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!

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