As I write this I’m listening to my 10 year old daughter giggle with two of her girlfriends in the kitchen as they cook macaroni and cheese for their lunch. I know when they are finished the room will be trashed and rather than allow my blood pressure to boil for the 20 minutes it takes them to make and eat their lunch, it’s just easier to stay away. I’ll wait until they’re ensconced in my daughter’s room with her stereo and guitar blaring before assessing the damage. That way they can’t hear my complaints. Because although I will be annoyed at the mess and even more annoyed that I didn’t make them clean it up, I am glad she is cooking. This is new for us.
For too long I didn’t allow my children to operate the stove or oven and certainly not a knife. The microwave was all I allowed, which is kind of silly because I hate the microwave and avoid cooking in it at all costs. (I’m one of those paranoid people who are convinced that someday we’ll all find out that microwaves are responsible for many of our health issues or at the least why our brains don’t seem to be evolving.)
These days I cautiously allow my children to use a knife to cut off the ends of their freshly peeled carrots (peelers are permitted too). Once they prove they can slice off a piece of bread without butchering the entire loaf, they can cut their bread too. The decision to let them begin using knives came about when I walked in on my oldest son’s full arm karate style chopping (using my gigantic butcher’s knife –OMG!) of his carrot. This, after he had somewhat successfully peeled his carrot with my good bread knife. The bottom line is that your kids are going to get curious about the kitchen and as they look for opportunities to assert their independence they will discover your knives. And your stove and most certainly the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream you’re hiding way in the back on the top shelf of your freezer. The kitchen will no longer be your sacred space. Best to invite the natives in rather than wait for the invasion.
I want to bring them in to the kitchen on my terms. I began by teaching my oldest son. Sitting on my hands and doing my best not to make any funny faces, I directed him in making a complete spaghetti dinner. I told him I wasn’t going to do any of it for him. I would stay with him and direct him, but he was on his own. His wounded expression led me to an overlong explanation about the fact that he is now 13 years old and should be able to feed himself because I am not raising any domestically dependent men. I owe that to the future women in their lives. I am forever grateful that my own mother-in-law taught my husband to cook, do laundry, clean, and even sew on a button.
My daughter’s cooking career began not because of potential knife violence, but as an act of desperation. She is my picky eater. Somehow she continues to grow subsisting on macaroni and cheese, pita chips, cookies, and the occasional baby carrot. Each week her repertoire seems to shrink. Once my broccoli eater, now no more. “What? I never liked broccoli!” There was a day when this child ate red beans in place of whatever meat she was turning her nose up at, but again, my mistake. “I HATE beans! I always have!” Seems her memory is disappearing as fast as the list of foods she’ll eat.
Throwing my hands up in exasperation one afternoon when she declared all she would eat for lunch was macaroni and cheese, I said, “Fine. You make it.” Her face lit up with the possibility! “How?” she asked. Macaroni and cheese is one of those foods I have never been able to replace with a homemade version. My children had too many years on the blue box kind and I suppose they are ruined for life. I’ve made macaroni and cheese with expensive yummy cheeses like gruyere and still they turn their noses up. I found a wonderful recipe with cream cheese in it. It’s creamy and delicious but not quite salty and chemically enough for two out of three children. So we depend on organic macaroni and cheese from the box. I firmly believe that this is one of those cases where organic definitely does not equal healthy, but you do what you have to do. Ya know?
I pulled out the pots she would need, the measuring cups, and the box of macaroni and cheese and I let her have at it. She determinedly followed the directions, refusing to ask for my help. It was messy and there were a few tears, but she did it. Now she makes macaroni and cheese for every friend that visits and on busy nights when we’re all running in different directions, she can whip up dinner for everyone by adding nitrate free hot dogs cooked in the microwave (for shame!).
Not long after the macaroni and cheese discovery, she stole quietly in to the kitchen and asked, “What else can I cook?” Since it was morning and eggs were on the menu (like pretty much every morning here), I taught her to make scrambled eggs. Now she is the pro, offering to cook eggs for her brothers who tentatively agree confused as to why she’s being so nice. And after a few weeks of cooking eggs for everyone else, one day she decided maybe she might like eggs herself. The moment I had been waiting for!! Finally some protein!
I tell you this story not to impress you (I know, pasta and eggs are not so impressive, you’re waiting to hear about the grilled halibut and three layer cheese cake, right?), but to encourage you to loosen the lock on your own kitchen and get your kids cooking. Not just helping you, but doing it themselves, start to finish. It will not only expand their food options, but it just might expand their confidence too. And discounting the mess that is made, it can actually make your own job easier. We’re working on the clean up part. Teaching our children to cook also gives them the ability to discover that food made from scratch is not only healthier, but tastes better than processed food – especially when you make it yourself. In the end my goal is to raise children who can take care of themselves without the maid, cook, and butler I keep insisting they will need when they grow up.