Blog Oct 2012+

Blog history

  • Food to go: April 2013 This month we have been quite literally on the go in all sorts of ways. We flirted with a move to the countryside but jumped out with cold feet as ...
    Posted May 12, 2013, 12:15 PM by Dinner Lady
  • Celebrations! March 2013 It started as a squeal at 9.15pm when I realised, just as I was about to crawl into bed, that I had forgotten to buy the 30 packets of ...
    Posted Apr 14, 2013, 11:34 AM by Dinner Lady
  • A meaty dilemma: February 2013 By mid January there was a lot of snow and a few rumours that horses were mascarading as cows. I remember because in mid-January, despite the heavy snow, I ...
    Posted Mar 6, 2013, 7:37 AM by Dinner Lady
  • A day in the kitchen: January 2013 If someone were to tell me that I would be spending the next day in the kitchen from 9-5 I would think it was either Christmas Eve, or someone ...
    Posted Feb 7, 2013, 11:12 AM by Dinner Lady
  • Waste watchers: December 2012 We are sat chomping our obligatory post meal fruit. I notice that Maths Geek has finished his satsuma and is now chomping through the peel.  I stare at him and ...
    Posted Jan 4, 2013, 2:10 PM by Dinner Lady
  • Chickening out of organic: November 2012 Apparently I need to go on a cookery course: the school's version of chicken pie is much nicer than mine.  Stunned, slightly hurt and keen to get to the ...
    Posted Dec 10, 2012, 11:45 AM by Dinner Lady
  • Almost perfect or good enough? October 2012 "Mum, I love you more than 101 giants standing on top of each other". My heart swelled and my eyes welled as I thought how lucky I was to have ...
    Posted Dec 7, 2012, 7:26 AM by Dinner Lady
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Food to go: April 2013

posted May 12, 2013, 12:15 PM by Dinner Lady

This month we have been quite literally on the go in all sorts of ways. We flirted with a move to the countryside but jumped out with cold feet as we realised that town mouse could never become country mouse, just as a country mouse could never live in the city, or the leopard change his spots or an apple lose its core. We did book our summer holiday, an organisational challenge that would take too long to explain. Rather foolishly we signed up for the 8.30am swimming lesson slot for the two weeks of Easter holidays and so our holiday slow starts did not materialise. And amidst all of this I feel like I have juggled too many jobs, too many to-do lists and, sometimes, seemingly too many children.  Thank goodness bigamy is illegal- I don't think I could cope if I had several husbands to juggle. 

Our on-the-go April necessitated an on-the-go kind of menu. And coming back from work at 7 or 8 o'clock at night several times, I have to admit to popping into the supermarket occasionally and picking up a ready meal and a bottle of easy-to-open wine. I am ashamed to admit this, given our Rules and Regulations which state "Eat home cooked food - no ready meals".  The meals were generally delicious and on the whole satisfying, although they were the premium options from the finer supermarkets.  


    Worst of the waste

- half a toffee apple crumble - Mrs Doubtfire had kindly made this, but had added way too much sugar. He had also followed the wrong recipe and ended up with a sort of bicuity rather than crumbly topping. It was, even by The Noble Knight's standards, inedible, and after a brave attempt to eat a spoonful each, we all agreed it was best off in the bin. 

- 1 rotten courgette, which delighted The Noble Knight, but made me sick, when I realised that had I been more organised and got to it before the mould did, I could have saved it.  

Celebrations! March 2013

posted Apr 11, 2013, 12:14 PM by Dinner Lady   [ updated Apr 14, 2013, 11:34 AM ]

