The Five O’Clock Apron: Better Family Food

Feeding children a bit differently. Claire Thomson’s manifesto for family meals struck a chord with parents stuck in a teatime rut when she started to tweet her children’s tea at 5pm each day. A blog, and then a popular Guardian column, followed. Her first book, The 5 O’Clock Apron, is published tomorrow. We talk to Claire about her family food philosophy and share some her favourite recipes.

What inspired you to start tweeting your family’s supper every day? 

I am a chef and cook for my three children every day. Talking to other parents with kids of a similar age, I found many to be bored to tears by the drudgery of cooking day in day out. I wanted to use Twitter as a timeline for what I was feeding my kids and also, I didn’t really have much time to write a more considered blog ­– my 5pm teatime tweets were the equivalent.

You say in the book that the notion of ‘children’s food’ is something to baulk at. Smiley face food arrangements are clearly out in your house. What’s your philosophy when it comes to feeding kids?

I want my children to enjoy food. I don’t especially want them to just view it as fuel and I certainly don’t want it to be a battleground. I think it is important to feed children as you would like to eat (with less salt perhaps). My children are not precocious when it comes to food, they love the stalwarts of pasta and pizza, but I also like to see them eating a wide variety of food. They’re allowed to not like certain things – one will not eat eggs whereas one will ‘no not never eat a tomato’ to coin a Charlie and Lola phrase. But I do insist they try it before they can say they don’t like it. After all, as a chef, I don’t make a habit of cooking horrible food.

5 O’Clock Apron features lots of milk, cheese, pasta and rice  how do you feel about the growing backlash against dairy, gluten and refined grains?

I believe in feeding my children a varied diet with vegetables as a mainstay. The book also contains whole chapters dedicated entirely to pulses, grains with a big push for wholegrain, green vegetables, root vegetables and fruit vegetables. Cooked from scratch and everything within moderation is a fine place to be.

And what about sugar? 

My kids have sugar, but it is a treat, and not a given. I make porridge on a winter’s morning or Bircher in the summer serving each with a drizzle of honey or maple syrup and avoid overly sugared breakfast cereals. Likewise, I make cakes or puddings at the weekend for the family to enjoy. Weeknight pudding will more often than not be thick strained yogurt, a little honey and cinnamon powder. My children’s sugar intake is considered and not taken for granted.

Do you eat a lot of meat?

To be honest, no. I am of the belief that vegetables should account for much of the food we eat and that if we do eat meat it should almost be viewed as a side for the veg. I would far rather eat less meat and for that to be well sourced and of good provenance.

So do your kids manage their five a day, every day?

Easily. Chopped raw veg to dip with hummus or in a noodle salad in a lunch box and, for tea, I cook plenty of vegetables for them. I seldom seem to serve vegetables lone on the side of the plate. Far better, I feel, is to integrate them and give them star billing. Pink rice aka Beetroot Pilaff is a fine example.

SEE ALSO: Marcus Wareing on Pizza Express and Picky Eaters.

What advice would you give to parents whose children go into meltdown at the sight of a plant on their plate?

It is just food at the end of the day. We should feel incredibly lucky to have such terrific ingredients to cook with here in the UK. Be they the humble spud, carrot, grains, yogurt or apples (I could go on…). In my experience, children will eat if the food tastes nice and they are hungry. My children aren’t saints, they have their moments, but at the end of the day, if I have spent money on ingredients and taken time to cook them with care and attention, I think it’s rude to not even try it. Perhaps as the daughters of two chefs, this has been drummed in from a very early age.

5 O'Clock Apron Clare Thomson

Is there anything your children won’t eat?

Grace (8) won’t touch an egg in a pure cooked egg form, she is also a vegetarian. Grace is also my most adventurous by far and loves wielding the Siracha chilli sauce. Memorable too was the time my Sichuanese step-mother cooked a Jelly Fish, Beancurd and Beansprout dish: credit to Grace she tried it at least! Ivy (5) wouldn’t dream of eating a raw tomato, though adores all meals with cooked tomato. As for Dorothy (1), she hasn’t established any food foibles, yet…

Table every day or the occasional TV dinner?

Table 98 out of 100 for sure. I think it is so important to sit and talk about your day, enjoy your meal, be mindful of nice table manners and help to set /clear the table as soon as you’re old enough.

Many families are stuck in a two-dinner rut: what’s the trick to planning one meal that pleases everyone?

I think children enjoy a sense of autonomy at the table. Make the one dish – brick chicken or Koshari rice are both good examples – and serve seasoned yogurt to dollop, or a tangle of sweet fried onions, lemons to squish, herbs to scatter, chilli flakes to embellish by those who like them and so on. On the seldom occasions we eat differently to the kids, it’ll most probably be because we’ve had extra kids over for a playdate and clean run out. I am conscious of too much salt when cooking for kids (though they eat so little processed goods, I am not overly worried) and like to have a bowl of crunchy Maldon salt to use on any grownup food I serve when the kids have hit the sack. Wine is also useful at this point!

SEE ALSO: Favourite Family Cookbooks.

Busy parents struggle to find time to cook. How quickly do you get tea on the table most days?

I am almost always thinking about what I am going to cook or make. I like the forethought that goes into soaking some white beans the night before the day you mean to cook them, plumping as they do in all that water, and it is hardly a bother after all when truncated into the necessary and different time slots. When ready, mixed though with some herby tomato sauce (if you’re organised, you’ll have made a great big batch of this and frozen it in tubs to add as and when needed), you can have homemade baked beans for tea in the time it takes to warm the beans and sauce up. That said, I can have (from a standing start and the water boiling) what my kids reverentially call ‘Broccoli Pesto Pasta’ (no pesto whatsoever, the pasta flecked green with a considerable amount of broccoli) in the time it takes for the pasta to cook.

What’s a typical lunchbox for your kids?

I wish my kids had proper school dinners, but at the time of writing, I am just not happy enough with the quality of the food on offer. That, and they refuse to. So lunch boxes it is. More often than not, a sandwich (I make my own bread) with cottage cheese and celery, cheese and homemade pickle or hummus and cucumber for example. Or a pile of raw veg and a pot of hummus to dunk.  A piece of fruit, a rice cake or some oats cakes, and maybe a piece of cake or flapjack. In summer, when basil is at its best, I might make pesto the night before for their tea and send them in the next day with a cold pesto pasta salad. Both girls love the cold Sichuan noodle recipe in my book. My stepmother taught me how to make this street food and it is an absolute winner in a lunchbox ­– for kids and grown ups.

What are your favourite cookbooks for inspiration?

Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Richard Olney, Simon Hopkinson, Nigel Slater, Hugh Fernley Whittingstall, Nigella Lawson, Diana Henry, Tessa Kiros, all the River Cafe books, Sam and Sam Clark of Moro, Ottolenghi, Claudia Roden and many, many more…

Don’t miss our collection of brilliant family recipes from Claire.

 Claire Thomson is a chef, with a busy restaurant in Bristol. However her biggest challenge is not hungry customers, but hungry children. Faced with the daily decision of what to cook for her three young children, Claire made it her mission to inspire parents stuck in a teatime rut. Every day she makes a ‘proper’ tea, tweeting it at 5pm.

The Five O’ Clock Apron by Claire Thomson is published by Ebury Press, £20. Photography by Mike Lusmore.