The idea that men can’t cook for the family seems archaic and ridiculous, particularly since there’s a long-standing flip side of that sexism where the top chefs in the world have been men – since the beginning of Top Chef-dom. They can’t cook at home but they can dominate the commercial kitchen? That’s just silly.
But admittedly, my foray into cooking was somewhat… troubled. I took to making some foods pretty well as early as middle school. Granted, most of those foods involved chocolate and copious amounts of sugar, but I never shied away from the idea of preparing food. I rocked brownies, fudge, and fried potato wedges – only the healthiest of foods for me! It was more that until I was an adult, I didn’t have much of an opportunity (other than the time or two my mom offered to teach me how to cook something and I acted like an entitled brat who expected to always have someone to cook for me), training (other than a one semester cooking class where I learned how to make pizza and chocolate truffles), or the need to (why would I, since someone would always cook for me?).
My mother is a good cook and she seemed to enjoy it. Once I was in high school, my study load often meant that I went straight to my room when I got home and ate there while I studied (where food would magically appear, thanks to Mom and Dad). Even if I had wanted to, there wasn’t really a chance for me to cook. Not even with chocolate.
Perhaps my wonderful and caring mother didn’t know what to do with my angry outburst at the offer to teach me something in the kitchen. Or perhaps she thought that I would never really need to cook anyway, and so it didn’t seem urgent to give me those skills. Marriage was always something I had planned on, and in the culture I grew up in the wives always handled the cooking and the cleaning. So if I got married, everything would be fine and I wouldn’t starve – food would keep appearing for now a full-grown entitled brat. When I moved away to college, I could balance my checking account, and had just received a crash-course in how to wash laundry, so I might have had a small edge on my college roommates. And since I ate at the student dining room, it seemed as though I had everything I needed to be a self-sufficient independent bachelor.
I jumped into cooking for real when I got married. I’ll spare you the details but it was a rough start involving scorched corn and a rubbery ball of what should have been mac and cheese. Which Jessica ate because: true love.
But children, as it turns out, really don’t care about true love when it comes to food. They say it like it is, reject it like it’s poison, and decide that certain colors/textures/combinations/platings/appearances/temperatures/types/random ANYTHING are inedible. Serve the wrong food and true love won’t even make them consider tasting it; they’ll just question how you could hate them so much to even put that garbage in front of them.
Hopefully dads are entering the kitchen better prepared than I was and confident in their cooking skills – or at least in developing them. But even the most confident chef can be undercut in a matter of seconds by a 3 year old. Here are a few tips for dads (and moms) that I’ve learned when it comes to cooking for kids:
- Start earlier than you think. Hangry is a thing, particularly when you’re under 10. Or 80. Hungry children are grumpy, angry, impossible-to-satisfy children. If they are hungry, they are 99.9% less likely to like anything but what you don’t have or what you aren’t going to feed them no matter what. They will scream at you, beat each other up, throw things, and in general, have a hangry meltdown if you START making food when they tell you they are hungry. It is already too late by that point. Just toss them an apple and hide, hoping it will hold them over for you to make the actual meal.
- Unless you are confident that it is their favorite food OF ALL TIME (not just yesterday, that changes faster than a teenager’s selfies on Instagram), do not mention what is in the food. If they ask, use vague terms and change the subject quickly. Sure, one of your kids may love chicken but I bet there is another one that hears chicken and starts gagging.
- HIDE THE VEGGIES. Some kids love veggies. I’ve heard some people also have unicorns in their backyard. Six kids, ONE of them has loved veggies. And then only until she found out that wasn’t cool when in first grade she pulled broccoli out of her lunch box one day and a friend announced she was weird for eating broccoli. Shred those suckers and stick them in food that wouldn’t normally have veggies. Our kids love meatloaf (because they love meat and our meatloaf is pretty kick butt) and so they eat it. What they don’t know is they are also eating tomatoes, shredded zucchini, onions, shredded spinach, shredded kale, and shredded swiss chard. And we still serve it with a side of veggies. Every time this happens, I could swear I see a unicorn prancing in our backyard.
- Involve them. I know, this means it will take 4 times as long – so start early – but for some reason, kids like to eat what they help make. They even like cleaning up what they help make. Sort of.
- Make it gross. I’m serious. A number of years ago, Jessica had the idea to play up the gross factor of a meal our girls were rejecting as disgusting. A game emerged where the food was renamed. They wouldn’t eat buttered spaghetti squash but they would devour worms, wouldn’t touch cauliflower but were all about frog brains, gagged at the sight of raisins in oatmeal with flaxseed but dared each other to finish their bowls of barf with ants and fleas. And yes, we have girls. No, I do not understand this. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to eat – but they love it.
- Try the 2-3 to 1 approach. Offer two-three foods you are pretty sure they enjoy and one food that may be new or less enjoyable to them. Ask them to at least try the 1 food before they can have seconds of the other 2, or before a treat. In our house that may mean chicken, potatoes, asparagus, and a kale salad. We served the salad first and announced that we wouldn’t be serving the other 3 foods until everyone had eaten some of their salad. Everyone ate at least a few bites of their salad and 2 declared they liked it and ate more.
- Eat what you want them to eat. Nothing sucks more than seeing someone eat the doughnut you want to eat, but all you have is celery. Now imagine being 3 and seeing your dad just eat his steak and potatoes and getting dessert while you’re stuck eating the broccoli on your plate and he didn’t even HAVE broccoli on his plate. Want your kids to be adventurous with food and make nutritious choices? Then you’d better do it too.
- Educate them. For real. In our family we talk about “growing food” or “power food,” and treats. We make a distinction. Treats are a sometimes thing because they don’t give our body what it needs to grow or to power it (especially helpful if you talk about the heroes/characters they love and what gives them their power). Growing food or power food are what we need most of so we can have the energy to grow or have our power. Identify the foods and have them help you pick out growing food. Then set standards of how much growing food they need before having treat food.