It started as a squeal at 9.15pm when I realised, just as I was about to crawl into bed, that I had forgotten to buy the 30 packets of sweet treats that The Noble Knight wanted to take into school the next day to celebrate his birthday.  I looked at my watch and realised that our local shop was now shut. I looked out of the window and realised that walking or driving to the nearest supermarket was not an option, given the blizzard that was striking the south coast.  And so it ended at 10.15, an hour later, as I pulled out the last of the baking trays from the oven, 35 little shortbread men and ladies all in a row, all buttoned up and blinking, ready to celebrate The Noble Knight's birthday.  The irony of it all, me appearing to be the virtuous home baking mother, perfect smile, starched pinny and no hair out of place.  In fact the reason for my tray of home made edible goodies was my disorganisation and frantic scrambling for an idea to save me from being berated by my middle son for forgetting to buy sweets. And then the double irony of it when we woke up the next day, snowed in, no chance of anyone, let alone the 35 little shortbread men and ladies, making it as far as school that day.  And no butter left to spread on our toast.  
Food is central to celebrations around the world.  From birthday cakes, using up precious fat, sugar and eggs, to pinatas stuffed with sweet naughties.  From succulent meat roasted as a rare treat to intricate, delicate confectionary fancies.  And this month was no exception for we Four and a half bellies. A joint birthday cake for Gigi and The Noble Knight whose birthdays are very close. We broke our vegetarian pledge several times, all in the name of family celebration.  The Noble Knight chose a Chinese takeaway as his birthday treat, specially requesting "those yummy pancake things, Mum" (peking duck).  A very delayed Christmas celebration with Mrs Doubtfire's family at Easter involved both a lamb and a turkey, so relieved were we all that his sister had recovered fully from being hospitalised at Christmas with severe pneumonia.  And only months earlier my family met up at a fine classic restaurant in London to celebrate my father's turning a special 0.  Encouraged by my mother to read the menu from left to right we had gorged on delicate canapes, the most tender of steaks and a delicious pear tatin.  

  Worst of the waste

- pot of gravy that was covered by a bag of curly kale for too long

- half a pot of double cream that had gone slightly green

-little pots of left overs that have languished for too long - my waste watchers challenge has not been going well.  

Best food saves

- used up 3 aubergines in a matter of days: aubergine Thai curry and Poor man., busy lady's moussaka.

- finally, we have bought and managed to get through tubs of humous and taramasalata - I usually forget to use them up and end up throwing them away. 

A meaty dilemma: February 2013

posted Mar 6, 2013, 7:37 AM by Dinner Lady

By mid January there was a lot of snow and a few rumours that horses were mascarading as cows. I remember because in mid-January, despite the heavy snow, I had my first whole day away from the family for pleasant rather than career reasons. And as my mother and I enjoyed a (pescatarian) tapas lunch before a matinee, we pondered on the small news item about traces of horse meat DNA being found in cheap minced beef.  

My first emotion was relief. I have not eaten cheap mince for so long I can't remember, but certainly not since BC (Before Children) so this latest food scandal wasn't effecting me. Next emotion was disgust.  Disgust at eating a beautiful horse that was born for jumping, showing off and riding.  Then confusion. Why would I be disgusted by horse and in heaven with cow? Other food cultures love horse meat and ethically there really is no difference between consuming those meant to plough the field and those who chew the cud.  So my mother and I agreed that it was not eating horse per se that was the problem (although I have to say, my heart and gut still feels it's kinda weird to eat horse). It was a symbolic problem.  Symbolic that our food system has become so complex, large and extended it reminds me of family gatherings where I love meeting and chatting to friendly folk but struggle to remember from whence they come and don't know much about them.  Put simply, when we buy from a large supermarket chain, we don't really know where our meat originates from.

And then the fear set it.  I had been relaxed in the smug knowledge that we have eaten less and less meat as part of the Four and a half bellies challenge and what little meat we eat is organic or free range, sourced from our butcher.   I suddenly realised with a jolt that Maths Geek and The Noble Knight dine on meat five times a school. And why on earth would I trust school meat?  (This was weeks before revelations that school kids across England have been dining out on horse - this Dinner Lady was ahead of the game!).  A plan.  The boys rarely do what I say.   So rather than ban them from eating school meat, I thought I would instil disgust and fear in them. I explained to them, in all gory detail, how horse meat was found in mince meat. The very stuff their burgers are made of. They looked horrified, and then pondered for a few short seconds. 
"That's ok" said The Noble Knight, my trusting and affectionate son. "I know the cook and the dinner ladies. They wouldn't buy horse meat for us."  Maths Geek, always the sceptic, added "Maybe we could spy on them and check....". And I tried to explain food systems; about suppliers, abattoirs, antibiotics, fraud, links in chains, consumers, profits....and the boys ran off to chase robbers and dark knights.  

