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My son is now at home all day with nothing to do, having finished his exams. He is 16. He has the full use of his hands, legs, eyes and brain. I have taught him to cook (and so has his school), my fridge, my freezers and my cupboards are well stocked with ingredients, and there is friendly shop at the end of the road which will give my children anything they want on credit.

So why is he ravenously hungry when I get home? He says he doesn’t know where anything is. I show him (not for the first time). He declares it is too much work to make a sandwich. Then he says he still can’t remember where anything is anyway.

So here’s my solution: the “Food, Where Is It?” poster. Just to keep him alive until I get home. All he has to do is forage for the food, work out how to unwrap it, put it in his mouth and chew. Surely that isn’t beyond him?

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The situation is this: I am not terribly ill, but I am in some pain and discomfort, and feeling very sorry for myself. I wait impatiently for the date of my operation to be set, with a growing list of things that have to be put off or put on hold until I know. Can I finish planning the summer holiday? Can I promise to take Julie to a university open day? Can I commit to visiting my father?

In the meantime, my energy is in increasingly short supply, and must be meted out carefully. Did I really bake bread once? I cannot imagine kneading bread dough at the moment! The house has to run itself as much as it can. I have two firm sources of support: principally Joe, who runs all sorts of errands for me, often when he is exhausted himself, and who is the proverbial pillar of strength. My other ally is the Internet: now I not only order food, but whole dinners. If you live in England, I can thorough recommend family meals from Cook, which are delivered frozen and can be heated up in the time it takes a teenager to ask (sulkily) “what’s for dinner?”

Two things that I find the energy for because they are life-affirming. My office now looks over the botanic gardens, and I walk there every lunchtime, come rain or shine, absorbing the colours, the blossom, the textures, the smells. The other is music. I have signed up for a short online course to learn about Beethoven (from Coursera) and wherever I have ten minutes alone I listen to a movement from one of the piano sonatas: really listen, not have it on as background music. Both of these are luxuries I could not even dream of last year when Julie was so unwell and so dependent that I had no lunchtimes, nor ever ten minutes alone. How I relish this now!

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Isn’t red cabbage wonderful? The colour and texture as you cut into it! I’m stewing it up slowly with some balsamic vinegar.

I have a few days of holiday from work, my son has gone on Easter camp, and I am supposed to be caring for my daughter. But at the moment my daughter is getting along quite well – I am not needed nearly as much as usual. Today she has even ventured out on her own, leaving me to play around in the kitchen and generally relax. It has been so long since I had time to myself I don’t know what to do!

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What do you say when your teenager admits that they aren’t eating those packed lunches that you lovingly prepare for them every night? Acting on a hunch, I asked my son the other day if he actually ate what I gave him, and he candidly admitted that for the last six months he’d been throwing it in the bin. It wasn’t this that worried me – I’m not that proud of my cheese sandwiches – but that he was doing it because it would “make him fat”. Turns out, he eats nothing between breakfast and dinner.

What would you do? I was tempted to call him a bloody idiot – he’s spent those six months complaining about how tall and strong his friends were becoming, leaving him behind. But I didn’t because… well, because he’s spent those six months complaining about how tall and strong his friends were becoming, leaving him behind. It’s tough for the boys who are late developers, even if some of their attempts to solve their problem seem laughable.

I don’t want to overreact to this. On the one hand, I have been thinking for a while that he was scarily thin – which is why I’d carried on making his lunches in the first place, feeling uneasy about whether or not he was getting the right nutrition. On the other hand, I know that teenagers try lots of things out, and they don’t always stick with them for very long. In fact making a fuss might be counter-productive, because the chances are he’s eating more than he actually thinks he is anyway. He does still eat breakfast, and he eats everything I put on his plate for dinner, so it’s not exactly an emergency.

What I did in practice was make it clear that I thought skipping lunch was a pretty rubbish idea – and point out in a matter of fact way that to grow taller and smarter his body was going to need good nutrition. And I’ll just have to make sure in future that there’s a bit more on his plate at dinner, and plenty of appealing snacks in the fridge. I’m trusting to good old teenage appetite to do the rest of the work for me! In the meantime will I worry about it? Well of course I will – that’s what mothers do.

Can you solve these problems just by cooking and shopping smarter? How I wish there was someone to talk these problems over with!

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This one picture displays all the knives that I ever use in the kitchen – a grand total of three. I cook every day, and between them these knives are the pieces of kitchen equipment that I use to prepare every single meal. I think of them as friends and have even been known to take them on holiday.

The one on the left with the rivetted handle is my main knife, used for 80% of tasks – vegetables, meat, fish, carving, general prodding and poking. It is small, light and flexible, and takes an impressively sharp edge.

