Thursday, September 20, 2018

(Too) Many Cooks in the Kitchen: Coping & Cooking With Tiny Sous Chefs

I took it upon myself to start cooking or baking with my kids once a week, each Thursday afternoon. I might be brave. I might be a glutton for punishment. I might be totally out of my mind. I come from a long line of women who love to be in the kitchen. Alone. I love order, cleanliness, and have a taste for perfection (or at least close to it) in my culinary adventures. I have a four year old and an 18 month old. They love full body sensory experiences. They love when our space reflects that from wall to wall, corner to corner. They have a refined taste for experience.

When I was in my early twenties, a wise friend once told me that investing time to cook with your children means having "helpers and hinderers" in the kitchen with you. I chuckled at this idea for years, but I took it to heart. On the one hand, she was clear that this was an INVESTMENT of time and effort. And on the other, she recognized with humor and empathy that the struggle of it is real. Even in my own home growing up, my kitchen was at times open to learning how to bake and cook with my mother. Early on in my life I learned to bake some favorite desserts independently. My mother likely preferred to cook and bake alone for the most part without children underfoot, and even then, she was creative in having activities to occupy us in the kitchen and out of the way, such as a chalk board wall where I could draw or wash away doodles with a wet sponge.

Of course, I imagined as a parent, creating memories with and for my children of baking together and trying new recipes or learning family favorites. I imagined fostering independence and competence in my children as they mastered kitchen skills like peeling vegetables and cutting them up for soup. I imagined my kids tasting all kinds of healthy foods and developing healthy habits as they came to understand the beautiful process of our meals evolving from garden and farm to table to tummy. And it would be peaceful and calm and warm and fuzzy. And here's the reality of our weekly cooking days: the good, the bad and the ugly (a.k.a.: my kitchen floor)...

We do the same thing again and again. Many weeks we spend our Thursdays making "Stone Soup" for Shabbos. Early in the week, my sons each pick out a vegetable from the grocery store to add to our soup. Y was quite enamored with his turnip on this week. S chose a leek that "made [his] eyes wet" when he chopped it up! We always add a secret ingredient at the beginning of our soup when I saute the onions and garlic: a peeled, chopped apple! This gives the soup a bit of extra sweetness and adds a unique layer of flavor. We do try new recipes at times, but I feel no guilt over repeating the same one week after week using whatever veggies we have on hand. The repetition and routine is as nourishing as the soup itself.

My photos look so beautiful but I'm dying a little inside! Oh. My. Goodness. This kitchen is a disaster zone. Breathe. Let go. Repeat.

This is as much an exercise for me as it is for them. For them it is an exercise in washing, peeling, cutting, collecting into a bowl, following instructions, mixing, and more... For me, it is an exercise in letting go, remaining calm and finding joy in the imperfection. Every week I have to actively engage my "calming muscles" to slow down and step back. Water is splashing everywhere as Y scrubs our apples for mini apple pie pockets. S is eager to peel and cut and he is quite competent in it, but I still panic over those tiny little fingers. S and Y are fighting over turns to do a task and suddenly I'm out of tasks to do, so guess what? We're adding some extra cinnamon! Our veggies are crinkle cut in all kinds of sizes and shapes. There's still some peel on the potato. I lost track of how much salt just got pinched and sprinkled over the soup. Y is mouthing raw challah dough and S ate all the raisins besides for one he declared as the belly button of his challah! There are a lot of dishes when we're done--way more than when I cook and bake alone. Breathe in, breathe out. It's OK. That spilled water will do a great deal to help sop up the schmutz on the kitchen floor and the numerous dish towels that will need to now be washed anyway can help dry it up on their way to the laundry pile. S is actually quite aware of where his fingers are and rather than running to interject words like "be careful!" and instilling undue anxiety, I can offer a simple statement of "be mindful of where your helping hand is." Repeating the same cooking activities has helped me to identify "jobs" each boy is particularly successful with and enjoys. Y can spend a great deal of time tending to vegetable washing and S could spend all day working with his knife and peeler. Cooking together also need not mean making the whole recipe from start to finish. Haven't you seen cooking shows on TV? They demonstrate a few aspects of a recipe and pull a beautifully made-for-TV version out of the oven minutes later. The boys are happy to contribute to part of the task and then play in the living room while I finish the next portion. No need to bite off more than we can chew! And as for the soup? It gets pureed at the end and somehow always tastes amazing. But while we're on the topic of tasting...

