By the time Darina Allen, the eldest of nine, was 10 years old, she already knew how to make soda bread, colcannon, mashed potatoes, stews, simple cakes like a Victoria sponge, and scones.
You might think she was precocious. Allen, 70, is Ireland’s best-known advocate of Irish food, as well as a TV presenter, author, and co-founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, County Cork.
But back then, “You wouldn’t even think it was remotely unusual,” she said.
Her mother put a great deal of emphasis on nourishing food. “She absolutely knew that our food should be our medicine,” Allen said.
Every child in her family was assigned a task: she’d peel the carrots, someone else would set the table, and so on. She learned cooking “by osmosis,” sharing in the family’s work burden and picking up skills along the way. “To think [the work] can just sit there on a chair and the unfortunate mother or father do all of it,” she said.
Nowadays, Allen said, young people grow up and leave home without having learned how to cook and feed themselves properly.
“Their very existence depends on it and here we are teaching them geography and algebra and languages, which are incredibly important, but not teaching them practical skills,” she said. A proper breakfast, for example, dispenses the need for snacking, so prevalent these days.
It isn’t easy—an unrelenting spiral of exhaustion plagues parents juggling career and family. “Everyone is trying to keep the balls in the air and be superhuman, and look great, and be in great shape and in good humor, and try to come home, do a shop on the way, pick up the kids from the creche… and try to put something on the table.” She paused. “I think young people are extraordinary.”
Life is busy, but there are still ways to feed the family well, with real food. (Allen recalled one of author Michael Pollan’s memorable one-liners: “Don’t eat anything your great-great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”)
First, stop being a short-order cook. Then, develop a repertoire of 15 to 20 recipes—easy, delicious, and nourishing ones that everyone can eat. Kids love risotto, for example. Simple soups, frittatas, and porridge (still the best breakfast you can have, with cream to help absorb nutrients, and any toppings that kids want to add themselves, Allen said) are all examples of easy dishes. Kids can learn to cook these, too.
Start a windowsill garden, with plants like cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuces, or herbs. “If kids are involved in sowing seeds, they’ll eat absolutely everything,” Allen said.
Lastly, make sure you get a good cookbook. Allen, who has written more than 15 cookbooks to date, is appalled by how many cookbook recipes don’t work. One last tip: if the cookbook is associated with a cooking school, you can be sure that lots of testing went into it.
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