A New Cook in the Kitchen

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It’s no secret that I have hesitated to let my two children “help” me in the kitchen. It has always seemed like more trouble than it’s worth, with poorly measured ingredients, big spills, and squabbles about who gets to do what.

Today, however, something magical happened: I changed my mind. I realized that in order to survive this long summer at home with my four-year old and six-year old, I’m going to have to give them jobs beyond setting the table and feeding the dog. And, who knows? They just might be ready to handle it.

This afternoon, after having her hose off our very sandy beach shoes, I let my six-year old help put away the groceries. Grace did this very well, and she felt proud. Buoyed by a surge of self-confidence, she then decided to fix herself a snack.

First, she put yogurt in a carefully chosen bowl (she spilled some, but cleaned it up without any prompting), and spooned some granola over the top.

Then, she asked me…

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Déjà vu

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Every Sunday, I plan out a week’s worth of dinners. I make a detailed grocery list so that I will hopefully only have to take my two kids to the grocery store once. I take pride in my organizational skills and my ability to come up with healthy, kid-friendly meals that also appeal to me and my husband.

Every night, I swirl around the kitchen, doing a deliberate dance between the sink and the island, the stove and refrigerator. All while trying to keep the peace between two tired and hungry children. I give them art projects, recommend games to play, let them ‘help’ me cook. Mostly, I try to keep them from whining, or hurting themselves, so that I can accomplish the task at hand: feeding us, sustaining us, keeping us healthy.

Every night, when we sit down to eat, three-year-old Tess immediately pushes away her plate and says, “I not like that. I want something else.” This is probably because we used to give her something else when she requested it, until I got really, really tired of catering to the whims of a toddler. (Plus, the pediatrician told me I should stop.)

So now, we explain that this is her dinner, and if she doesn’t want to eat it, she’ll be hungry later, but this is her only chance to eat. I felt bad about this new strategy for a millisecond, until I realized that she wasn’t going to waste away overnight. And did I really want a child who would only eat four things, anyway? So now we sit through dinner, listening to her ask for yogurt and watching her make her ‘yucky’ face at the meal I so lovingly prepared.

And every night, when I put her in bed, she says, “Mommy, I hungry.”…

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The Lunch Fairy

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Fairies are a big deal at our house. My six-year-old has discovered a seemingly endless series of books about fairies. My very patient husband reenacts the stories with Grace on a regular basis (even though he always has to be the goblin), and she and her younger sister dress up as fairies and perform elaborate musical routines with much spinning and waving of wands. Grace talks about her fairy books on the way to school (and on the way home), and every morning she walks into our bedroom carrying all of them (24 books at last count). Fairies seem to have taken over our lives.

In fact, the fairies even followed us on vacation recently. Over February break, we spent a weekend with friends who are very conscientious about what they feed their daughter. I have always envied this family and their ability to prepare appealing school lunches in which all of the food groups are covered. My friend once summed up their philosophy by stating, “Food is love.” I certainly agree, although I can’t quite seem to get organized enough to show my love as deliciously as they do.

It so happens that our friends’ daughter also loves fairies (although she’s not quite as obsessed with them as our own child). Her mother made lunch for all three girls, and I was astonished to discover that she had made a fairy right there on each child’s plate. The fairy’s wings were pieces of a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. She had a cucumber face, purple cauliflower hair, a body made of baby carrots, and legs made of almonds.

That’s a fantastic way to put the fairy obsession to good use, and to get two kindergartners and a three-year-old to eat purple cauliflower! I was totally impressed by her creativity, and with the fact that she even had even purchased purple cauliflower, but I was even more impressed by the genuine enthusiasm with which our girls tore into their food. The next morning, I made oatmeal with a dried-cranberry smiley face on top. It wasn’t a purple-haired fairy, but the girls devoured it all the same!

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The Community Lunch

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This year, my daughter’s kindergarten instituted a “community lunch” on Fridays. This means that families take turns bringing lunch for the whole class, a total of 11 kids and 2 teachers. I like this idea because I no longer have to pack my child a lunch on Fridays (the school does not have a cafeteria). But every three months, I have to make an appealing meal for a bunch of 5- and 6-year olds.

The teacher maintains that sharing a meal like this is an excellent way for the kids to feel a sense of community. And it’s also a great way to introduce kids to new foods. Apparently they will eat things at school, among their friends, that they would never touch at home. This is one of those times that peer pressure asserts its influence for good.

The kids themselves were relatively oblivious to these benefits, and did a lot of grumbling in the weeks leading up to the first community lunch: “What if I don’t like it, I’ll be so hungry…” I must admit, there was a lot of pressure on the first family who had to bring lunch, as this experience would likely make it or break for the kids. Wisely, they brought an irresistible honey puff pancake with maple cream, chicken sausages and strawberries. Breakfast for lunch — sheer genius! And just like that, the kids were hooked on the community meal.