The central knife is used for everything else – cheese, butter, bread, spreading icing, emergency rescues from frying pans, waggling at naughty teenagers. This could also take a sharp edge, but I don’t keep it sharp. This knife, with its bone handle, reminds me of my grandmother, who used the same sort of knife for seventy years until she had worn it to a strange stump of a blade and finally (unceremoniously) just threw it out.

The third knife is just the bread knife: not very sharp, can’t be sharpened, and only useful because big enough to cut a big loaf. It’s the brawn, not the brains, of the trio.

I used to have a knife block and about a dozen different working knives. My husband liked to collect them, in the fond belief that the more you spend on equipment, the better the cooking. Some were pretty impressive and pretty expensive – those from Japan in particular. I had one for meat, one for fish, two for vegetables, and one I used solely for grapefruit. I used to think it was impossible to cook with less than half a dozen of these beauties.

Then my daughter got sick, and like many other families in our sort of situation, we found medical staff telling us urgently that we had to lock the knives away. Just as we had to remove a lot of rather useful common painkillers and other medicines from our cupboards. Just as we had to lock away our matches and our bleach. We locked the knife block in the garage, and I imagined that I would be back in there on a daily basis fetching out my knives. To preserve my sanity, I saved just one small knife in the kitchen – the one with the rivetted handle – and hid it in a drawer.

But to my surprise, I managed just fine with that one knife. It cuts everything I need it to cut. When I was given the bone handled knife later, I let it get blunt because I never needed the edge (though I appreciated its broad spreading surface). I still have that knife block, gathering dust in my garage, but I have not used the fancy knives in it in three years.

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A few weeks ago I started an experiment: getting a box of vegetables delivered every week. It was in the nature of laying down a challenge to myself – could I cope with planning and cooking meals with whatever came in this week’s box, without ending up with a lot of mouldy unused veg.

So far it has been easier than I expected. I soon graduated to Abel and Cole boxes, which are pretty good quality and so far have not contained anything I didn’t instantly recognize. I have to admit that good quality veg makes the process a whole lot easier: it is more inspiring, more satisfying to cook, and there’s less of a scramble to use up items before they become completely inedible.

I would say that you need a certain amount of confidence as a cook to use a vegetable box. I tried one before as a young woman and couldn’t handle the pressure! You have to have a number of basic recipes up your sleeve – soups, rissottos, stir fries and so on – that will use just about any vegetable you can think of. I do prefer to go for very simple dishes, largely because I don’t often have time to get a lot of other ingredients bought in. Sometimes that means having the experience to just guess at what to do with a new vegetable – will it roast, and how long for, or can you stick it in the microwave, or will it go raw into a salad? Of course the internet does help! It’s amazing how much more confidence you have once you’ve watched a few video clips.

Results so far seem credible. This swede is about to be made into fritters to eat with fish. We are eating substantially more vegetables as a family. There is always salad to add to sandwiches when lunchboxes are being made. I am not, despite predictions, frazzled and running late with dinner every night. The only glut so far has been onions. So, cautiously, so far a success.

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I think about food a lot of the time, when I am not otherwise busy with my dayjob, and sometimes even then. Not thoughts about eating food, but about buying it, or preparing it. This is not because I am a good cook, but because I am quite the opposite. Putting three meals a day on the table for the family remains a major challenge for me. There are few other aspects of family life that I have found so difficult to master.

For years I have pored over books and food magazines, watched TV programmes, and searched the internet for cooking tips. On the whole I do not want to learn to cook fancy food: all I aspire to is to be able to cook good food. I want to be able to turn out a decent meal reliably, using a certain amount of skill, knowing that my family will eat it, enjoy it, and grow up strong and healthy. I want food to be the centre of family life, and I want to be able to cook as my grandmother cooked – plainly, instinctively, and with love.

(At the same time, I want to be able to hold an argument with my teenage son about feminism, the banking crisis, or the collapse of Soviet Russia, while I cook!)

Over the last few years, cooking has slowly become a more enjoyable task, and I have come to feel genuinely attached to the pots, knives and dishes I use every day. I feel a certain competance now, enough to be able to experiment, and to explore. I am ridiculously pleased each time I finally master a new skill, or work out a new shortcut for myself. But most of this wonderful process of discovery is done alone because I’m not a good enough cook to go round swapping recipes with other cooks. And in any case, I only just have time enough to do it – I don’t have time to talk about it too.

The most important ingredient it turns out, is time. When I worked longer hours, scrambled to pick up my babies from the nursery before it closed at six, and returned with them to a cold and empty house, I had to overcome my own hunger and exhaustion to put something warm on the table in twenty minutes flat. I still remember the desperation of those evenings – a mind-numbing feeling of panic and dismay and empty cupboards. Now that circumstance has forced me to cut the hours that I work, I rarely work after four, and reserve at least an hour every evening to producing an evening meal. It is my family’s biggest luxury, if they but knew it: the luxury of a homecooked meal almost every night.

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