When Lockdown leads to panini pressure

Week 6 of the Coronavirus lockdown and I detected a bit of tension among my 3 captive children. They had been bearing up pretty well until now despite their new home-based routines. The elder two, whose courses had been cut short, had mostly adjusted to living full-time with family members again rather than with their uni housemates. Like most students, they had gotten used to living with different standards of hygiene, tidiness and cultural norms. To be fair, cleaning up after yourself is hardly a priority when you are studying for a degree and who remembers that at home, full-scale burping can reverberate beyond a bedroom wall? Luckily, we already avoided their bedrooms so it was only in the shared areas of the house where there had been some slight clashes. Particularly, in the busiest and most often populated room of the house – the kitchen.

After a few weeks of settling in, they have now fully reverted back to their default home mode. In fact, I would go as far to say that they have both returned home in an upgraded home mode because they now help to cook more often, share recipe ideas and will put on a fresh pot of coffee unprompted. Which doesn’t mean that they don’t fall back into each of their own different uni ways of living now and then. Drying dishes are sometimes left stacked perilously in the dishrack in an ongoing game of Jenga where the loser has to unload the dishwasher. One of them leaves peanut butter debris in unusual places and drinks milk from the carton when no one’s looking. The other still economises on cleaning excess dishes at breakfast by pouring a mammoth portion of oats directly into a big pot of yoghurt. He can only do this every other day when he is halfway through the pot, but the satisfaction that he gains from having to only wash up a single spoon on occasion is immense. Slip-ups aside, I have really enjoyed having them home again.

However, recently things have been getting slightly tenser and the number of arguments and absolute meltdowns has been increasing. The main source of stress for the uni two is having to study for their upcoming online exams. With every day stuck at home in the lockdown being indistinguishable from the next, they literally cannot escape the intense pressure and frustration of studying. It has not helped that their younger sibling has so far spent the entire lockdown swanning around the house at leisure on an A-level holiday ever since her Year 13 exams were cancelled.

Sure, she has stress of her own, having to wait until August for the Ofqual A-level algorithm to spew out her final grades and find out what uni she gets into. Who knows if the outcome will be a fair reflection of what students would have achieved had they sat their exams? Or if students will feel that their future had been decided by a remote sorting hat. For now, it is completely out of her hands. She has no more schoolwork to complete – ever. In the meantime, she is being paid by the Government to not work at her part-time job. In effect, she is being funded to sleep in, put in more time chatting to her friends on social media and to develop her analytical skills further by playing Fortnite and Minecraft. As you can imagine, this can tend to grate somewhat on your siblings if they are having a bad day, not to mention pining for their girlfriends and reminiscing about their former freedoms and exciting uni social life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scene of the most meltdowns among the captives has once again been in the kitchen. Lunchtime has become a particular hot spot for arguments. Warfare can be sparked off by the littlest of things when hunger strikes. However, I have noticed that they mostly start in two distinct situations. I like to call the first situation, when someone goes the ‘Full Paul Hollywood’. Like in the Great British Bake Off (GBBO), it occurs when someone takes on the role of baking judge, Paul Hollywood, and gives a passive-aggressive critique or unsolicited advice to others about what they are planning to eat or how they are preparing it. For example, ‘Paul’ could ask a helpful question to someone who is at that moment unsuccessfully attempting to fit too many fillings inside a sandwich such as, ‘Are you sure about that?! I don’t think that’s going to work’. Or maybe ‘Paul’ could approach another with a query about the palatability of ingredients such as, ‘You’re actually going to eat that?! Together?!’ Or my favourite, ‘Paul’ makes a general nutrition-related observation that also attempts to hook me in such as, ‘Seriously?! That’s disgusting! Tell them why they shouldn’t be eating so much (fill in the blank)!!’.

