First Person

Will Work for Food: How I got my kids to help make dinner.

Not long ago, I gathered our children around for a family meeting to announce their newest chore: helping make dinner.

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Not long ago, I gathered our children around for a family meeting. These meetings don’t happen very often and are usually about something of a serious nature. The kids all sat down, somber and apprehensive; I had a smirk on my face.

“Snyder family, if you will all turn to the chores schedule you will see there is a new task. Everyone will now be responsible for making one dinner each week.”

My hands, in true Vanna White fashion, indicated the sheet of paper taped to the refrigerator. I’d like to say the announcement was met with smiles and excitement. In reality, said children were slouched with their arms crossed, rolling their eyes.

We are a family of six—two parents and four children: Danielle, 21; Allie, 18; Evan, 13; and Brody, 11. And we can’t forget our two cats, Max and Keesh. My husband and I work full-time jobs. I also do a bit of writing from time to time.

Everything food usually falls to me: writing grocery lists, buying and making meals. In the summertime, I even grow organic veggies in our three gardens. I have also gone back to school, so I’m trying to wean my family from depending on me when they can pitch in and help. (Danielle works too late for weekly chef duty.)

We aren’t just a large family, we also have a lot of dietary restrictions: tree nuts, fish, coconut, blueberries, undercooked egg, and milk allergies. Our oldest is vegan, our youngest has braces, and one in the middle is diabetic. All this doesn’t even touch on preferences or the “favorite food of the week.” Life here is complicated.

Read: “All Together Now: Make family meals a reality with these simple tips”

We’ve had a rotating chores list—including vacuuming, sweeping, and cleaning the cat box—for years now. It’s similar to the ones my husband and I followed at their age. We feel it’s important to learn life skills to be independent and marketable. Plus, I’ve lovingly advised the offspring there will come a time when their key won’t fit in our door.

Each child has to check the chores sheet in the morning to see what they have to do. The girls do all their laundry. The boys wash their sheets weekly, but I still do their clothing because it can’t sit there for six days. I take the basket to the hallway and call, “Bring out your dead,” reminiscent of the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Think: gym socks.)

Our household is loosely based on running a business, so everyone understands how much we all depend on one another. Saturday is their payday. Learning how to manage their own money is a bonus.

Each child has to research the meal he wants to prepare. I’ve armed them all with my trusty Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and any other cookbook they can find. I even welcomed them to use their internet powers for good by going to Allrecipes.com. This site has a million ideas with pictures. It can be narrowed down by major food category, skill level, preparation time, or special diet requirements. They then check our cupboards to see if we have all the ingredients they’ll need; if not, they have to write it on the grocery list.

Each is at a different place with ability, so we roll with it. Most times I’m asked to look over an idea before they pull the trigger, and this kind of interaction with the kids is great.

Surprisingly, Brody, who is my baking helper, has made some of the more difficult dinners, such as char-grilled chicken wings (the hubby helped with the grill) and sloppy joes. Evan really isn’t much of a foodie but even he branched out from hot dogs to meatloaf and ratatouille. Allison has surprised us with chicken and dumplings and a tasty tofu dish.

There are a few good things about their choices, too. They become invested in their dish and typically make what they like, so it’s less of a hassle getting them to eat. Most meals are not in my go-to repertoire, which gives us something new and exciting to try. They also learn there’s more to planning than meets the eye. (“No, we are not making pot pies when it’s 95 outside.”)

Most of the kids initially struggled with not just the tricks to cracking eggs but basic moves like how to use a can opener. It was sobering to realize we parents spend more time discussing social media than teaching skills to make healthy food. I certainly don’t want my family relying exclusively on fast food or frozen products in their adulthood.

 

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It’s an incredibly freeing feeling now—almost four months in—not having to worry about making dinner those three days in the week, but it started out a bit rocky. There’s a learning curve, and trial and error is the best teacher. I was about the boys’ age when I discovered garlic does not work with French toast.

My husband and I have had to dedicate time to walking each child through preparing their meal. This delays dinner, but it’s the only way to teach good habits. It’s easier to learn hands-on how to measure things like brown sugar or how to add milk without it curdling in high heat than reading about it. Some of their ideas weren’t a hit, but then again, not all mine are winners, either.

Initially, the kids concentrated on making the entree. This wasn’t something I had put much thought into until there was one food item on my plate. To be fair, it is difficult to juggle preparing all the dishes for an entire meal, let alone from scratch. For the first two months, the kids could only focus on the main course and not on side dishes like rice or vegetables. Or even complementary sides.

“I’m making chicken parm,” one child proudly announced, strategically placing shredded cheese atop five precooked, breaded pieces of chicken artfully covered with jarred sauce.

“What else?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“No spaghetti or salad? I don’t think we’re just going to eat a piece of chicken.”

“Oh. How about peas?”

“Sure, OK.”

As a pleasant side effect, I will admit I lost a pound or two not eating a starch several times a week.

The kids aren’t the only ones learning on this adventure. It’s hard to teach how one needs to follow the ingredient measurements but also think outside the box (no pun intended) to substitute if it doesn’t feel right.

Read: “Smoothie Moves: You and your kids can blend some healthy beverages”

Or to try to use a vegan-friendly option. I frequently cut back on the amount of butter in dishes because honestly, the amount of fat doesn’t justify the food tasting only a little bit better. Plus, one of my boys hates butter and was trying to avoid all dishes that included it. These are skills each child will have to develop by experimenting, and that will come with experience.

We are currently at the point where the kids have to coordinate prep for a main, a side and a vegetable to be sure everything is done at roughly the same time. There’s patience in practicing, which is a great learning tool for the instant-gratification generation. Our kids don’t have extracurricular activities, either, so I don’t feel bad having them manage homework, fun time and dinner.

We all need to learn, whether it’s school or a job, so why not now? And a meal doesn’t have to be gourmet, just something filling and (mostly) healthy. Using precooked meats or a slow cooker helps.

It might be a while before we get to proficiency, but at least the bulk of the workload is lifted and distributed at this point. Maybe we’ve even inspired a few minds along the way. This past weekend the youngest decided (by himself!) to make me homemade pancakes on his own time just because. He whizzed through the kitchen with the whisk and measuring spoons—and my breakfast was delish. They say the way to a person’s heart is through the stomach. If that’s the case, I’d say my crew has a head start to a lifetime of happiness.

 

 

Keep in Mind

  • Working side by side in the kitchen is a great way to bond and learn.
  • Invite your child to help out on weekends when there’s no time crunch.
  • Pick meals or treats that pique their interest.
  • Make peace with mistakes and messes. Both will happen.
  • Explain what each ingredient does and then quiz them when they use the item again.
  • Encourage them to think of ways to modify recipes for a personal touch (for example, add strawberries to banana muffins).
  • Have fun!

 

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