If you think cooking for a family of four or five is tough, imagine cooking for 16! Meggan Brummer takes a first-hand look at how one large family copes during mealtimes.
With 'Life is a cabaret' printed on her apron, Jackie Stephens, 51 (mother of 10 and stepmum of three more), is in her element. It’s a typical Monday night, and Jackie and her husband, Keith, 54, are expecting a full house for dinner – 13 kids, plus Jackie’s first husband, Phil Manton, also 54.
Jackie taps her wooden spoon on the gong and soon people appear from all directions. Chicken’s on the menu tonight and the kitchen looks like a workers’ canteen on a busy shift. Three-and-a-half kilograms of schnitzels nestle alongside two large trays of roasted potatoes and several large mounds of mixed vegies.
“Mealtimes are really crazy,” says 22-year-old Yarrah. “When dinner’s ready, we all come running like a herd of animals. The actual feeding happens in order from youngest to oldest, so I’m right in the middle!”
When asked how she manages, Jackie smiles and says, “I just use bigger pans than you!” She does concede, though, that having such a large family often generates much curiosity and intrigue. People think because of our size we must live on gruel or something, but you know, feeding a large crew simply means making more food and setting out more plates. It’s as much about the organisation as the numbers.” But, she adds, finding the balance between feeding so many mouths and keeping the food healthy is an ongoing challenge.
Cheaper by the dozen
Jackie and Phil never set out to have a large family. “We initially thought we’d have about five or maybe six, but it was a bit addictive – it just kept happening!” says Jackie.“I can honestly say children are consuming, but it’s also quite nice to be consumed by them! Despite the stresses of having lots of kids, the rewards are incredibly worthwhile.”
“It’s good being in a big family,” agrees 13-year-old Hamish. “Everybody knows and recognises us and if you fall out with someone, there’s always someone else to talk to!”
For this family, meals are very much about sharing time together. With so many different lives and interests spread across four decades, there’s always some news to impart or hear. The only downside is having to wash all those dishes. “When Mum tries to make me do them, she has to tell me a few times,” says 15?year-old Harry sheepishly.
The two-step plan
When cooking for so many, it all comes down to organisation and time management. The family home has a tangible sense of order, routine and boundaries being set and observed. Phil explains, “It’s all a matter of organisation and Jackie’s the best at this – she keeps things running pretty smoothly.”
Jackie adds, “Without some organisation and discipline the chaos would drown us all.”
The process starts with the shopping – Jackie does a major grocery shop once a fortnight. She shops for fresh fruit and vegetables every two or three days, and buys fresh meat from the local butcher every day. “Fortunately, the supermarket staff know our family now and expect me to arrive at the checkout with a heavily overloaded trolley,” says Jackie, “but I sometimes get strange looks from people in the queue behind me who are probably in awe of the sheer volume of food going into my shopping bags!”
As for time management, when all the kids were living at home, Jackie would start preparing dinner at around 2pm or 3pm. “I never found it terribly challenging. I guess I just automatically pace myself depending on how many people I expect to be at any given meal.”
The odd challenge
Jackie says having 10 kids is not as challenging as people might think it is. She never had twins, for a start, it was always one new baby at a time. “Looking back though,” she says, “folding all those socks was the biggest nightmare – there were millions of them.”
Of course, there was the finance issue. “If you waited till you could afford children, I think no one would ever have them,” says Jackie.
During her first marriage, Phil was the sole provider for 21 years and he admits there were hard times. “We just lived from week to week and there was never enough money and often a struggle to pay the bills. The kids had hand-me-downs, family holidays were a definite no-no and there was no wine with meals!” he recalls.
“The financial strain certainly put a lot of pressure on our relationship,” he explains, “but mainly by distinguishing between needs and wants, we always got by. We lived by the adage: ‘You might not always get what you want, but you’ll always get what you need.’ Our basic needs were to have food on the table and to pay the bills, both of which we did, although the bills often got paid in instalments. It was tough at times for sure, but it’s the good times we all had over the years that I mainly remember now, not the struggles.”
Jackie adds, “Financially, I know it would have been easier if I had taken a job, but there was always so much to be done at home. Also, I just wanted to be there for the kids as much as possible.”
Secrets to success
With such a large number of people in the family, the clan had to do more housework than most, but Jackie always found ways of coping.
“A lot of the chores we share – like washing the dishes – and as they get older these jobs get passed down the line. The kids all make their own beds and keep their rooms tidy, or are supposed to anyway!”
Space is also somewhat stretched in the busy household. The family had to work within the limits they had.
“We recently changed the space to suit the new needs of the family. With five bedrooms in the house, we had two to three children in each room, but now we’ve converted one of the bedrooms into a living space to make room for a long dining-room table. Having a large kitchen and dining room is absolutely essential,” says Jackie. The kitchen and dining room are the heart of the home.
Jackie concludes, “Although there were times when I’d have liked them all to run away, given the choice I’d definitely do it again. And now with 13 of us still living in the house, and my daughter Breanna moving back in with her husband and three kids, it feels like I am doing it all again!”
Jackie explains: How they made it work
Having rules is important for the family, especially when the kids were young – such as no television in the morning before school, and a rule that the young ones had to ‘hold the hand or the pram’ when the family went grocery shopping – everyone stood still until they did.
Having routines is really important, including getting ready for school in the mornings, mealtimes, homework time and – at the end of the day – dinner, bath and bedtime. In the past, while Mum cooked dinner, Dad bathed the little ones so that the bathroom would then be free for the older ones.
Providing individual boxes for the kids to organise their bits and pieces is useful. Everyone needs a bit of space that’s just theirs.
4. Set space
Allocating everyone their set place at the dinner table has proved to be a good way of preventing many arguments at mealtimes.
5. Eating together
The family always eats together and there’s no eating meals in front of the television.
It’s always the youngest to eldest, especially when serving ice-cream, because the oldest ones have more patience!
A typical day’s menu
Toast and cereal with yoghurt – each week, the family goes through 5 boxes of cereal and 3kg of yoghurt; each day they eat 3 loaves of bread (includes afternoon tea)
36 bread rolls
410g jar of gherkins
500-600g mixed cold meats
110g Vegemite per week
250g peanut butter per week
Roast lamb: 2 large legs of lamb (4.4kg in total); 4kg potatoes; 6 zucchini; 1 cauliflower; 1kg peas
or Pot pies: 3kg skirt steak (makes 22 pies); 1.5kg mushrooms; 5 celery sticks; 1kg onions; 4kg potatoes; 1.5kg peas
6 litres of milk per day – the family usually drinks water or milk