The School Year Survival Cookbook is more than just recipes

Two weeks ago, I swept all the cookbooks, printed-out Internet recipes and ripped-up magazine pages from my disorganized kitchen shelf. I put this book there instead. My family life improved

When I became a parent nine years ago, I had no idea that breastfeeding my son was a six-month respite from what would become the big challenge of family life: Cooking.

At least for me, a former career girl with little interest in cooking, the fact of putting healthy, delicious and budget-wise meals on the table three times a day seemed like a major task, and one I wasn’t cut out for. Actually, over time, I realized it’s several separate but connected tasks: planning, shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning up.

No wonder I wasn’t cut out for it! Cooking for a family is a seriously complex task. And the task is best done in community.

Though my partner-in-parenting definitely pitches in to help, and though I try to reduce responsibility and waste by choosing simple foods I know my family will eat, I often feel like a failure in the kitchen.

Spongey, bland, slow-cooker stew anyone?

But this book by the two stylish foodie moms behind Sweet Potato Chronicles has changed that. The School Year Survival Cookbook, the second book by the pair, has put the fun back in the kitchen.

It’s empowering me to get organized — because it means I can now ask for help when I need it. I’ll show my husband the food planning template, point out a few recipes he’d like, and I think his spreadsheet loving self might just embrace food planning.

My man likes lists and ticking boxes, whereas I like to get physical. I do the shopping because I go on foot, stop for coffee along the way, and consider carrying groceries for long distances to be a form of upper-body exercise.

A doable food system

It’s not that the recipes are magic — no recipe is.

Instead, this book focuses on creating a customizable template for the whole food life of a family, from beginning to end. (As in, dessert!) But don’t let that scare you. Somehow, authors Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh embraces the details but does not overcomplicate.

(Note: I’m acquainted with Marsh from around our shared neighbourhood — Queen West, Toronto. I admit that some of my admiration for her as a person and as a publisher might leak over into my feelings about her cookbook. In other words, I’m a fan!)

Starting with a section that explains how to stock a pantry, then moving into how to plan a week of food for an entire family, this book seems to have everything you need, and nothing you don’t.

Several so-called Transformer recipes — Spatchcock Chicken Dinner, for example — make enough leftovers for second-night recipes such as Lemon Thyme Chicken Dinner Salad or Chicken and Apple Boats.

Other dinners are double recipes, with one Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie going on the table and the other into the freezer.

I love how that reduces the time spent in the kitchen while also fulfilling the need to eat delicious things. All. The. Time.

This book makes it possible to imagine a world in which no one has an overflowing and confusing cookbook shelf, no one collects recipes in a butter-stained binder, and no one pays for a weekly meal kit delivery service that chops veggies, measures spices, and charges a small fortune.

We’ll all just have this book, and Ceri and Laura will help us work it all out.

Enjoyment is the focus

In my circle of friends, and in my home, it sometimes seems mealtime can be a time to argue, nag and force. We want our kids to show up promptly, say please, sit up straight, eat the kale, and bow down in gratitude for a dessert of flaxseed and molasses biscuits.

This book is a reminder that food is a form of everyday enjoyment and celebration.

For example: “An all-star snack is the best way to celebrate making the basketball team — finally.”

Or: “When the last teacher gift has been bestowed and report cards are in, that means it’s time for cake.”

The recipes are healthy, but not so much so that kids will turn up their cute little noses.

For example, that quote about cake? It’s on the facing page of a recipe for Lemon Cardamom Apple Cake, which gets much of its moist sweetness from a layer of apple in the bottom. It’s a perfect after-school snack, and there’s no need to apologize for the sugar content when friends drop by for playdates.

In the world of this book, and the world I want to live in, enjoyment of food comes not just at the dining table. It can also come in the kitchen.

The pictures in this beautifully illustrated book remind us that the whole experience of dinner is a chance to connect as a family. The authors include kids and partners in their photos, and that whole-family inclusion in the kitchen means a lot to me.

In one photo, Marsh’s daughter Esme pours the batter for Pumpkin Cornbread into the baking dish. In another photo, Keogh’s partner does some cleanup while she watches a hot pan and their daughter dances nearby. These families are having fun in the kitchen. I love that.

In my ideal world, food tasks are not just a mom thing to do. They’re frequent, time-consuming and repetitive. That means food planning, preparation and cooking should be a shared task. Otherwise, mom gets grumpy and dinner is no fun at all.

Delicious and healthy in equal measure

My kid loves breakfast, finger foods, snacks, and treats. I love salads, whole grains, and vegetables of any description. My husband prefers meat that hits the table on time and on budget.

Somehow, this book brings together our diverse tastes. Almost every recipe I’ve tried has been a success and would go in the “make again” category.

My personal criteria has much as to do with the recipe as the food. I love this book partly because the cooking methods are efficient, ingredients are easy to find at a basic grocery store, and clean up is no big deal.

But the real test of a recipe is the taste, and I can tell you, meals at our house have improved. We’re enjoying more variety and more delicious flavours, even as our somewhat frugal food budget has remained the same.

At least, meals have improved from my perspective. My husband has been enthusiastic, too. But truthfully, my son hasn’t always eaten it all up. He often finds unfamiliar vegetables and seasonings a turn-off. And he isn’t afraid to say so.

But this book has empowered me to avoid the trap of choosing only foods I know he will eat. As author Ceri points out in the intro to her recipe for Kale Chicken Salad with Blueberries, it’s all about combining challenging foods with more familiar foods.

She writes: “I see you looking at me, all: “My kid will never eat kale.” To which I say: “They certainly won’t if you don’t serve it to them.” Marsh goes on to explain that “creamy cheese, sweet blueberries and tender chicken mean there’s something for everyone.”

Sharing potential

I won’t loan this book to anyone! Because I now can’t live without it.

But I plan to give it as a shower gift to the new parents in my life. Soon, the perfect little 6 months of breastfeeding will be over, and someone will have to make Yogourt Parfait Popsicles.

Did you notice I said “parents,” and not “moms?” Yep. This book is definitely for dads and non-binary people.

Canada’s one-year maternity leave policy is great for kids, but I found it meant that our family’s kitchen work was done mostly by me —  the one on paid leave from work — for the first year of my son’s life.

While my husband was busy working to pay our bills, I was busy figuring out how to feed a family. Then, when it was time to return to work, I failed to delegate dinner responsibilities. I hope this book will help my friends talk to their partners about the fact that, just as food is meant for sharing, so is kitchen work.


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