I recently started having my kids, who are 8 and 10, each take responsibility for cooking the family meal one night a week. I stole the idea from the New York Times:
The writer there says she started having her sons cook because she was tired of having them bug her about dinner as soon as she got home from work, or complain about the meal. My reasons were different. Until recently, I didn't do any of the cooking in my home. My husband did. He is a more intuitive cook than I am. I am a recipe girl. So we had a oddly gendered break down in which he cooked meats and mains, and I did salad, desserts and baked goods. But I started cooking more in recent years. In part, this was because he started doing some more childcare, and it seemed like we had to balance chores. In part, it was because I needed to take hold of my diet as my metabolism slowed and my body started wanting to pack on fat. So, I started cooking a few nights a week, building more meatless meals into our schedule, as well as more fish, more chicken, more veggies.
I decided to have the kids cook not because I resented cooking at all. Instead, I thought it would be a good way to have them take ownership of something, to learn more about food, to prepare them for the future and to find a new activity to share (as they grow up and away from me). Also, I realize that nobody taught me to cook and I wish they had. My mom was of the generation that had discovered canned and frozen food as a godsend. She wanted to escape the kitchen, but never did. Even though she worked full time, she cooked every meal, and still does. To this day, at almost 80- years old, if my mother left my father he would have to survive on peanut butter sandwiches. I don't even think I have seen him open a can of soup! So, while she cooked many foods from scratch, she cooked more using ready at hand ingredients and mixes. I helped a little but was never shown how to chop an onion, how to store veggies, how to recognize cuts of meat. Instead, I heated fish sticks, heated sauce from a jar, boiled frozen vegetables, and poured pancake batter from a carton. Like many of my generation, I have been finding out about food as an adult as part of a return to the kitchen, and to whole foods.
My kids are growing up in a very different world. Most of our male friends do cook, and are generally the dominant cook in the house (in line with the gendering of cooking as male when it is gourmet and female when it is functional). Many of our friends have vegetable gardens or belong to CSAs. All shop at Farmer's Markets and eat at farm to table restaurants. Some have chickens! So, the kids have some knowledge of food, certainly greater than I did. And they have been helping in the kitchen sine they were little -- mixing muffins and granola bars and cakes, making salad dressing.
But the experiment was to have them think about a dinner, and make it as much by themselves as possible. I usually suggest a few things and they pick or they suggest something and I find a recipe. It has to be something the grown ups will like, not "kid food," whatever that is. We usually work with recipes from Cooking Light or Weight Watchers but they don't notice that they are less caloric or lower in fat because they have never made them any other way.
It has been a success. My son, who is a bit of a foodie, is the most enthusiastic. He likes to do everything himself. Seeing an eight year old chopping onions is a little nerve wracking, but he has now done it every week. He has made turkey sloppy joes, lemon pasta, pasta with sausage and spinach, fish tacos, French onion soup, pecan chicken, chicken pot pie, and more. We have made sides of sweet potatoes, butternut squash, spinach, rice, and beans. My daughter is trickier. Until recently, she only ate food that had melted cheese or peanut butter in it. She might be what they call a super taster which means she tastes things more intensely than others, but whatever the cause, she is picky (she finds "bitter" tastes in the oddest places). She has started eating some meat -- steak, ribs, bacon -- but no chicken, fish, or recognizable vegetables. So, with her I nudge slightly. We have made a cheesy potato soup, french bread pizzas, a creamy pasta which was served with peas for her brother, peas and asparagus for the adults, and plain for her. This week, we made cream of tomato soup and cheesy toasts, a recipe form Epicurious (the toasts were great, the soup so so). She lets me chop more than her brother does and gets a little bored, but she does a good amount of work and takes pride in the result.
At the end of the day, it is a nice way for us to spend time together and have a shared project. I hope it also prepares them to be independent and healthy adults, hosts, dates, and partners.