Just because they made it doesn't mean they'll eat it. We've all heard the experts talk about how even the pickiest eaters will try foods they have helped to prepare. Clearly they have not met my more particular eater. If your goal in cooking with your children is that they eat what you've made, prepare to potentially be disappointed. I had to reframe this goal (often repeatedly) and continue my resolve to present tasting new foods as an option but not a requirement. The soup is always offered; perhaps he will try it and perhaps he will not. It does promote an opportunity for discussion about trying new foods--even scientific ones. Just today, I spoke with S about the fact that most of your taste buds are not at the tip of your tongue (where he prefers to "touch" a new food), but rather in the back of his tongue and mouth. And that his sense of smell also works to make his food taste a certain way (which is why it tastes different when his nose is stuffy). To really taste a food, it needs an opportunity, maybe even more than one, to move through his whole mouth and be swallowed. Nonetheless, there is no pressure or argument or ultimatum about tasting and trying the food. I have decided the intent of the activity is to be together in the kitchen; not necessarily to love the fruits of our labor.

And while we are together in the kitchen... I feel less overwhelmed and less lonely, too! The challenges of functioning in a small kitchen with small sous chefs are real. My anxiety and stress about sharing my kitchen space are not necessarily gone, but I do think that repeatedly exposing myself to opportunities to overcome this are helpful for me. Perhaps most importantly, the weekly tasks of getting ready for Shabbos (and holidays this time of year as well) have often left me feeling overwhelmed and simultaneously guilty for not being able to spend time with my kids. I'm supposed to teach them that all of the work--even the mundane work--that goes into preparing our Shabbos meals and holiday celebrations is joyful work and service. How can I do this when I am a hot mess in the kitchen? How can I do this when I reserve all the tasks for the hours in which they are asleep so that they merely see the end result but none of the tasks that went into it? How can I expect them to appreciate the events that happen in a kitchen--the good, the bad and the ugly burnt honey cake that spilled over the edge of the pan to the bottom of the oven, setting off the smoke detector but still tasted so delicious in the end? I can't.

So I reduce, recycle and delegate. I reduce the menu. I recycle recipes I know we like rather than scouring the books for new things each and every time. I delegate tasks like a good portion of the cooking to my equally talented and competent in the kitchen husband. And I put on some calm music or light a scented candle or sing a song. I take deep breaths and inhale the aromas of freshly baked challahs in the oven or boiling vegetable soup. And when I happen to see that stack of dishes or stray potato peels on the floor, I also happen to see the smile across Y's face as he rinses his purple carrot one more time and the look of concentration on S's face as he masters the angle of the peeler against the thin and stubborn skin of his big honey crisp apple. Here in the kitchen, flops, messes and chaos are all contained and OK. The kids get to see what happens when things work and what happens when they don't. Lessons in nutrition barely skim the surface of the layers and layers of education on problem solving, troubleshooting, success and even failure. They feel so useful and so much a part of our family and so connected to the beauty of preparing for Shabbos and Yom Tov b'simcha (with joy)--that is truly a mitzvah in its own rite--that when I feel the pressure rise higher in my shoulders than it does in our Intsta-Pot, all I have to do is remember my little helpers and hinderers.

Perhaps the single most "efficient" thing I have done to positively impact preparing for Shabbos each week (and yom tovim this time of year) is inviting my children to do so with me. It is an investment I hope their future spouses will thank me for (and maybe that will be reflected in some dinner invitations because by then I'm going to need some time off and maybe a professional cleaning crew in my own kitchen). But their presence in my messy and disorganized and imperfect kitchen increases my own joy and theirs as well. No longer is the weekly cooking a cycle of feeling guilty for not spending time with my kids and then guilty for not feeling happy as I prepare and then worried that they will intuit those feelings of overwhelm as feelings of not actually taking joy in Shabbos or holidays, G-d forbid. My solitary kitchen existence is over for now, but truth be told, I don't miss it all that much. It may have been the most efficient way to feed our tummies, but it left our tanks on empty nonetheless. Cooking with my kids feeds our souls and it's a two bird, one stone kind of deal. That stone can go right into our pot of soup and the dishes can wait. They will still be there after Shabbos and if memory serves me correctly, washing dishes was a task I actually loved when I was their age...maybe I'll enlist some little helping hands...