A few weeks later we were sitting down to have lunch, a left over from Mrs Doubtfire's Friday night's culinary soundtrack to Season 5's finale of Mad Men: home made New York beef (!) burgers with Old Fashioneds.  At first the boys grumbled that our succulent, tasty, organic homemade burgers were a very definite second best to their school's version. I have witnessed them, a blackened crisp block, sandwiched between two dry baps, sauceless and dead. Oh the insult!  Mid chomp, The Noble Knight piped up "I told my friends not to eat burgers cos they have horse meat in them. But it's ok.  We looked inside and there wasn't any horse".  What were they expecting?  A hoof to poke it's way out of the burger? A soundtrack of neighing and whinnying instead of the splurging ketchup? I don't know. But I do know that despite my little Knight's noble attempts to join me in my food crusades, he had not quite got it.   

Worst of the waste

  • Mrs Doubtfire buying new ingredients for the Home made beef burgers as per the recipe instructions - a whole packet of crackers when we already had an open packet at home, and anyway, breadcrumbs would do - but I guess I shouldn’t grumble when he gave me a night off cooking
  • not noticing the six beetroots that were buried underneath the sack of potatoes until they were too shrivelled to do anything with apart from bin them

Best food saves

  • made a winter vegetable and lentil soup using carrots and parsnips and a small swede that were ‘more than ready to be used up’
  • added a spoonful or two of left over tinned tomato soup and a small tupperware of left over cooked rice to the soup
  • used up a green cabbage that had been sitting in the fridge for a couple of weeks to make cabbage and potato sweet(ish)curry 
  • used up Saturday 10th Feb night's home made curry left overs, left over homemade winter vegetable soup, 1 tortilla wrap filled with 2 mushrooms I found in the fridge, sautéed, to make a smorgasbord of tasty dishes for a Sunday lunch

A day in the kitchen: January 2013

posted Feb 5, 2013, 12:52 PM by Dinner Lady   [ updated Feb 7, 2013, 11:12 AM ]

If someone were to tell me that I would be spending the next day in the kitchen from 9-5 I would think it was either Christmas Eve, or someone was playing a cruel trick on me.  I love cooking, but I'm not that dedicated. Either way, I would require much cajoling, some friendly reinforcement from Mrs Doubtfire, someone magical to entertain the children and a large whiskey as a reward in the evening.   In actual fact, on a cold and frosty Friday morning, I woke up early, became a train commuter for a day and arrived at 9am as planned in central London.  My dream had come true.  I was going to spend the day in the kitchen of a famous top restaurant. I had needed no cajoling, having said a very happy and excited farewell to Mrs Doubtfire and the children, in the knowledge that Mrs Doubtfire was going to join me for that large whiskey and a gastronomic feast in the evening as our magical Nanny Poppins looked after the children.  

My mission: to investigate how restaurants manage their food waste; My qualifications: longtime housewife (in charge of ordering, budgeting, planning for meals) and family cook; My expectations: being able to stand and watch what happens in a day in a kitchen, as long as I was able to see through the fog of "@$"&#" (I've seen several episodes of Masterchef).  My experience: a day I will remember for the rest of my life, welcomed by a bunch of friendly, yet highly professional and talented people who allowed me to put a pinny on, roll my sleeves up and get well and truly messy. And not a blue word or raised voice to be heard all day. 

