How My Kids Learned To Cook Dinner

The demise of a long term relationship is always a great time to take stock of how you’re embracing life. Even notwithstanding that, I was long overdue for a hard look at how I was living versus how I wanted to be living.

Life gets busy and I’d been mostly on autopilot, simply following the same set of parameters laid out months or more ago. Routines, systems (or lack thereof), assumed constraints and more were all driving my daily activities, instead of beginning with the end in mind.

In the past, life redesign efforts involved my spouse, who is exceptional at projects like this. But now lacking that person, I involved my friend and colleague Nicole, a successful entrepreneur herself, former X Games snowboarder, and founder of the Happy Camper emotional intelligence courseware used by corporations like Facebook and Microsoft.

Nicole and I starting the initial whiteboarding phase of my Life Redesign project.

Nicole and I starting the initial whiteboarding phase of my Life Redesign project.

Nicole and I are both big whiteboarders, so we laid out several key issues:

  • Family Roles (expectations of me and my kids)
  • Home (my space, redefining comfort)
  • Quality Time (creating more of it)
  • Personal Health (mind, body, feeling strong)

These topics will be one or more blog posts of their own over the coming weeks, but I wanted to get started with my Life Redesign 2016 series by tackling the issue of family roles and expectations, specifically when it comes to cooking dinner.

Too often kids are regarded as princes and princesses to be served by their parents. We forget that not too long ago, a big family was a necessity more than a luxury. Kids were expected to contribute to the household and to the family business by taking on meaningful, large tasks at a young age.

People who only have one or two kids are often stunned when I tell them the range of things that my kids do for the house and me. Everything from taking out the garbage and recycling, to picking up sushi, getting groceries at the store across the street and more. I treat them as much like responsible young adults as their individual temperaments and personalities will allow.

EA Canada, where I learned as a young adult how to delegate my workload to others. ;)

EA Canada, where I learned as a young adult how to delegate my workload to others. ;)

When I worked at Electronic Arts Canada back in the ’90s, one of the job description bullet points specifically said “Push decision-making down to the lowest level possible.” They wanted us as managers to be driving responsibility down on to those who reported to us, so that employees could grow. It also allowed us to focus on the larger issues and be more transcendent in how we carried about our business on behalf of the company.

I carry this same philosophy into my parenting.

If I can push responsibility down onto kids, within reason, they’ll reap the rewards of increased accountability and independence, while I’ll benefit from the increased focus on larger issues pertaining to the family. Ultimately, I’ll be more happier and more fulfilled as will the kids.

The gluten free baked mac and cheese the kids and Markus prepared.

The gluten free baked mac and cheese the kids and Markus prepared.

One key area I wanted help with was meal preparation. In a happy coincidence, my two oldest kids had recently expressed strong interest in learning how to cook “all the meals and lunches too.” While that might be a bit of a tall order, I really wanted to capitalize on their new-found enthusiasm for cooking.

I’m not a cook myself and I take no particular pleasure in doing it, so I needed somebody to come into the house to teach. Separating five kids at dinner time to take two to cooking class wasn’t an option. But when I looked around locally for home-based kids cooking classes, the costs were astronomical, ranging from $200-$500 for a three-hour session. It wasn’t a reasonable activity at that price point.

So instead, I took an approach that I often take in life. I looked in the margins.

Most people read just the body of the text and give up when they don’t find what they want, concluding that it must not exist. When I read something like the local newspaper I often look at the extremities of the page, seeking the tiny little ad or event blurb that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s in the margins where life gets truly interesting and gems can are found.

The ad I took out in my building lobby, looking for an in-condo cooking teacher.

The ad I took out in my building lobby, looking for an in-condo cooking teacher.

With this in mind, I decided to look in our own building for our in-house cooking teacher. I drafted an ad, printed up the couple copies and posted it in our lobby and garbage room. The ad simply said I sought a cook or someone talented in the kitchen who would be willing to teach the kids in my place, two nights a week for $20 an hour. Within a couple days we had a few replies to choose from. We ended up meeting Markus a local cook who works at a restaurant in nearby Olympic Village and lives only a few floors below us.

The two oldest kids in the kitchen with Markus after their debut lesson.

So far we’ve had four cooking lessons from Markus. The two dishes he’s focused on so far are a gluten-free baked macaroni and cheese, and home-breaded chicken fingers with a side Caesar salad. The kids cook these meals with Markus’ help at first, then the second time around with only his supervision (mostly).

The idea is that through repetition, we’ll teach the kids three or four different meals that they can make entirely on their own. This removes me from the kitchen – and quite frankly that’s probably a good thing as my meal prep skills are nowhere near what my ex’s were. It’s also teaching the kids extremely valuable life skills that quite frankly I never learned myself. I’m the kind of guy that for years ate hummus and pita as dinner, or angel food cake with strawberry milk as lunch.