Other families have brought alphabet soup, and make-your-own sandwiches. What fun! Another mother came into the classroom earlier in the morning to actually make pasta with the kids — which they then cooked and ate together. They were even serenaded by the head of school, who brought in his guitar and played the song, “On top of spaghetti, all covered in cheese, I lost my poor meatball…”

Recently it was our turn, and I had to figure out what to cook for a bunch of kindergartners — subject to the approval of my own picky eater, of course. I lobbied for her favorite macaroni and cheese, with broccoli mixed in. But she wasn’t going to agree to anything I suggested. That kid wanted her all-time favorite meal: quiche, made with eggs from our own chickens. It was hard to argue with that.

So one Friday a few weeks ago, I dropped my daughter off at school then rushed home to make two quiches, using a whole week’s worth of our own eggs. I hear the quiches were a hit, and I’m glad. But what really matters is that my kid felt proud that day, and shared something valuable with her classmates. And apparently she even convinced one friend that eggs really are yummy. So, as stressful as it is to make lunch for a classroom of kindergartners, I’ll be happy to do it again when our turn comes around…

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Breakfast battles

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The first few weeks of school were a little bumpy for us. The transition from the relaxed, carefree days of summer to the rushed, highly scheduled school days was not an easy one.

Grace, our kindergartner, would erupt into tears at the mere suggestion that she should get dressed. And actually choosing her clothes was another drama altogether (“No, that’s not pretty enough!”). So, by the time breakfast rolled around, emotions were high and patience was thin.

I would present the usual breakfast choices (oatmeal, cereal, eggs, yogurt) — the same selections that were happily accepted all summer long — and would receive only complaints in response. Grace would cry that she wasn’t ready to decide. Or she really wanted oatmeal but couldn’t possibly have oatmeal because her sister had already chosen it and they certainly couldn’t eat the same thing. Or I would suggest the very food that she had loved beyond words the day before, and she would proclaim that she hated it, and absolutely wouldn’t touch it if it were placed in front of her.

And just like that, I’d be unwittingly drawn into a battle over breakfast.

One day, after realizing I could no longer engage in wardrobe meltdowns AND breakfast battles AND pack a nutritious and appealing lunch while still getting the kids to school on time, I had an epiphany. Why should I be a short-order cook every morning, fixing each child exactly what she wants after many minutes of debate (causing them to have to scarf down their breakfast because they used up all of their time crying)?!

So, I made up a weekly breakfast menu. Monday was yogurt and fruit, Tuesday was peanut butter toast and fruit smoothies, and so on. No choices, no discussion, and most importantly — no tears. The selections were based on foods that both girls like in order to ensure maximum consumption and cooperation. This plan worked beautifully for about a week, until their father suggested that they add sliced banana to their oatmeal. So delicious!

Now I’m making oatmeal with banana EVERY SINGLE DAY. But as long as there aren’t any tears, I’m okay with that. Sooner or later, the breakfast battles will begin again, but this time I’ll be armed and ready…

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Too many cooks in the kitchen

I have often read how parents should include children in the preparation of meals, as they are more likely to eat what they’ve helped create. It makes sense to me, but I’ve never really tried it. Sure, I’ve spent many frigid January afternoons in the kitchen with both kids standing on chairs, helping me make chocolate chip cookies. Just yesterday, my 3-year old spread peanut butter and jelly on bread for her lunch.

But when it comes to preparing dinner during that dreaded 5 o’clock hour, I just can’t bring myself to enlist the help of my two young children. By that time of day, they are inevitably tired and wiggly, and seem to have lost the ability to follow simple instructions. So, instead of having them help out in the kitchen, I usually get them going on an art project or encourage them to play animal hospital together while I get out the sharp knives and chop vegetables.

Today, however, I was motivated to prepare dinner while my 3-year old was eating lunch (which seems to take all afternoon). I scrubbed and chopped two pounds of carrots for soup while she chattered on about her toy hedgehog and tried to hide under the counter. Then she reached into the bowl and pulled out a piece of carrot. “I can eat this?” she asked, very sweetly. “Well, it’s for dinner, but I guess you can have one,” I replied.

While I continued chopping, she shyly stole more carrot pieces, feeling like she was doing something sneaky. I was ecstatic — I had never before seen this child voluntarily eat a carrot, even though I often serve them with hummus at lunch. But watching me cut the carrots and not offer her a piece somehow inspired her to try them out.

I’m still not ready to employ my wiggly little ones as assistant chefs, but I have decided to gather up some late-day patience and find ways to help them feel included in the dinner-making process. Even if it means I have to “let” them sneakily eat those healthy ingredients!

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During my girls’ quiet time yesterday, I took advantage of a sunny moment and hacked at some weeds in our vegetable garden (a wonderful way to vent frustration!). When 3-year-old Tess ventured outside, walking carefully in her favorite purple rain boots, I invited her to join me amidst the zucchini, corn and basil…

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