A few weeks ago, my daughter Sarah held her seventh birthday party. Invitees to the "Big Bamboona" (as the grand celebration was called), were issued with written wardrobe instructions. They were required to arrive in funky clothes for some preliminary disco dancing, interspersed with massages and foot baths dispensed by an expert older sister. Guests would then change into pyjamas and watch a couple of Lano and Woodley skits on DVD, while scoffing popcorn and chips. After half an hour of relaxation, they would change into elegant evening gowns and take their seats for the gala event of the evening; the "posh dinner party".
The menu for the posh dinner party had been settled by Sarah, and typed up by big sister Catherine, weeks in advance. Guests could choose from three entrees: sushi with teriyaki chicken, tamago and avocado; deep-fried pork wontons with soy and sweet chilli, and home-made potato gnocchi with Napoli sauce, served in a cheese basket, after the fashion of Andre's creation on the first series of MasterChef.
At least once a week he'll come to me and say, 'Can I make cupcakes?' I just hand him the recipe book and he does the rest.
Main course veered sharply down-market, with a choice between (ordered-in) Aussie or margherita pizza. Guests voted with their tastebuds and barely touched the pizzas.
Room was found in heaving stomachs for Nigella's gooey chocolate puddings, served with vanilla ice-cream and raspberry jelly.
As I was preparing this menu for my daughter's party, it struck me how much things have changed. Last year, I was icing cupcakes, warming up cocktail franks and caressing columns of gooey orange "meat" on to squares of puff pastry in the name of sausage rolls, for Sarah's "Winnie the Witch" party. Now, I'm hosting a "posh dinner party", and serving food that discriminating adults would happily eat. Why are children suddenly taking such a keen interest in cooking and eating? The answer, in a word, is MasterChef.
I am not alone in discerning a shift in my family's attitude to food, since the MasterChef juggernaut rolled into town.
As the mother of three children of primary school age, Brighton management consultant Jacki Rush has seen plenty of fads come and go: "Over 11 years of being a parent, there's always a craze, whether it's Ben-10 or Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh cards," she says.
But there's something that sets this craze apart. "The difference with MasterChef is that my husband and I don't have to fake it, we are genuinely interested. The kids don't have to drag us to the TV, like they did with Gladiators and Merlin. "
Indeed, the secret of MasterChef's success derives largely from the fact parents are happy for their children to watch the show with them.
MasterChef has become a family event because it defies our low expectations of reality television. While there's an inevitable dose of irritating reality TV hype, the vibe is mostly genuine, warm and encouraging. Hosts chefs Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris hail from the top end of their industry, and the food served on the show is the antithesis of junk. In fact, it's usually far more elaborate and sophisticated than anything you would serve at home. And MasterChef shows an admirable respect for tradition, paying homage to pioneers of Australian gastronomy such as Margaret Fulton, Stephanie Alexander, Tony Bilson and Tetsuya Wakada.
MasterChef's cosmopolitan, often challenging, attitude to food — consider how much offal there was in series two— has influenced kids' willingness to try new things, and made parents eternally grateful. Jacki Rush's oldest child, Darcy, refused to eat Asian food before MasterChef, she recalls: "But I think that watching people like Poh and Adam, who he admired, made him want to try Asian food. Now he happily eats yum cha and Vietnamese and Thai."
Children are not just eating more adventurously; they're also spending more time in the kitchen. East Brighton mother of four Amanda Mack has a typically sport-obsessed 11-year-old son. But, since the first series of MasterChef, Samuel has discovered life beyond the football field and the soccer pitch. "At least once a week he'll come to me and say, 'Can I make cupcakes?' I just hand him the recipe book and he does the rest."