Cooking With Children

I enjoy cooking, I respect fresh food, and I like to prepare things that I can harvest from my tiny city vegetable garden, which I affectionately describe as my very tiny organic farm. Nothing makes me happier than when my 4-year-old daughter and her little friends get excited about eating candy-sweet cherry tomatoes warm off the vine, or excitedly yanking carrots out of the ground to eat after a quick rinse and scrub.

That said, I am not a purist or a fat-free nazi. But, I am concerned about a host of commercials that promote a dismal version of the American family today, from the cereal bar tossed to kids as they are racing out the door (too busy to spend even three seconds with their parents—the father is too distracted by his newspaper to even notice), to the marketing of Totino’s Pizza Rolls as a latchkey kid’s perfect after school snack (“It’s how kids help themselves!”). Never mind the high fat and who-knows-what list of unpronounceable ingredients.

I love pizza and I’m sure pizza rolls are really tasty; I just resent the marketing effort to make kids believe this should be their regular snack food.

In a cookie dough commercial, the camera comes up on a domestic kitchen scene: Mom has foolishly decided to make cookies with her little girl from scratch. In the what-are-you-CRAZY! segment, the precocious imp is spilling flour, cracking eggs on the counter and wrecking the kitchen in general. Mom rues the day she ever contemplated cooking with her daughter. As an alternative to all of this unpleasantness, the ad turns to the new and improved method of cookie making. Mom and the cherub cheerfully remove from colorful packaging a pre-made block of perforated cookie dough. They gleefully bond while breaking them apart, placing them on a cookie sheet, and popping them in the oven. Done in less than two minutes. What an invention! Mom has succeeded in getting the cookies made with minimal time expended and absolutely no dishes and no mess to her precious Corian countertops.

It saddens me that children might grow up thinking that this is what it means to make cookies from scratch. (“No, really, Suzy … these ARE homemade! I broke them apart myself and when mom got off the phone she put them in our oven to bake!”)

I read a book by a woman who grows nearly all of her vegetables (This Organic Life, by Joan Dye Gussow). One chapter is titled “Is It Worth It?” and she tries to answer this question by discussing the concept of the cost-benefit analysis. What one person may see as a cost—say, the labor of processing a bushel of plum tomatoes to make fresh marinara—another person sees as a benefit because they derive pleasure in the work. So, for them, that apparent cost (the labor) would shift over to the benefit column. So, to evaluate whether or not it is “worth it” to make cookies from scratch, one would need to ask which column the assorted tasks would fit. Of course these will be different for each of us.

As a father of small children (2 and 4), I understand intimately the many ways in which children can create messes. Big messes. That before picture presented in the commercial is not far from the truth. I have no illusions about this. Yet, only in a convenience-obsessed culture like ours is the teaching of a basic skill like cooking represented as a nuisance to be avoided at all cost. For all of human history, this process has been the primary mechanism of our survival and is still operative in most of the world. The “skills” we are passing on to kids today—reheating, reconstituting, package-opening, drive thru ordering, in-car snarfing—will not get them very far in life.

As a living example of the opposite of this phenomenon, my mother was never bothered with the messes we perpetrated on her kitchen. In fact, she welcomed them, because she saw the long-term benefits. Today, all of my four siblings and I feel comfortable in kitchens. Some of us even love to cook. We can look at a cookbook and follow a few simple directions and make some cookies from scratch. (Need I bother defending the fact that hot, homemade cookies are far superior to packaged?)

Beyond the benefits of learning to cook, there is something more going on here. Why are we obsessed with the path of least resistance in everything we do? Maybe it has something to do with our insistence that we can do everything, that we will not accept the idea of human limits. Americans are not willing to concede this point. Instead, we cram more and more into our schedules. This would be hard enough if we weren’t also contending with a business culture that demands more and more of our time. So we have less time, yet we are unwilling to concede that something will have to give. I can be a successful Fortune 500 executive AND still be a great mom—look, I’m even making “homemade” cookies with my kid. I can climb the corporate ladder, bankroll the bigger house, college funds, new cars, and still be a good dad. After all, it’s really all about quality time. This commercial represents our insistence that we can do everything. But it’s a lie. We can’t do everything well. Some things take time. Teaching children new skills takes some time. Buying the kid the new Lego computer game (or even the real live Lego set) and not spending that two hours building a town with him leaves him lonely and emotionally impoverished.

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A major part of the value—despite the nuisance—of making the cookies from scratch is simply the time you are spending with your kids. Yes, you are teaching them skills. (Maybe you are learning these skills together, if your mom or dad never taught you.) Most of all, you are creating memories which, please believe me, will be sacred to your child as she grows up. When she is an adult, she will know that spending time cooking with people she loves is a pleasure, not drudgery. Consequently, she will be a hero and inspiration to her friends as the only one in the circle who has clue what to do in a kitchen. She will be confident in her skills and resourcefulness and ability to improvise. She will not be dependent on unhealthy takeout food and processed ready-made junk for her survival. She won’t waste hard earned money buying ridiculous prefab versions of simple-to-make-from-scratch foods. And, when she gets stuck and has a cooking question, as I do from time to time, she’ll know just who to call. She’ll pick up the phone and call her mom or dad—the person who so wisely invested many hours and messy kitchens spending time cooking with her. One of my mom’s principles of motherhood applies here, and I’ll leave you with this to mull over. Principle Number Four: “If I am not available to my children when they are small, they won’t care if I am when they are grown.”

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