For me, the most challenging aspect of cooking with the kids is the planning required to make it happen in a way that allows us to actually enjoy our time together, rather than have our sessions resemble a particularly nasty episode of “Hell’s Kitchen”. I am comfortable enough in the kitchen that the “teaching” part of our time together is not normally where we’re challenged. Our struggle rather, is managing the family cooking calendar to allow each of the kids the opportunity to cook every week, while being sensitive to everyone’s increasingly busy personal schedules. I know I’m not alone in this. In fact, I was catching up with an old friend last week, and she told me that her biggest challenge in cooking for her family is that she generally doesn’t even think about dinner until 6:00 each evening. At that point, there is little to do but grab a pre-cooked meal at the market, or call out for delivery. Advance planning is a big part of being successful as a home cook, and absolutely critical to getting your kids to engage with you in the kitchen.
I am finding that there are really three aspects of planning required to successfully cook with your kids. The first has to do with just being prepared to cook at home, period. If you are in the habit of eating out, or ordering take-out frequently, and therefor unaccustomed to planning for home cooked meal prep, then your first challenge will be to set aside a time every few days to look forward in your week, dream up some dinner menus, build a shopping list, and get to the market. When I lived in France, this was a daily routine for me (as it is for many of the French), and I would do daily grocery shopping for my family each evening when walking home from school. I would pass a butcher, fishmonger, baker, cheese merchant, a produce stall, and finally, a fab little wine shop, all on my way home each day. Being a total food nut, this daily commute was a little piece of heaven for me, and is one of the things I miss most about living in France. Here, I find that planning meals for a three day block of time works best for me. I never go to the market without buying goods for three evenings worth of dinners. Anything less and it feels like I’m at the market all the time, anything more and the freshness of my ingredients suffer. The only thing I’m not comfortable holding for a few days is seafood, which I always use on the day of purchase.
The second part of the planning puzzle has to do with scheduling sous-chef duties in a way that is sensitive to other demands on your kids’ time. Even though we post to this blog only once or twice a week, we cook and eat-in as a family five or six nights a week, so we are getting plenty of practice with the planning and logistical challenges of cooking as a family. The good news is that as a family of seven, we can spread sous-chef responsibilities so that each of the five kids, along with my lovely and supportive wife, only get the call to duty once a week. Even during the school year, when early evening schedules are at their most hectic, this one night a week demand on everyone's schedules seems to be working well. For us, the key has been to develop a written schedule that defines which night each family member will be asked to help cook dinner. The schedule is flexible, but accounts for fixed extra-curricular activities, and allows us to plan our week in a way that sets expectations well in advance.
Finally, the third organizing element is making sure that you have a plan in place for your kids’ involvement, PRIOR to calling them into the kitchen. I can’t stress this point enough. If the kids arrive, and there is no plan to get them busy working right away, then you may find that the whole thing falls apart pretty quickly. Once they are busy, they generally start to have some fun, whisking, or chopping, or stirring, but if they are in the kitchen watching you tinker about while trying to find something for them to do, then you run the risk of them getting bored in a hurry, and leaving to make a “quick” phone call, or to send a fast email, from which they never return. Think about the last time you attended a business meeting where there was no agenda, and you’ll understand how important this element is. A meeting without an agenda, like a kitchen without a plan can quickly give birth to a mutiny. If you don’t have a plan for how to engage your child AS SOON as they step into the kitchen, then the “fun” of cooking is some vague future thingie that sounds a lot like WORK, and the battle is on.
Ideally, you’ll want to have a few things for the kids to do during each phase of preparing our meal, from initial prep of your mise, to cooking, and finally to serving. This not only keeps them engaged for the duration, but also allows them to look back at the end of the meal with pride at having been an integral part in each stage of bringing it all together. If they are busy early, say dicing potatoes, or topping and tailing green beans, then wander off when they run out of things to do, then the experience is not the same. They’ll have a sense that they’ve been busy doing their “chores”, and certainly helping you, but not achieve the fulfillment of having really cooked a meal. I find that it is this satisfaction, and the sense of pride they achieve as friends and family enjoy their cooking, that keep them coming back for more.
I hope these tips help those of you who are trying to wrestle your kids into the kitchen with you, and would love to hear from those of you who ARE cooking with your kids, as to how the whole thing is working for you. Do you all have any tips you'd care to share?
Cheers – Steve