I recently made an announcement to my children: "I'm not cooking this week. You're going to be in charge of your own dinners. I'll be available, pro bono, as a consultant, but I won't interfere, and I'm not doing any grunt work."
Like several of my saucepans, I was burnt out; I was running a free restaurant for picky, ungracious clients who refused to eat jacket potato with beans because "that's not proper". I was hoping that if the boys (aged seven, 10 and 12) did survive all the knife-wielding and boiling water, they might become more appreciative of my efforts.
But the truth was, even though I knew it was time I surrendered to kitchen anarchy, I was dreading it.
I was put off cooking with children before I had them, having watched a friend bake fairy cakes with her toddler. The little girl had a cold: a line of snot dripped unnoticed into the batter, and was briskly stirred in. And when I did become a mother, and try to bake en famille, every creation would be yanked from the oven lumpen, greasy and flat. One child might manfully choke down a few mouthfuls; the others would shudder and gag.
I did occasionally have a flashback of myself at 18, declaring to my parents that I was making dinner; chucking fusilli into a pan of cold water – making a pasta glue, which they dutifully ate. I felt a twinge of guilt that by keeping my boys out of the kitchen, I was possibly condemning them to a similar fate; years of tins, jars and pasta glue.
And yet I resisted. Then, this term, my 12-year-old began cooking at school. And there was no denying that his shepherd's pie was surprisingly edible. One day, he marched in from school and knocked up a Dutch apple cake. It was a little dense, but the joy of watching him bustling about, the fact he kindly allowed his 10-year-old brother to slave under him as sous chef, almost overrode its flaws. Eating a chunk with coffee, I realised it was time to concede power. Hence my shock announcement.
Martin Caraher, professor of food and health policy at City University, London, is heartily in favour. "The social element of children cooking with a parent is really important," he says. "And if people have cooked, it gives them the ability to make decisions about what food is healthy or unhealthy. We do know that in later life, people who cooked when they were younger have healthier lifestyles."
Well, now I had to go through with it. At 4pm on the first day of the exercise, Caspar, seven, flings himself onto the sofa and says: "I'm starving. What's for dinner?"
"I don't know. You're cooking dinner tonight," I say. "Remember?"
"OK," he replies glumly.
The lack of enthusiasm is palpable. After nearly 13 years of parenting, I take the path of least resistance. Conrad, 10, is keenest, therefore he is lumbered with the task of making lemon chicken stir fry with noodles. I've never let my children touch raw meat, mainly because of the fear of germs (both ways). As I let them kiss the cat, despite his bottom-licking ways, I'm aware this is ridiculous. Now, itching, I watch Conrad grip the raw chicken, and slice it, and nearly a finger, with a sharp knife.
My plans not to interfere are ruined by my husband: his point is that if it's not edible, we've wasted seven quid's worth of chicken, and the kids will have to eat toast. He has Conrad flouring the chicken, then zesting the lemon, pouring mirin and soy into a bowl. Conrad, standing on a stool, wobbles over a hot wok for two seconds, before his father loses his nerve and steps in.
But Conrad has done all the prep, neatly and precisely – though perhaps he has been a little heavy-handed with the soy. "Too salty," complains the seven-year-old – so his dinner is a tuna sandwich. But Oscar snatches the chicken from his brother's plate: a low in table manners, but the highest accolade for Conrad's efforts.
There's no sense that the cook should tidy up. And they use every pan, scatter flour like confetti. Midway through the week, the effort involved in this venture is such that when Oscar brings home a courgette and ricotta tart whipped up at school, I pretend this counts, and serve it to Conrad (Oscar himself refuses to touch it, and warns darkly of food poisoning). It contains enough raw garlic to ward off a family of vampires, but it's tasty. Even so, in the tradition of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, we abandon the kitchen and go out for pizza.
The following evening, it's back to work. Conrad painstakingly chops chilli, lime and ginger and wraps three slabs of salmon in tinfoil. He assumes that he's making pesto, as a complement, from scratch: "Have you got any of those pip things that Dad uses?" He's disappointed when I point him to the jar. It's the first time Conrad has used the oven or poured boiling water. If I had my way, I wouldn't trust him with either till he was 18. The salmon is "chewy", says Oscar, whose other concern is whether or not the chef has "cleaned his fingernails".
At the weekend, they decide to make their favourite: Bolognese. Oscar chops onion, while wearing a protective mask – ineffective, as it has air holes – but he looks the part. Caspar is tasked with de-tinning and puréeing the tomatoes, which he does while holding his nose: "it stinks". Conrad finely grates carrot. When Oscar fries the onions and garlic he has no idea how much oil to use, and I realise they do need to be taught, they don't learn the basics by osmosis. A lesson on budgeting wouldn't go amiss either – judging from the amount of grated Parmesan left on the side.
Halfway through prep, Oscar wanders off, and is later found watching television. Caspar is drafted in to stir the mince. It's like a relay of mild disinterest. Conrad transfers the mixture to the slow cooker, ladle by ladle. This is, I realise, delightful for me. I hate chopping vegetables. Later the boys triumphantly serve their father supper – and he doesn't even have to fake enthusiasm.
The children slowly acclimatise to the new regime. "Conrad always makes a lovely dinner!" says Oscar, towards the end of the week. Though pesto features as heavily in his repertoire as it does mine. On the final day, Conrad makes sausages, and pesto – I leave it all to him. The pleasure of saying, "Conrad, have you planned a vegetable?" stays with me for some time. We're not quite Junior MasterChef – but no longer are we Can't Cook, Won't Cook. I call that progress.
Have you let your children loose in the kitchen? How did it go? Comment below.