After a tour of the kitchens, introductions to key members of staff and the essential health and safety training, I was immediately put to work in a chef's jacket and apron.  I joined the pastry section, which initially panicked me given that my pastries tend to crumble, my sponge cakes don't rise and I have no finesse.  I was told that this is where most people start off, as it is the more laid back section of the kitchen. As I got going, I also wondered whether it is because mistakes made with a load of flour, sugar and butter are much less costly than mistakes made when cooking lobster, duck breast or expensive fish fillets. As I brought together the dough for the lemon tart, all I could do was smile, pinch myself and savour every moment of this experience.  I watched and chatted to people about food, and whilst doing so, the most delicious morsels were offered to me to taste. I was in culinary heaven.
Throughout the day I reflected on the similarities and differences between the family and professional kitchen.  Immediately I could see that reducing food waste in the kitchen was a top priority .  As the chefs explained to me, throwing away ingredients is as good as chucking crisp bank notes in the bin.  The same is true in the family kitchen although I wonder whether we modern Dinner Ladies fail to link the two so explicitly.  Jacqueline Percival, in her book Breadcrumbs and Banana Skins: The Birth of Thrift, suggests that our Granny Dinner Ladies were better at this than we are, maybe because standards of living were on average lower than ours have been in recent years; and a much greater proportion of the household budget was spent on food.  Watching and talking to the chefs I could see a range of strategies that they used to prevent waste of food and money: careful planning of the menu to make the most of all of the ingredients (trimmings of fish fillets made into other dishes; discards of carrots that have been chopped to perfectly measured little matchsticks are made into purees to decorate the plate and delight the diner), intricate monitoring of consumer trends, meticulous stock taking and careful ordering to ensure there is just enough but not too much of any ingredient, and ultimately very careful work expected of all staff so ingredients are not wasted.  These are all things that the family cook can do, but often falls short for a multitude of reasons; we Four and a half bellies have been attempting this in our Waste Watchers challenge, albeit probably less successfully.  


Worst of the Waste

  • half tub taramasalata - I do this too many times. I get tempted by the 2 for £2 offer and buy taramasalata and hummus. I promise that this time I shall eat them both up. I end up throwing half of one away. I promise never to fall for the offer again. I fail. 
  • 1 mouldy orange

Best food saves

  • I had a tupperware of left over red pesto pasta extravaganza in the fridge. I added it to the Sunshine in a Pot Pasta 
  • Using up the left over bits of the Christmas cheeses (small ends, drying out, not appetising to spread on a cracker) to make cheese fritters

Waste watchers: December 2012

posted Jan 4, 2013, 2:09 PM by Dinner Lady   [ updated Jan 4, 2013, 2:10 PM ]

We are sat chomping our obligatory post meal fruit. I notice that Maths Geek has finished his satsuma and is now chomping through the peel.  I stare at him and raise an eyebrow when he catches my eye.

"I've started eating satsuma peel. It's very Dinner Lady", he tells me earnestly.

I raise my other eyebrow and probe gently, wondering what being "very Dinner Lady" means.  

"It means we eat everything. We don't waste anything at all".  

I feel proud that my rebellious son, who doesn't like listening to instructions and who starts most replies with the "But Muuuuum" whine, has obviously taken on board one of the main thrusts of our Four and a half bellies challenge.  I am also slightly worried about his insides. While I know we can eat orange peel in the form of marmalade, and remember that the outside of kumquats are far tastier than the sour inside, what is the deal with the satsuma peel?  I don't know and I haven't got time to ask the all knowing Mr or Ms Google so I tell him that things haven't got that bad yet and clear the table, offering him some yoghurt given he is obviously still hungry. 

If not wasting food is "very Dinner Lady" then we Four and a half bellies have been most un Lady-like this month. There are several reasons for this: diplomacy, seasonal hazards, and illness. I shall explain.

For those of you who have read the blog from the beginning, you will know that I am prone to unexpected bouts of joint and tendon inflammation, the exact cause of which is still unknown, the effect of which is inconvenience for all who know me. In mid-November I was back on the crutches for the next 6 weeks, advised to rest as much as possible, and so I passed on the responsibility of shopping, cooking and clearing away to Mrs Doubtfire, Nanny Poppins, the freezer (which luckily was stocked with many homemade meals) and any other kind hearted friend or family member who offered to help.  I tried to contribute whenever I could, sitting at the table and chopping veg that I was passed, but the kitchen was certainly no longer my domain. And inevitably things slipped. Food that had been carefully saved by Mrs Doubtfire or Nanny Poppins turned up in tupperware at the back of the fridge and no one quite knew who had put it there or how long ago. 