Until then, happy holidays, happy cooking and, as always, happy playing!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Bring on the Pumpkin Spice, Autumn Apples and a Hurricane If You Must (An Updated Peek Into Our Playroom)

Shanah Tovah U'Mesukah from this
sweet little apple and honey bee!
 Ch-ch-ch-changes! S has returned to preschool for a new school year and we just finished celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Talk about busy, here! And that sense of the pace picking up is exactly what makes me feel like slowing down and stopping to smell the pumpkin spice. It's definitely still Summer out there (with a potential hurricane pending in the days to come), but Autumn is in the air (at least indoors). So whether you are hunkering down for a big storm, or just looking for some apple, pumpkin, or Autumn themed fun at home, we've got you covered!

With summer dwindling to an end, I began to make subtle changes to our play area. I realize I haven't posted in a while, and hopefully I'll get to backtrack a bit and share some great activities about sunflowers and bees that we did as part of our Sprout Scouts Playcamp. Our Nature Table is one of these new introductions. I set up a top shelf in one of our toy storage areas with a small world scene the boys could manipulate and explore. I included both natural loose parts (even the two mini gourds we managed to salvage from the squash bugs in our garden) and man made ones as well. The scene immediately drew both boys' attention, but it isn't meant to be merely a display--they are invited to play with it, add to it, change it and move things around the room at large for use in play and storytelling.

Speaking of storytelling, with school beginning and Rosh Hashanah starting just a few days later, I decided to spend an afternoon telling The Story of The Apple Star (available to print at Come Together Kids). S has seen this "trick" before but was still super excited to see the star magically appear inside our apple and Y was old enough this year to appreciate it as well. Nothing goes to waste in this house, especially not apples, so some of the results were used for snacking and some were used to fabric paint apple prints onto some new aprons for the boys to use during cooking and baking activities.

I strategically placed our toy Rosh Hashanah sets into our dramatic play area along with some toy apples and a makeshift felt apple pie play set. I rotated in some favorite Rosh Hashanah books and apple books as well. I find that the more subtle my play area updates are, the more they are appreciated. I rarely have to show the boys when something new is out, they almost always discover it with their usual excitement and glee! On occasion, S will ask about something that was out and got put away and I explain that it has been rotated out. If he felt strongly about having something back in the rotation right away, we certainly would, but usually it's just curiosity.

Our sensory table is a favorite area for both the boys right now. Our tree blocks made a reappearance along with some cinnamon sticks, toy apples, collected seed pods and objects found in nature and even the set of Seasons Dolls I painted last Winter. I thought S would get really into storytelling in this one, but he actually only played there once. Y loved it.

When I made another rotation a couple of weeks later and moved the tree blocks, natural loose parts and cinnamon sticks to the toy shelf, S was totally ready for small world play, carrying the baskets to the carpet and even inviting me and Y to play along! Sometimes location and setup is everything--you never know! That's why I always advice fellow parents and teachers that if an activity or setup does not capture your children's interest at first, either reintroduce it in a new setting or design or wait and try it again another time.

I'm also rarely glued to a singular vision of how I think my boys should or will play with things. I have my ideas and they have theirs--many times I am amazed and astounded!

As you can see, our Nature Table has shifted again. It's looking a little less like Summer and a little more like Autumn. Not everything is gone or different, in fact I intentionally returned some of the same objects as before in this new backdrop. I really couldn't help myself once I saw mini pumpkins and gourds go on sale, so now they have entered our small world play, infiltrated our dramatic play and kitchen set and even been turned into building blocks (at S's cue).

 They even showed up in our new "Autumn Soup" Sensory Bin, a lovely Autumn toned collection of dried beans and lentils along with some soup pots, empty spice bottles and toy kitchen utensil. I'm never completely sure my boys will take to a sensory bin I set up, but anything like dried beans, rice, lentils or corn is almost always a big hit. And yes, a big mess! But both boys are big fans of helping to sweep with the dust brush and dustpan I keep affixed to the side of our sensory table and one of them is even pretty good about keeping what's in the bin in the bin.

