“I don’t serve plain pasta and my kids would think it was weird,” says Claire Thomson, family food ambassador for the National Trust, chef and mum-of-three.
“They’re excited by the food in front of them, the kitchen is the axis of my home life and I want them to feel that food is a really normal thing, that it’s not fetishised or not given enough credence.
“We’ve got a tiny kitchen but a great big kitchen table, because I think it’s important that Grace should be sitting there doing her spellings, or Dot will be colouring in while I’m cooking – it’s just day-to-day a real normalcy around food.”
If this sounds like a manifesto for how to give kids a love of good food, it is. Thomson, 37, has spent the last five years showing the world exactly how we could be feeding children through her daily ‘5oclockapron’ Instagram and Twitter posts.
And you won’t find a plain bit of pasta in sight. The dishes she makes for her daughters at five o’clock each day (“they’re just so tired after school and I don’t want to fill them full of snacks”) include sumptuous-looking bowls of tamarind & turmeric chicken broth with soba noodles and cucumber, or seared monkfish with potatoes, chard stalks, serrano ham and rosemary.
She can’t totally escape pasta though: “I’ve had some children come for play dates and that’s all they want to eat, but as a grown-up, you’ve allowed that to happen if you’re serving plain pasta.”
Two years on from her debut cookbook, The 5’Clock Apron: Proper Food For Modern Families, Thomson has now penned the National Trust Family Cookbook.
The recipes in it are categorised by how long they take to cook, with sections for on-the-go breakfasts and lunch box alternatives, from tasty-sounding Yogurt And Cardamom Chicken Wraps and Pea And Halloumi Fritters to Vietnamese Noodle Salad – all with substitutes so you can suit the ingredients to your family’s tastes.
“The recipes are all pretty easy. It takes three minutes to slop some chicken thighs in a bowl in the morning, drop some yogurt on and cardamom and stick it in the fridge. Then when you get back from work, you’ve just got to bang that in a hot oven – the longest thing to do is preheat the oven. And then you chop a quick salad and make tzatziki, which the children can help with, it’s just mint and yogurt.
“It’s really important to get them to help you, otherwise the food lands in front of them and they’re expected to eat it,” Thomson adds. “They should set the table or pour the water. There’s a community to being in a family; I don’t want to be running a restaurant for my children until they’re 18 and leave home!”
And she’s not an advocate for ‘hiding’ vegetables.
“Hiding seven different types of vegetables in a pizza sauce is fundamentally what I think is wrong about children’s food. It’s really important you identify vegetables and acknowledge they’re on their plate and they know why they’re good for them, rather than hiding them. I find it absolutely laughable!”
Now based in Bristol, Thomson was born in Zimbabwe and travelled “extensively” with her New Zealander husband, before they settled in the UK to raise their daughters Grace, 10, Ivy, seven and four-year-old Dot.
Her travels have shaped her love of food and the dishes she serves up at home, as well as when she cooks in schools.
“I love looking at the world through recipes. I cooked a North African-style dhal for 60 eight- and nine-year-olds and one child said he didn’t want to eat it. If you get them tasting spices and smelling herbs, that’s really exciting for children, they just need to be engaged with food.”
Another of Thomson’s projects to further this mission is a collaboration called Table Of Delights (www.tableofdelights.com). It started as a theatre show at the Bristol Old Vic and now is a website designed to educate kids about food through wacky song and dance numbers, facts and recipes. “We want to get them excited through a Trojan horse of entertainment, so they don’t feel they’re being preached to.”
And she’s not a total stranger to fussy eaters, admitting that “Dot’s not a saint – there are some days she just wants to eat boiled eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner”.
“That’s fine, but I don’t let her do it every day, and I don’t let her say she doesn’t like vegetables because I’m a chef and I make them taste nice! I think fussy eaters are a problem, but you just carry on and eventually, they turn a corner and start eating.”