So over the course of December left over pots of boiled pasta were flung in the bin, pieces of fruit would squish in our hands when we picked them up and the bottom of the salad crisper sometimes resembled a green sludgy swamp.  A whole vat of gammon stock was poured away because everyone had thought someone else had put it in the fridge and had washed up the pot - a few days later we made a grim and whiffy discovery to the contrary. And I managed to bite my tongue, because everyone was trying their hardest to get through a really difficult month. In the name of diplomacy, I said nothing about the amount we were wasting.  And every time something ended up in the bin, I said a silent prayer to the global warming monster, promising to do better as soon as I was on my feet again. 

By the beginning of the Christmas holidays I was relatively fit and able and got set to cook the main event for all of Mrs Doubtfire's side of the family. This in itself led to an excess amount of food waste over the festive period.  Us and the rest of the country, buying more food than we should, "just in case".....the shops forget to open on Boxing day..."just in case"....we get stuck at home following a freak snow storm or flash floods ....."just in case".....unexpected friends and family decided to pop in and wish us well.  Oh who are we kidding? At this time of year the food shopper, who is likely to be in a carefree spirit anyway, is lured by the seductively packaged produce, taken in by their promises of the perfect family Christmas.   Desiring and aspiring to a scene reminiscent of the end of It's a Wonderful Life, we buy more than we need, more than we should. 

And then just as Mrs Doubtfire lugged in the last of the meat (30 chipolatas, 30 rashers of bacon, eight pounds of poultry and a 30cm pork, stilton and apple pie) from our friendly butchers, catering disaster struck: we were suddenly halved in number because of family illness.  Inevitably, there was much food waste. 

So whilst reducing the amount of food waste is really important at Four and a half bellies HQ, we have failed dismally this month.   So much so that I slowly began to desensitise to it all with every precious morsel of discarded food that was scraped into the black bin liner.  At times I even shrugged my shoulders at Mrs Doubtfire, wondering "What else is there to do?".  

Am I making excuses? Probably. Should we do better? Certainly.  Will you help me? I hope so.  

For every food item that we throw away we waste our own hard earned money. There are  more and more articles in newspapers about families like us, who in years gone by got away without food budgets but in this period of unemployment, frozen salaries and spiralling food and energy bills, are beginning to count the pennies at the supermarket checkout.  Yet it is crazy to be counting the pennies carefully at the till whilst throwing the same pennies away again when the food goes off simply because we have bought too much, not conserved it properly, had eyes too large for our bellies or simply mis-managed the contents of our food stores.  We are told time and again the value of the food we throw away (a couple of hundred pounds a year per household) and yet many families, including ours, still do this.  

What's more the food we waste is wasted energy, when you think about the carbon emissions that have been spent producing the food and then transporting it to our kitchens.  And if we don't throw our food waste into compost heaps or other nifty ways to help break down the biodegradable matter, the methane gases that collect in the black bin liners we use to hide our shameful excesses contribute significantly to global warming: according to an article in the Food Ethics Council, food waste may contribute to up to 5% of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions.  

The festive period is a time for giving; a time for thinking about and loving our family, friends and neighbours. Yet in our relatively affluent society we are surely not thinking about and looking after our global family if we are happy to over indulge while our cousins in neighbouring continents continue to go without.  

The New Year is a time for thinking ahead and promising to do better. And so as we bravely enter 2013 we invite you to join the Four and a half bellies in a new anti food-waste campaign, Waste Watchers: the more you save, the more you save.  As a family we are determined to do better at reducing the amount of food we throw away.  Many ethical food choices have pros or cons.  Organic may protect agricultural land from feared poisons like pesticides and herbicides yet in trying to feed the billions would have to further encroach on natural areas.  And organic is costly, not an option for most families.  Other ethical food choices result in taking a leap of faith in those providing our food: we may feel virtuous about the relatively few miles our courgette travelled last week in our local farm vegetable box delivery, but in December I am wondering how they were grown with carbon efficiency.   Yet I have not heard of or read any benefit of wasting one of our most valuable resources, our food.  Given we householders are the worst culprits, accounting for nearly 50% of total UK food and drink waste, according to Love Food Hate Waste, this is something we can take direct control of. So, if you want to join the Waste Watchers Challenge, "Like" it, tweet about it, shout about it but most of all read, join in and feedback as we start eight weeks of Waste Watchers: the more you save, the more you save.  And we promise you, there is no mandatory satsuma peel eating involved. 
  An invitation to join....