Needless to say, both boys have spent a great deal of time playing here in the past couple of days and hopefully it will continue to entertain them in the days to come, whether we get hit by this storm or not. A sensory bin filler like this is so versatile that even if this setup gets a bit stale, some funnels and scoops could be swapped in, perhaps some cardboard tubes and recycled containers, or even some Autumn shaped cookie cutters, and it would be like new again.

We're all about using and reusing what we have here and whether you're preparing for a big storm or just looking to add some Autumn themed fun into the coming days, here are some more activities that have kept us busy at play here over the last few weeks:

Playdough is always popular here! We used our usual recipe and added in some red food coloring and some cinnamon bark scent for this playdough invitation based on one of my favorite books, Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson. I also included leaves from deconstructed dollar tree silk flowers, our toy apples (these were from a craft supply store a few years ago), cinnamon sticks and tree circles. Both the boys loved this setup and S decided to turn the page in the book and "make another page!"

A great playdough invitation is certainly worth repeating or you can swap in some other accessories for another way to play on the same theme. In the photo below, we added in cookie cutters, dishes, the same apples, cinnamon sticks and playdough along with some toy kitchen utensils for a Playdough Apple Bakeshop.

 S loved playing with a DIY felt apple pie set his teachers made in school. I decided to surprise him (and Y) with their own version to use at home over Rosh Hashanah so they wouldn't miss the playdough too much during the holiday.  I cut out some pie crust colored circles and strips, added in a selection of small green and red pompoms and two sets of tongs (yay for sneaking in that fine motor practice). I also set out some empty spice bottles, toy baking utensils and even a pom pom filled honey bottle. Even now that the holiday is over, they both still love baking and delivering pies!

While I never got to posting before Rosh Hashanah this year, the simple apple crafts we did would be a wonderful Autumn activity (or you can store in the vault for next year).

The boys have really taken to using chalk pastels on our chalkboard wall and on black paper (as have I!) so I set out an apple shaped piece of black card stock for them to color and a larger frame cut from scrapbook paper to glue it on. It was so simple and such a cute way to add a little festive flair to the new school year and the Jewish New Year!

The boys also really love wet coffee filter art so when I saw a post in one of my Facebook groups with coffee filter apples, I knew it was something we had to try. I set out some apple colored washable markers and used masking tape to attach a flattened white coffee filter to two trays. The boys colored away but the most desired part of this activity is always the spray bottle! S loves the spray bottle! He helped spray both coffee filters and they were set to dry. I cut the frames out of felt and glued everything together with hot glue before hanging our stained glass apples in the window.

 Transitions can be challenging and also quite beautiful. Just as Summer days give way to school days, so, too, do those sneaky leaves begin to change color and fall (even while it is still upward of 80 degrees here). There is a wistfulness as the Sprouts Scouts pack away for next Summer, but having a set routine truly helps us ease into the Autumn season with comfort and even a bit of excitement. I've learned the value in planning less, slowing down and engaging more with the boys. Rather than filling every moment of every hour, I've introduced an activity theme for each week day.

Monday: Story Time
Tuesday: Art
Wednesday: Play!
Thursday: Cooking/Baking
Friday: Tea Party
The activity we do under each theme is not necessarily the same each week. Yesterday, I thought we'd go to the park for Play! day and the boys were totally engaged with some of the new playthings at home, so we stayed in and played together. Story Time might sometimes be a trip to the library and other times include storytelling at home. Art might be set up or entirely child-led. Our cooking/baking days sometimes take us to the store to pick out vegetables for Stone Soup and other times we bake for Shabbos or for our Friday afternoon Tea Party. Our routine will change when we feel ready for it to do so and I try to let the boys take the lead in our afternoons, especially when mornings are spent away from each other while S is at school.

This month of festive holidays and pending hurricane offer plenty of family time together, and while that is a bit like doing the hokey pokey with "The Real World," it is quite nice to be able to sit back together and enjoy this family time. Wishing our family and friends a Shanah Tova U'Mesukah, a happy new school year and those who may be affected, safety in the storm to come. We will be back with more details on our new play at home routine, some great Autumn themed fun and, as always, plenty of happy playing!