The Hot Mess Of Cooking With Tweens (And Why It’s Worth It)

by Sharon Holbrook
Originally Published: 
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Last weekend I was rushing around trying to mow the lawn, shower, vacuum, and prepare food for a party. Just then, my 8-year-old daughter asked me to make her a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. “Can’t you make it, honey?” I answered. “But Mommy,” she pleaded, “I want you to make it.”

Of course she does. I want people to make me sandwiches too. But she needs to practice, because a couple of years ago I discovered that my two older kids, then 8 and 6, did not know how to butter toast. I mean, what? I’m the kind of mother who has her kids do their own homework, put away their own clothes, and just generally try to figure things out on their own. They’re pretty independent and capable, you know? Except for performing a task — spreading butter, if you remember — that I’m pretty sure chimpanzees could do if they set their mind to it.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The wanting to do it. Case in point: the grilled cheese. “How about you get started? I’ll be here if you need help.” I continued cleaning the floor in the kitchen. Limply, she whined, “But I don’t know how.” Um, I think she does know, but fine. Deep breath. “What do you think the first step is?” I’ll spare you all but the highlights of the next 10 minutes, which started with a perfectly bright child who’s been present for hundreds of grilled cheese sandwich preparations claiming, insistently, that she couldn’t imagine what the first step of making a grilled cheese would be even if she had to guess. No, she couldn’t even take a stab at it. As far as she was concerned, it might not even involve getting bread and cheese out of the fridge.

Listen, I’m not made of patience, and this was all, quite frankly, bullshit. Teaching kids to cook is one of those things that’s awesome once they know how to do it, but, honestly, sometimes teaching it is the pits. Or maybe the problem is teaching when there’s a side dish of tween attitude and stubbornness. It’s cute when they’re 3 years old and “helping” you cook, i.e., dumping half a canister of sprinkles on some cookies that you already made, and then you post a pic of your adorable bonding moment on Facebook. It’s not so cute when they get to be big, smart people who suddenly pretend to be helpless, especially when we suspect that we may be part of the reason they’re still helpless. Oof.

Now that my kids are 6, 8, and 10, shit’s getting real in the kitchen. Despite the grilled cheese event, they’re usually pretty willing to do their share. Ever since the Great Butter-Spreading Incident of 2014, we’re consciously working on kitchen skills — the stove, the knives, the measuring cups, all of it. One child definitely had some very (very!) wet oatmeal because she interpreted the directions of “one cup of water” as “fill a tall drinking glass and dump it all in the pot.” Another child tried to mix up banana muffin batter in the tiniest mixing bowl, which yielded a towering volcano of batter erupting from the bowl. Carrots have been peeled so vigorously that they’ve been peeled down into mere slivers of carrot.

So, it’s not perfect. But even if it’s not exactly MasterChef Junior at my house, my kids are actually learning from all this trial and error, and the best part is how proud and capable they feel. The 6-year-old eagerly insists on flouring, egg-dipping, and breading all the raw chicken for me to cook (um, of course you can!) and the 10-year-old’s next project is going to be steaming mussels, something we’ll learn to do for the first time together. And the 8-year-old who was stumped by grilled cheese? She did it in the end, of course, and she’s now also the house champion of making delicious cheesy scrambled eggs.

Sometimes we just don’t have time for all the little kitchen disasters, and I run the show. Sometimes they don’t want to cook — which I obviously totally get — and that’s really OK too. (And sometimes cooking dinner alone with a drink and a podcast is just easier, you know?)

More and more often, though, they pitch in and learn, and I’m glad, despite it being a bit of a hot mess. Because really, who cares in the end? Isn’t that what family life is anyway? Like cooking, it’s a jumble of mistakes, imperfect people stumbling along and figuring things out as they go.

Plus, there are serious perks. This morning I was served cinnamon raisin French toast, made as a joint effort by the 6- and 8-year-olds while I read at the kitchen table. It was delicious, in every sense of the word.

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