Waste watchers: the more you save, the more you save

Waste watchers is about gradually reducing the amount of food waste we put in our bins. By slowly developing better habits, we are more likely to sustain them in the long term. And if we work together with others we are more likely to succeed. This is what we Four and a half bellies are going to do - join us if you dare! 

1.  Sign up a member of the family to be the person to nag, monitor and reward. In our case it will be Maths Geek and The Noble Knight as they are pedantic beyond belief and crusade for saving our planet (and saving a few pennies for a few extra treats for them!). Just like most children.

2.  Each week focus on one way of reducing food waste from the list below. I'll be posting weekly to tell you what we are going to concentrate on and how much food and money we are saving. Share our focus or chose your own but email us to let us know how you're doing! 

3.  Every time a food item is saved from being consigned to the bin (e.g. I trawled to the back of the fridge, found half a carton of cream which was about to go off but put it in a pasta sauce instead of the bin) we will save some money in a pot.  If you're doing this too, save what you think you can afford, it might be as little as 10p or a whopping £5. We're going to start with 50p per food save.  As a family decide what you will spend your food savings on (e.g. charity, a yummy meal out, a family outing, a luxury food item).

4.  Celebrate each week by "liking" us, tweeting your best food saves and emailing in to tell us how much you have been saving. Don't forget to share any good tips. 

Weekly focus

Week 1 Feeling Fresh Week - don’t throw any fresh fruit or vegetables away

Week 2 I Cooked Just Enough Week - cook smaller quantities of pasta, rice and potatoes so there aren't so many pots of left overs lying around

Week 3 Left Overs Week - if you do cook too much reuse your left overs in imaginative (or otherwise) ways so none get thrown in the bin


Week 4 Clean Plates Week  - don't throw any food from the plate to the bin .  This is probably best done by serving smaller portions in the first place (with plenty more in the pot should people want more, of course!)

Week 5 Spring Clean Week - Do a freezer/ fridge or store cupboard spring clean and make meals out of what’s there rather than buy lots of new food 

Week 6 Good Storage Week - don't throw anything away just because it's gone off because of poor storage

Week 7 Little and often week - buy just what you need to eat over the next few days/ weeks

Week 8 Peel and core week - what can you do with your apple, carrot and potato peelings instead of throwing them in the bin?

Click here to read what the Four and a half bellies are going to be doing each week.  

Favourite meals of the month

Dinner Lady: In the bygone years when we had all day to shop and cook for dinner parties (i.e. prechildren) I used to make a lovely Tarte Tatin. I am not a baker, yet it doesn’t really matter how messy this looks before cooking - the baking ‘melts’ the apples and it always seems to look amazing when turned onto a pretty serving plate.  And if it does look slightly rough around the edges then at least it proves that it is homemade! We enjoyed the first tarte tatin I have cooked for over seven years this month - not sure why. Perhaps I just missed it. 

Mrs Doubtfire: We ate a delicious and luxurious fish pie our traditional Christmas Eve meal.  It is comforting yet adventurous, looking for buried treasure (prawns and hard boiled eggs) amongst the fish, the potato and white sauce.  

Maths Geek: Maths Geek requested Magic Oranges for our Christmas meal dessert - it was a healthy and fresh antidote to Christmas pudding and I am glad we obliged.  

The Noble Knight: Macaroni cheese: “I am a pasta monster and I am a cheese monster”.  How could macaroni fail to disappoint. It is probably the only meal that TNK eats without starting by saying “Oh but I HATE this”.

Princess Baby: In the last few weeks Princess Baby has been eating anything and everything she could get her hands on.  She had been ill off and on for about a month, refusing most food apart from baked beans (a cold had ended with an ear infection it turned out).  After a hefty dose of antibiotics, she and her lovely protruding belly are back on form.  But her favourite must have been Babe pie, made using a very small left over chunk of our Boxing Day gammon, and padded out with carrot and courgette. It was topped with left over mashed potatoes from the Christmas roast. 

