The family that cooks together...

April 29,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Because we're always willing to try things at least once as parents (I could write a small book on motivational charts, behavior charts, chore charts, reward systems, etc.), we've recently instituted a Family Cook Night. This night takes place every Sunday and involves a lot of mess, a crowded kitchen, and small hands helping out with food prep and mixing.

The reasons for our newly-instituted Family Cook Night are varied. First of all, I like to cook, and I always have. Before the kids came along, I would actually spend time reading cookbooks the way one would read a new novel or a newspaper article. Several times a week we'd try new recipes and, because we were poor graduate students (as opposed to poor college teachers), our entertainment consisted almost entirely of having friends over for dinner. There's nothing like parenthood, though, to take the wind out of your sails about cooking. Kids are completely unappreciative of gourmet foods and presentation, preferring instead the bland monochromatic colors of cooked pasta, bread, cheese, with an occasional veggie thrown in-- if you're lucky, of course, and have kids who EAT veggies. As I've written before, our dinnertimes are usually stressful, less-than-ideal affairs, yet we doggedly persist every night, gathering ourselves around the table in a messy and noisy coming-together at the end of a long day. Family Cook Night is our attempt to inject a little more fun into mealtimes, and to give L. some sense of control over the food preparation in the hopes that this will desensitize him somewhat from his incredible food aversions (this kid redefines the words "picky eater").

It's also a chance for us to teach the kids a bit more about responsibility, in a roundabout way, I suppose. Family Cook Night isn't just about the prepping and the cooking; it extends to shopping for the meal, as well. Last Sunday, for instance, we all headed to the local Asian Grocery store. So far, Family Cook Night has involved only cooking Asian food--for some reason, the only kind L. will tolerate preparing, cooking, and more or less eating, at this point. Eventually we hope to expand the repertoire to include, say, Mexican food (with Margaritas thrown in for the parents, of course), or Italian, but for now we're all happy with Asian. The Asian grocery store is a fantastic place to take the kids. Its shelves are piled high with mysterious and delectable goodies in colorful wrappers. You can find boxes and boxes of Hello Kitty cookies and candies, and packaged nuts and crackers. For vegetarians like us, the Asian market is a tofu paradise--there is even one whole refrigerator wall devoted to tofu in various shapes and sizes: tofu noodles, fried tofu, soy cakes, shredded tofu for salads, the list goes on. Each child is then charged with helping to find the ingredients they want to include in the meal, including some new novel treat for dessert. This week, for instance, T. picked out some foil-wrapped candies--delicious wafer-like morsels that crumbled deliciously in our mouths. L., of course, picked the same things he always picks: giant puffy balls of tofu, and the special lo mein noodles he likes so much. By involving the kids in all aspects of the meal preparation, they are learning about making wiser choices, about how much work and time goes into dinner, and about working together and respecting each other.

Family Cook Night may not be for the weak at heart. For someone like me, who likes a clean kitchen and a methodical approach to cooking (I'm one of those anal cooks who cleans up compulsively as I go), I have to work hard to not care about the chaos unleashed in my kitchen come dinnertime. I am learning to let go a little of the pressure I feel to do everything just right, and to not hover over T. when she precariously carries the plates to the table so she can set it. In a big step forward last week, we even let L. carefully slice up the Chinese eggplant, which he did perfectly, and proudly. Then, when we finally sat down to eat together, there was a real sense of accomplishment in the air, a pride we all shared for that meal--the fruits of our labor, the tangible and even quite tasty product of our family's time well-spent together.  

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