It's a family affair for Yorkshire chef John Topham
PUBLISHED: 21:35 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013
Bring back the family meal - it's great for kids and fun for grown-ups too, a top Yorkshire chef tells Chris Titley PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY BULMER
Why do so few of us eat together as families any more? It seems as if this very human habit, a natural part of life for centuries, is in danger of dying out.
A survey last year found that only a fifth of British families found time to sit down for a meal together at least once or twice a week. That well-worn justification 'the pace of modern life' was blamed, although the distractions of TV, the internet, mobile phones and computer games are also said to be luring us away from the dining table. This is a real shame as there are few better ways to spend time than sharing food and conversation.
Families who eat together create stronger relationships, and the children gain in countless ways. They are like Sunday's child, bonny, blithe and wise - research has shown that youngsters who regularly eat with their family are more likely to be both healthy and successful at school, and less prone to the twin modern scourges of obesity or depression.
Above all, says award-winning chef John Topham, cooking and eating together is fun. He and his wife Claire run the much-garlanded General Tarleton, a country inn in the heart of North Yorkshire. It's a very demanding business but they have always found time to share meals with their three children Will, 12, Phoebe, 10, and eight-year-old Charlie.
'They all have their own favourites,' says John, a former UK Pub Chef of the Year. 'Spaghetti and meatballs is their Saturday night treat.' Good planning is key to family meal times, he says. 'Claire does a menu plan for the week and we all choose a meal. There are five of us and five week nights, so we all get our choice.'
These vary from week to week, but Phoebe is a big fan of risotto, Charlie enjoys his pasta and Will likes his fish. But aren't children fussy about what they eat? Sure, says John, but if they see the grown-ups tucking into different ingredients and flavours they'll learn to give different dishes a try and soon develop their own tastes.
Charlie is the hardest to please in his household but 'one of his favourites now is squid. You wouldn't expect a child to really love squid, but he would say it's his second favourite dish after pasta.' None of his children are into hot and spicy food but they do like a dash of stronger flavours. That's why he puts a little chilli in the meatball sauce.
One of John's tips to making quick and tasty family food is just that - whip up a tasty sauce. 'Make a tomato sauce; put a bit of garlic, onion and a tin of tomatoes together and you've got the basis for everything, especially with children's meals.'
Getting together to talk at the end of the day is a key part of the experience. 'We all sit round the table together. It's great. We try to keep that tradition going and you do get a bit of conversation even out of a 12-year-old!' John says. Friends sometimes come round with their kids to try out new recipes aimed at the General Tarleton's younger diners (fish pie, Yorkshire Dales lamb and Olleys of Ripon Whole Hog Sausages are the sort of dishes which feature on the children's menu).
When John's children have mates staying over or coming for tea they now put requests in beforehand for what they want to eat. 'Friends of the two boys both say "can we have Claire's pizzas?" which they absolutely adore. They're famous throughout the school.'
Even if work commitments make a communal meal every night an impossibility, it's still worth making the effort at weekends. 'We have a roast every Sunday and that always goes down well.' Will plays schoolboy rugby on a Sunday morning. 'We get back freezing and wet, and the priority is to get the lunch on so everybody mucks in. It might be one of them pulling up some leeks, another peeling the carrots - they're all involved. And because they have helped make it, they will eat it. They take pride in their contribution.'
John has a passion for local, seasonal food. Three-quarters of the produce used on the General Tarleton menus is sourced from within 30 miles. And growing their own vegetables for family meals has also helped interest the children in what they're eating. 'Having your own veg is fantastic.We don't have a huge amount, but they will definitely try veg that they've helped to grow.'
Not everyone can cultivate their own vegetable gardens, but most families can make time for regular meals together. 'It isn't as difficult as you think,' says John. 'And it really is worth the effort.' For more details about The General Tarleton see www.generaltarleton.co.uk