Stephanie Alexander urges us back to the dinner table

Craving quality family time? According to the grande dame of Australian cooking, Stephanie Alexander OAM, the solution is closer than you may think.

Since peeling her first apple in her mother’s kitchen in the 1940s, Stephanie Alexander has seen the tables turn in Australian households – from cooking and eating as the family glue, to home kitchens simply serving as a quick fuel-stop.

However, according to the restaurateur-turned cookbook author and food educator, the magic that can happen in a kitchen is timeless, and worth prioritising.

“The kitchen, and dining table, are where the best things happen,” she says.

“Good food. Good talk. We can appreciate each other, show affection and interest. We can all contribute something so that it is never an effort, and always an anticipated pleasure.”

Not only can a focus on food help bring the family together – it will also form the foundation for lifelong healthy eating. Here are Stephanie Alexander’s top tips for tapping into the simple pleasures of food and family.

Schedule it in

The return of the sit-down meal was one of the positives to spring from the pandemic, with an Australian Institute of Family Studies survey showing that the trend towards working from home increased the amount of time that people spend sharing meals.

However, as weeknight activities return to full swing, many families may again find it unrealistic.

Alexander suggests prioritising at least one special family meal each week.

“Be prepared to ask questions and to really listen to the news and doings that are important to each other,” she says.

“Maybe cook some special food. It will only work if it is enjoyable for all concerned.”

Tell the stories

The lore attached to beloved family recipes can be just as tantalising as their taste.

Share the stories behind recipes, the people who created them, and the occasions when they’ve been served, and they’ll do much more than fill hungry bellies.

“There is real power in a family favourite, especially if it has a story attached,” Alexander says, recalling her father’s reverence towards his mother’s baked apple sago: “it was fascinating because we loved our mother’s version – my grandmother was no-longer alive and we could never find out the difference”.

Like her own kitchen ‘bible’, The Cooks Companion, Alexander says she prefers cookbooks that are story-based.

“I want to know why as much as how to do it,” she says.

Start early

The seeds of Alexander’s cooking career were planted at the age of nine, when she would help her mother peel apples for a pie. She says entrusting children with simple, age-appropriate tasks will make cooking second-nature, filled with positive associations: “It could just be choosing a plate or tablecloth, picking herbs or flowers for a table setting or helping to mash the potatoes. Be encouraging. My first tarts were very lopsided and my cakes were flat as a pancake from using the wrong flour, but my mother praised my efforts.”

Simple fun

Ask for children’s input into what they would like to eat as a treat, and turn a simple lunch into an adventure by packing it up for a picnic in the park, or even in the backyard.

“I wouldn’t want to fill the holidays with too many planned activities,” Alexander says. “Keep a well-filled fruit bowl in view, bake a cake together and prepare some great sandwiches.”

Embrace variety

Never give up on a vegetable.

“Just because carrots were rejected one day doesn’t mean they should never be offered again,” Alexander says.

“The more they encounter, the broader their palate will become. Engage them, encourage them but do not insist on eating things they do not like.”

Being involved in the process from vegie patch to plate can help.

Alexander’s passion for healthy, hands-on food experiences is behind the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, currently supported by a partnership with Coles, which has seen gardens and cooking programs pop up in 2000 schools and education centres across Australia.

Originally published as Kitchen queen Stephanie Alexander urges us back to the dinner table

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