Is watching reality TV cooking shows a guilty pleasure? Feel bad no more, I am here to share how watching MasterChef or My Kitchen Rules - with your kids - can add some spice to your home cooking.
Before watching the recent season of MKR, our first cooking show we'd watched as a family, it would be fair to say that dinner time was not much fun. My kids, aged nine and 12, are on the fussy side, their table manners are appalling, and they are prone to whinging about whatever food is dished up. Sound familiar?
There's not much joy in the kitchen either. My husband is a good cook and we share the work well, but I'm no fan of cooking and we are both sick of catering for the various dislikes and intolerances.
Lured into watching thanks to the incessant ads that screened during the Commonwealth Games, I expected little other than a few hours of entertainment. To my surprise, watching MKR together has worked magic on our home dinnertime.
My hubby has remembered that he used to really like cooking (before it became a kid-focussed chore). In the past couple of weeks, he has rocked out some really fabulous dishes.
I know that nutrition is more important than presentation but we loved critiquing the "plating up" element of the show and, thanks to buying our first pieces of new crockery in years (MKR bowls from the Stella and Jazzey range!), everything looks just that bit fancier.
We now regularly score our meals. My kids have absorbed the style of MKR judges, Manu and Pete, and critique with eloquence that would impress their English teachers (complete with Manu's French accent and Pete's energetic eyebrow movements).
Perhaps because we started watching later in the season, we mainly saw high scoring dishes and my kids are echoing this by scoring even routine dinners 8, 9 and 10. After years of having to prod them to utter a grudging 'thank you', it is truly amazing to hear them declare vegetables 'perfectly cooked' and a plate of spaghetti bolognese as 'delightfully al dente'. A compliment goes a long way and these ones are music to my weary parent ears.
The most astounding up side of our MKR watching is discovering my kids are capable of good table manners (when the mood takes them anyway). Instead of our usual struggle to stop both kids holding knives like weapons and stuffing far too much food into one mouthful, I nearly fell on the floor as I watched them imitate the judges' dainty use of cutlery, chewing with their mouths closed, making only appreciative "mmm" noises, and dabbing the sides of their mouth with a serviette.
The benefit I was hoping for – them expanding their repertoire of foods – hasn't eventuated but I am heartened to hear that it has for other families I know.
My sister, Suzanne, watched several series of MasterChef with her two daughters when they were in late primary school. "We used to do the taste tests, a common elimination challenge," she says. "It made them more interested in ingredients and their food." Artichoke is now a regular on homemade pizza, and fennel and orange salad is a regular side dish.
Suzanne tells me that watching Junior MasterChef many years ago encouraged her to give her daughters more responsibility in the kitchen. "Watching the contestants, who were aged between eight to twelve, cook whole dishes on their own gave me more confidence to let my kids use knives and the stove," she says.
My friend, Peta, also found that cooking shows encouraged her son to get into the kitchen. Charlie, now aged 10, can cook perfect poached eggs and is a whizz at creating desserts. "I totally get that it's a ploy he uses to get something sweet after a meal," says Peta. "But he loves it and we give him a mystery box challenge involving fresh fruit and other healthier ingredients."
Charlie is so into MasterChef that he chose it as the theme for his eighth birthday party. "We made each child an apron with their name on it and one of the games was an 'Under the Cloche' tasting challenge," says Peta. "My mum and I were the judges for the design your own pizza and ice-cream sundae competition."
Similar to my kids, Charlie hasn't expanded his food range greatly as a result of his watching but Peta notes: "If we make something we've seen on the show, he's more likely to give it a go." For her, the best part of the cooking shows is the simple enjoyment of them watching it together. "It is his and my thing," she says.
Though we've yet to see a downside in our house, I hear from others that the impact of cooking shows is not all positive. My sister complains that her kids developed a bad habit of critically judging her 'plating up', even for regular weekday meals. "This was more annoying than anything," she says.
Another friend, Constance, laughs ruefully when I ask whether watching MasterChef has had any impact on her kids, aged 13 and 15. "It hasn't made any difference at home," she says. "But my boys are so impressed by Guy Grossi that they keep asking when we can go to his restaurant, Grossi Florentino!"
Given that this is a two-hatted restaurant with prices to match, I hope this is a 'benefit' of watching television cooking shows that my kids won't catch onto any time soon!