Click here for other festive December dishes

Pictures: 1. Magic oranges, our healthy Xmas meal pudding, requested by Maths Geek (served alongside rich chocolate pavlova, of course); 2. Very home made looking tarte tatin

Chickening out of organic: November 2012

posted Dec 9, 2012, 12:55 PM by Dinner Lady   [ updated Dec 10, 2012, 11:45 AM ]

Apparently I need to go on a cookery course: the school's version of chicken pie is much nicer than mine.  Stunned, slightly hurt and keen to get to the bottom of the ultimate in put downs, I asked Maths Geek to clarify exactly what it was, in concrete real terms, about school's chicken pie that beat mine. 
"Well, Mum, first of all, it is never burned".  Confusion here: despite regularly burning their pureed prunes and setting off the smoke alarm when weaning the boys in my sleep deprived haze years ago, I am not aware that I have ever burned their chicken pie. 
"Also, their gravy is much nicer than yours". OK.  Down to personal preference. I'll accept that reason. 
"And the chicken is cut up much neater than yours. You know, little squares". 
"Technically, Maths Geek," I mused to myself, "I think you mean cubes".  Outwardly, I sighed and mumbled a defeated "Oh, ok,".  
I presume Maths Geek is describing those cubes of processed, watery excuses for chicken that I have managed to avoid for over a year, little suspecting that he may infact be getting regular doses via his school dinners, despite their promise that they serve Red Tractor chicken (whatever that promises). 

Since our nation's favourite celebrity chefs have highlighted the plight of standard chickens and disgusted us by demonstrating just what is in cheap processed chicken products (you know, the stuff that would form a great horror movie) I have felt guilty about buying and eating any chicken that is not organic or free-range. Gone were the days when I would tuck into a chicken tikka massala from our favourite takeaway (not that we eat much takeaway anymore in this era of ever escalating fuel bills), preferring to stick instead to chana massala or sag paneer.  Whenever time or money pressures have been too much and I have reverted to type, I have felt like I have been poisoning our children by giving them substandard food. For in this day and age of trendy organic, serving up standard chicken is almost tantamount to neglect! 

Cheap chicken, we are told, is cruelty to the chickens and to our children. According to Compassion in World Farming, standard, intensively reared chickens are stressed, often disabled from their cramped conditions and they endure burns they receive from the ammonia produced by their waste. They are less healthy to eat than they were when I was a child, having a higher fat content than before, and the intensive conditions lead to a lot more diseases that are passed through to us, the consumers.  Reading information like that, how on earth can I justify buying standard chicken to cook or eat when dining out? 
However, it is all too easy to think about these issues in linear, black and white dimensions, assuming that buying organic and free range is the only answer.  But these two seemingly ethical choices are not without their problems.  Compassion in World Farming notes that in the UK we now eat more chicken per month than we did per year sixty years ago. As a global population the demand for meat, including poultry, is sky-rocketing. With an exploding number of bellies all desperate to enjoy ever increasing amounts of meat, organic and free range poultry may not be able to fulfill billions of people's chicken desires without seriously extending agricultural land into already diminishing forest and woodland. This, surely, is not good for the environment, however environmentally friendly these methods are in comparison to intensive poultry rearing.  So is 'organic' a self serving, middle class Western ideal? A reassuring choice where the concerned Dinner Lady can lull themsleves into a smug sense of security?  If I am expecting my Four and a half bellies to eat only organic poultry, what is necessary for us must surely be necessary for the family in Bangladesh, and I am sure they are not eating organic chicken on the scale that we are.  That is not fair, cannot be ethical.

We are advised to read the labels clearly, to think carefully about the difference between buying free range/ organic/ RSCPA Freedom Food (apparently good) rather than Red tractor farm assured (I am told this does not guarantee the standards of the previous labels, although when I read the standards on line it is all gobbledigook to me!). Similarly, next time I buy a chicken for our Sunday roast I will think carefully about what I want to achieve.  If I am wanting to make sure that the chickens have had a clucky old life and are clean of antibiotics I shall of course choose organic or free range. On the other hand, if I am aiming to keep my carbon chicken print low, I may have to think a little harder. 

