Imagine you didn’t know how to paint, and every day the people you lived with demanded three paintings. You could whip out a beachy watercolor every once in a while but for the most part you’d be bewildered and annoyed—referring constantly to books and websites that are supposed to make painting easy, and feeling angry and hurt when a painting you spent hours on was tossed aside without a glance. This is what it feels like to be a mom who doesn’t know how to cook, yet has to make breakfast, lunch and dinner day after freakin’ day.
I never had an interest in cooking before my twins were born, nor did I ever show any natural talent in the kitchen. I can follow a recipe and make dishes that are slightly edible, but I can’t just “whip something up” using random ingredients. No matter how many times I make something, I have to follow the recipe every time, using measuring spoons and setting timers. I’m baffled by contestants on cooking shows who cook without recipes—how do they know to add half a teaspoon and not a whole teaspoon? What divine wisdom tells them when to add ingredients in, or when to mince instead of chop?
My lack of culinary know-how never really mattered that much when my twins were little. I made all their baby food using the recipes in Ruth Yaron’s Super Baby Food and they happily ate everything I made for them. But cooking for infants is a far cry from cooking for kids. Infants just open their mouths and you shove the food in. Kids open their mouths and complain about whatever it is you’ve put on their plates.
So when my babies became kids who could voice their own opinions, cooking started to get annoying. Despite their healthy start, neither of them could stand to eat anything green. Their favorite foods were pizza, cheese, and French fries. In desperation, I turned to the recipes in those “sneaky mom cookbooks,” where you basically puree cauliflower and broccoli and add it to regular food. This resulted in my kids poking at their mac and cheese (and ooh cauliflower! Shh!) and saying, “Mommy, this no taste good.” There was no fooling them, apparently.
I had never been one to advocate putting kids in front of the TV, but when cooking shows that had kids competing in them started becoming popular, I recorded them all. My twins loved the shows and would root for their favorite pint-sized chefs, but despite my hopes that they’d make the natural leap into the kitchen and whip up a shrimp ceviche with mango like their televised peers, they showed no interest in cooking. If anything, these shows made my life harder because my kids did become interested in eating complicated dishes I couldn’t cook. I remember my son asking me if I could make him filleted branzino. My incredulous reply was, “Did you see me burn the taco shells last night? Yeah, I’m not making branzino.”
Once my children discovered the phrase, “What’s for dinner?” I neared my breaking point, because my real problem with cooking was dinner. I can do breakfast just fine—from eggs to French toast, I have no problem cooking or getting my kids to eat breakfast. Lunch is usually okay because it’s a sandwich and snacks. But dinner … dinner almost always involves cooking and vegetables. All the relentless washing, chopping, measuring and preparing, only to have both kids say “I’m not eating this.”
Two things became apparent: I couldn’t waste hours in the kitchen five times a week, and somehow my kids had to eat. Around the time they turned seven, I started giving up on this dream that I’d become good at cooking and my kids would become better eaters. This is who we were: a bad cook and fairly unhealthy eaters, and that was what I had to work with. I had to stop feeling guilty and annoyed and just get them fed.
And so if you’re alone in your kitchen dreading dinnertime like I was, here is my best advice for the mom who can’t cook:
1. Order the pizza.
You could do a lot worse than pizza, which has carbs, protein and vegetables if you count the tomato sauce (or if your kids will let you get veggie toppings on the pizza). There have been weeks when I’ve ordered pizza twice, and I refuse to feel guilty.
2. Breakfast for dinner.
If I can cook breakfast, anyone can. Favorites here include scrambled eggs and toast, breakfast burritos, sweet potato pancakes with apple sauce, and egg and cheese sandwiches on English muffins.
3. Establish your go-to meals.
Figure out 3-4 simple meals that you can make and that they will eat, and use these as your base for the week. For us, that’s burritos, quesadillas, pasta variations (raviolis, tortellinis, pasta mixed with veggies and alfredo sauce), and homemade chicken tenders with boxed rice or couscous. I rotate these around with pizza, breakfast and new recipes so the kids are faced with something new only once every two weeks or so.
4. Rotisserie chicken at the supermarket.
An entire cooked chicken, for $5 (okay $10 if it’s organic) is pretty hard to pass up. Boil some frozen veggies and make some boxed rice, and you have a real deal meal.
Dinner is served! Nice job!