It is a rotating role among the captives and usually there is only one ‘Paul’ to contend with at a time. And this is not to say that every difference of opinion or comment made by ‘Paul’ causes someone to have a massive meltdown. We all know that ‘Paul’, at heart, is only trying to steer everybody in the right direction and desperately wants to give out that golden handshake. But at lunchtime, the conditions are especially ripe for battle so the level of response to any unwarranted feedback or disapproving looks has the potential to fuel a long drawn out war. Particularly in the second situation, which is when the issue of fairness is at stake.

Fairness is a fundamental principle in all areas of life and sharing food in families is just one small way that we demonstrate this. However, all parents if they are honest will recognise that their children have an almost innate belief that everybody else has more than they do. Call it a survival instinct, if you will, but it means that we have to spend a lot of time managing fairness among children to make sure that no one has the biggest piece of cake. But this can be very tricky because sometimes treating your children fairly is not the same as treating them equally. When my children were younger, it was easier to handle this. In the glory days, I could dampen the flames of kitchen warfare through basic distraction or with the substitution of something better to eat for someone which was usually on my plate, i.e. I would take one for the team. But now that they are older, the strategies used to get what they want are more sophisticated.

A classic ploy is to prepare lunch before anyone else has entered the kitchen before they have had a chance to check out what options are available. Afterall, no one can make you unmelt the last slice of cheese, even if you eventually have to face a Piers Morgan-esk enquiry about why you ate the last slice. As you pop the last bite of grilled cheese into your mouth, you can rest assured that it is simply too late. This strategy becomes even more effective if you not only make lunch before others but you also do it when others are not even at home. It doesn’t matter which of the 4 lockdown rules they may be following. Perhaps they are doing their daily exercise or have ventured out shopping for more sliced cheese? Whatever the reason, there will be less people at home to divvy out the best stuff that’s still left in the fridge. So that even when my husband returns from a run and looks crestfallen when he finds out that the much coveted leftovers are gone, there’s nothing he can do.

Recently, I tried to come up with a counter strategy that I hoped would improve the mood among the captives at home. I went all out and bought a new panini maker as a family peace offering of sort. It had been long time coming because the previous much loved and extensively used panini maker (RIP) had retired some years ago. But it was a delicate subject because there was still a big question mark hanging over its demise. No one could say what exactly had happened to it but everyone knew who had used it last… And like another kitchen family mystery, it was swept under the carpet. I thought that this could be the perfect time to introduce a new one into our home and it might as well be a new and improved version.

I have to say that at first, the new panini maker, complete with adjustable hinges for 3 different heights of sandwiches, worked a treat. As my kitchen once again quickly transformed into a stringy mozzarella dripping pop-up Subway, I thought that the meltdowns had finally been confined to the sandwiches. And for a while, lunchtime had never been so smelly and so peaceful. At least for a couple of day… Because the panini maker allows for so many different types and sizes of bread, the options of sandwich creations is endless. But if you are even just slightly ambitious and greedy, lunchtime can quickly turn into a GBBO competition. Of course, mistakes are bound to happen when a technical challenge involves sandwich building. Not to mention that there can also be some quite strong differences of opinions expressed about what should and definitely should not go into a sandwich. And no one wants their showstopper panini to be judged by ‘Paul’ when they are hungry…

Unfortunately, as we continue to mark off the growing number of weeks living in this never-ending lockdown and with uni exams in full swing, I am beginning to run out of ideas to prevent more meltdowns. For now, I’m working on the preventative strategy of keeping the fridge fully stocked up with sliced cheese and keeping the panini maker on standby. But perhaps what is really needed is a more effective counter-strategy to the unwelcome presence of ‘Paul’. Maybe I will have to take on the role of GBBO’s good cop judge, ‘Prue’? Only time will tell if the presence of two judges in the kitchen is a recipe for disaster or if I will have to up the stakes further by going full Mary Berry. In the meantime, I can only continue to tread very softly in the kitchen.

I was tempted to include a recipe for my favourite sandwich filling but as our panini press is already in high demand I thought it would be better to come up with something to munch on while queuing. This recipe for a Harissa yoghurt dip takes only a couple minutes to make so you might as well also try the one for Pitta chips.

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