A bitter taste

Sue Elliott-Nicholls’ family mealtimes weren’t cutting the mustard. So she’s decided to ditch them.

Illustration by Laura Swaddle.

Illustration by Laura Swaddle.

It’s a lovely middle-class idea, to ditch the TV dinners of our childhoods and sit around the kitchen table discussing our day. I have read how it brings a family together, it’s cool and continental, it teaches our children how to engage with the family.

But personally I find we bond much more over an episode of The X Factor.

Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, only the posh kids ate around a table, the same ones who had dressing-up boxes and parents who asked how school went.

I was going to be that mum. We would have a dressing-up box, I would bake fairy cakes with my kids, and every night we were going to eat a meal together and bond. How we would laugh as we sat around eating our homegrown veg.

“NO it is NOT funny when Dad farts at the dinner table, it is a BAD EXAMPLE.”

What I hadn’t considered was how knackered we would all be at the end of a working day, how by the time the dinner was ready the kids would be fractious and starving because they had to wait so long for their home-cooked meal and how much this forced happiness would increase my feelings of failure.

When my sons were small, far from being the Jamie and Jules Oliver picture of domestic bliss, the boys squabbled, we nagged, then someone had to wash up.

“Don’t talk with your mouth open.”

“Morgan’s got more than me, he’s a fat pig.”

“Fuck off.”

“Don’t swear.”

“Pass the ketchup. Pass it, don’t throw it.”

“NO it is NOT funny when Dad farts at the dinner table, it is a BAD EXAMPLE.”

There was a low-level tension between their dad and me as we tried to teach them manners, the tension mostly coming from me because:
a) He shouldn’t be telling them off so much.
b) He should be backing me up more when I tell them off.
c) He should be talking more, telling more funny stories, like they do in the movies, like it was supposed to be.

Teenagers? Another failure. Of course they should sit around and tell you about the interesting philosophy lesson they had or the problems with their love life, but they don’t. They wolf down their food as quickly as possible because they’re desperate to know what’s happening on the next episode of tonight’s great social media saga. They are already harbouring resentment at having to be the absolute only kid in the group to ever have to leave early on account of dinner being ready.

“Why did you make me leave the park so early? Everyone was there; now I have to come home to some dead-out family meal. When is it going to be ready anyway? Dad made me leave bare early and it’s not even ready.”

Ungrateful sods. Frankly, we all could be doing more fun things but I came home when I could have gone for a drink after work and COOKED YOUR BLOODY DINNER!

Oh and then there’s the times that they turn up with a friend (or, much much worse, a girlfriend).

“But I have only cooked four chops, I haven’t got any more and the shops are a 20-minute walk away and I bet her gorgeous Spanish mama would be able to rustle something up in seconds BUT I CAN’T.”

Often, after a Sunday roast I feel like such a failure I shed a little tear.

Between you and me, I also suspect we have been sold a lie. Antonis, a Greek friend, told me that they never had big family meals together after school but that their tradition was to eat a long lunch. I suspect, far from it being continental, the idea of sitting around the table every night, sharing a meal after work comes from America, the same place that gave us presents for teachers, sleepover parties, cigarettes and revolvers.

“Every night we were going to eat a meal together and bond. How we would laugh as we sat around eating our homegrown veg.”

Desperation recently led me to Google “How to have a successful family dinner” and almost all of the advice was American. One had a list of helpful conversation starters. Well, why not give them a go?

I was the self-designated umpire and the question was this:

“If the person were a vegetable, what vegetable would he/she be?”

(It started very well)

“You would be a pineapple. Nice, but sometimes you just can’t be bothered with it.”


“Your Mum would be a prickly pear, lovely once you’ve got the cover off.”

“Urgh Dad, you’re butterz.”

(Oh God)

“Dad would be a banana ‘cos it looks like a dick.”

“You’d be some old rotten nectarine, stinking and covered in flies, infecting the other fruit.”

Do you see what I’m up against? The best conversation we ever had was whether cannibals ate penises and if they did how would they cook them. Stuff them and roast them? Chop them up and put them in pasta, or maybe on a stick like a corn dog? (Dick on a stick.)

So, after 20 years of forcing us all to sit around the table happily discussing feelings and literature I have given up.

I should have done it sooner; it was like a strained Christmas dinner every night.

Funnily enough, now we do eat around the table, a couple of times a week, when we’re all in the mood and then it’s great. We might be spending the entire meal thinking of inventive ways to slag each other off but, you know, we’re sharing, in our way…

Dick on a stick anyone?


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Written by Sue Elliott-Nicholls

Sue Elliott-Nicholls is an actress and writer. Often heard washing her dirty laundry on Woman’s Hour. Sue is currently on your TV screens playing Moody Margaret in Horrid Henry and Nanno in Hugglemonsters, as well as appearing in Tracey Ullman's show on BBC1. She is also a lone female voice attempting to be heard in a family of Alpha males.