Worst of the waste

- nine eggs: 3 were from a box which I had saved to eat the night we got home from our half term holiday. I forgot I had been so organised and they sat at the back of the fridge and passed their use by date.  The other six smashed as they fell out of the shopping bag. 

- chicken soup, made lovingly by Gigi for us using left over scraps of chicken and homemade chicken stock. We ate it for one meal and Gigi left the remains in a tupperware pot in the fridge. I forgot it was there and left it for over a week: I hope you are not reading this, Gigi, and if you are I am so sorry! 

Best food saves

- bowl of left over boiled potatoes, sliced and fried in little olive oil and butter for a side dish to go with some poached fish. Delicious. Would have been even nicer cooked in goose fat. 

- Beetroot rosti which I created when I realised I had more beetroots than I knew what to do with. I served this with a large blob of creme fraiche which melted luxuriously on top of the warmed rosti and left over seasonal turkey on the side. 

-With a dozen eggs sitting in the fridge, a bag of potatoes and a pathetic looking cauliflower all shouting at me for attention, I looked up 'cauliflower recipes'  on the internet and made a potato, egg and cauliflower curry

Almost perfect or good enough? October 2012

posted Nov 4, 2012, 6:23 AM by Dinner Lady   [ updated Dec 7, 2012, 7:26 AM ]

"Mum, I love you more than 101 giants standing on top of each other". My heart swelled and my eyes welled as I thought how lucky I was to have such a loving and emotionally articulate son in The Noble Knight.  Later. "Mum, I love this pasta more than 1001 giants standing on top of each other". I rejoiced in my son's love of food, yet was slightly miffed that by all accounts he seemed to love my cooking more than me.  In trying to describe and quantify his feelings, The Noble Knight has attempted to create order through the development of some fantastical unit of measurement.  

We humans seem to have a need to quantify, order and compare, whether through growth charts for our new born babies, league tables for schools or various publications of Rich Lists, and this is something I have been trying to do through Four and a half bellies.  This month the project turned one year old, in that I have been writing about food and trying to stick to our foodie Rules and Regulations since the beginning of last October.   The log of all that was consigned to the bin, the food shop receipts, our family weekly menu were all units of measuring if I was becoming a 'better' Dinner Lady, what ever that means.  But I have to admit that after a year of pedantic notes, tiresome lists and obsessive sums, I am none the wiser as to whether I have improved my culinary habits.  In terms of knowing where I stand in relation to the 'perfect' Dinner Lady, I have to admit that I don't know.  Is this because she* doesn't exist? Or in order for her to exist do we first need to define her? This alone is fraught with difficulties: is she  environmental crusader or family budget setter?  Delicious home cooker or games with the children player? Ethical eater or easy maker?  (Note to self:  when defining perfection, perhaps I should actually be substituting 'and' for all those 'or's?!) 

Hitting our weekly budget was a tedious and rather impossible task, but rather easy to chart: forever aspiring, yet always failing, to climb down a few notches from "spent too much money" to "spent what we could get away with".  Somehow I managed to strike some kind of balance between producing home cooked food, working and spending time with the family (although this was done at the expense of reading novels, a luxurious bit of me time that has fallen by the way side as I crawl into bed each night too exhausted to do anything but lie thinking how tired I am)!  As the year progressed ethical food choices increasingly seemed to preoccupy my mind and I struggled to define what 'ethically mindful food' meant, let alone know how to evaluate how ethical my culinary behaviour has been.  

Worst of the waste

- 1 tub taramasalata -just forgot it was there

- 1 head lettuce that lay languishing in the fridge

Three best food saves

- using the juices from Gigi's roasted chicken pieces to add to a soup

-we have been giving Princess Baby smaller portions and so there is much less food wasted from her plate each meal - literally one small spoon of everything seems to be all she wants to eat at the moment.

- teaching Princess Baby to eat her crusts has saved loads from the bin

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