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“Do you remember when we used to do this all the time?” asked Joe last night. He was sitting across a restaurant table from me, we were having an early meal before our concert.

“Twenty years ago, before the children.”

For a moment both of us shared the same astonishing thought: that one day the children might move on.

It was a wonderful night out. It was the hottest night of the year, which brought it home that it was almost exactly a year since we’d had our last evening out – on the hottest night of last year.

Last year we needed a friend to come in and look after Julie, who at the time could not be left alone. This year she looked after herself, cooked her own dinner, put herself to bed. What a change.

We could go out all the time now. We’re just out of practice – it takes such a lot of effort to arrange and we have got used to our evenings at home in front of the TV. Once a year is not very good: we must practice!

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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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