a chilli, or bolognese. I try to avoid ingredients that limit your meal plan, such as a jar of pasta sauce, which can only be pasta sauce.

This isn’t a pious post, by the way. I am not trying to convert you to hand-knitted lentil bake. I just need to start off by explaining my position: time-poor but slightly fussy.

So I take shortcuts – of course I do. Shortcuts include simplifying the menu (remember macaroni cheese!) and getting someone else to do the grunt work. You can buy nearly anything already chopped up or cooked – believe me, I’ve tried nearly all of them.

We did not like frozen cauliflower florets, but frozen diced onions and frozen sliced carrots are now saved in my Favourites for the online shop. I also buy fresh shredded (that is, grated) carrot. Shredded carrot and diced onion is the base for anything Italian I ever cook, with diced celery if I have an extra minute without someone’s choosing to wipe his nose on my leg.

Frozen diced onion is a bit wet, so you need to fry it off before you put anything else in the pan. No good on a burger, but absolutely fine as the base for something like a stew or soup.

But if I tell you nothing else today, I want to tell you about frozen mashed potato. It sounds disgusting, and it’s no substitute for proper home-made lumpy mash with just slightly too much butter in it, but it means I make cottage pie and fish pie.

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It comes in weird nuggets. You can lay them straight on top of the fish and white sauce (remember? I promised I’d explain further) or mince and vegetables, then happily into the oven. Fork them over once they’re nearly cooked and nobody can see the joins.

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Free yourself. Cook food they like without having to shriek “Don’t kill your brother” from the kitchen for an hour every day.

Most importantly, though, is to remember that meals don’t have to have a name. It doesn’t have to be suitable for a restaurant menu. They can have “chicken, toast and peas” if that’s what there is and that’s what they’ll eat.

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