The kids, Markus and I sit down for a well deserved dinner as a group.

The kids, Markus and I sit down for a well deserved dinner as a group.

Had someone taught me how to cook at a young age, perhaps I would enjoy it more now. I intend to harness the kids enthusiasm as long as I can, knowing full well that it could flag at any time. Hopefully they’re interested and engaged long enough to pick up some basic kitchen skills and confidence, while also feeding us dinner.

Markus has become our regular dinner guest, which is rather nice because otherwise it’s just the kids and me. Having a new, young voice at the table enjoying the meal that the three of them have created is refreshing in and of itself.

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Adrian Crook is a father of five living in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. When he's not mobbed by his brood, he runs a successful videogame design consulting business.
  • Love this! I recently have become irritated at my kids’ attitude this summer and have encouraged them to take on more responsibility around the house, cooking meals being a big part of that. My 15 year old son even asked me to teach him to cook. I was embarrassed that he had to do so!

    • Aww. That’s pretty cool that he came to you for that. My kids just generally know I don’t cook unfortunately. It was something my previous partner did well. So a big part of this new “kids cook” plan is to ensure they aren’t eating spaghetti and cereal 24/7. ;)

  • ebbandflo

    I love this! I am so pleased to say that my Wee Guy (13y) has now taken over all the tedious bake requests from school. His brownies are awesome (and quick and easy with no supervision) and he’s on to cakes now. KitchenAid mixer is a great investment. Next up, savouries. My motivation is that my husband travels and i need to know that my son will be able to forage at home if I’m out of action!!
    I should lend him to you for baking lessons over the summer!!
    ebbandflo

    • OMG that’s awesome! I think I’d be in trouble if I had someone who knew how to bake me treats! Haha. But yes, I’ll definitely take him on loan to teach the others. ;)

      • ebbandflo

        Ha ha OK … where do i send him??? i have a couple of easy tasty salad recipes on the blog that have passed Wee Guy’s critical palate – http://pomomama.blogspot.ca/search?q=fussy+child – your older kids (and you) might like to try them.

        • Send him downtown! Seriously though, if he wants to come over and bake or cook with my nerds, drop me a line through the form on the blog. :)

  • Mani Richards

    Love this! Fabulous to hear how your children are active participants in the house. And super inspirational how you found their teacher, beautiful ❤️ Thank you for sharing this with us

    • Thanks, Mani! One of the overlooked benefits of high density living is how many and how diverse your neighbour population is. Although it’s harder than it should be to tap into that – I’ve put up ads in the building for kids playmates in the past! – once you do break though, the building itself is a massive resource. I wish we had a better platform to connect neighbours. I know some buildings use message forums and there are some apps that do it, but getting everyone on board is a challenge. I’ll have to look into cracking that, as I’d love it for sharing resources as well – i.e. we don’t all need to own our own versions of certain tools. But I digress…

      • Mani Richards

        good luck with cracking it.. Im sure you will, all you need is the intention, sometimes it takes time. I’ve always been quite lucky and created community with my neighbours. Its the way forward forging strong bonds, makes for a happier living place for all… ironically I am living in UK, who tomorrow decide if they want to break down the strong bonds it has built with is neighbours over the last 40 odd years?!?! It baffles me, as in my mind, everything is connected, so why try and pretend and ignore that we could exist any other way :)

        • Great analogy. You’re so right it’s the way forward. We can’t keep treating ourselves, our families and nations even as self-contained little islands. We’re all connected and need to ask more of each other – and less on the earth – if it’s going to work. :)

      • Deb Copeland

        Check out Nextdoor.com. They also have a phone app. Sherman Hill, our neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa uses it. We also have a neighborhood google group going, but that’s because we’ve been organized for many years. I definitely recommend Nextdoor for those just now organizing. It operates somewhat like facebook, but its structure is designed for neighborhood communication. We are fortunate to be a neighborhood that does share tools… and folding tables, chairs, dishes, no longer needed furniture, cherries on the trees …

        • Nextdoor is US-only, it seems. Sounds great though. I’ve definitely heard of Google Groups being used as well. That may have to be the route we go to organize something.

          • Deb Copeland

            Disappointing on NextDoor! Perhaps you can convince them to be their first test subject in Canada. ; )
            Google Group — Just a warning, a moderator may be needed. Neighborhoods /Buildings can be just like families. Disfunction can rear its ugly head. But the benefit far outweighs the disagreements. A closed FB page may also do the trick for you.

          • Haha… yes, I bet it can (re GG). I’ll ping NextDoor, see what they say. In the meantime, I like the closed FB page concept as well. Maybe more accountability using people’s FB IDs.

  • Lulu Fiedler

    I really enjoy reading this blog ! I dont have kids but I completely agree on the way you are preparing your kids for there future growing up lifes ! Also you are teaching them to conect with other people and believe that they always can learn something from others !
    Well done super Dad !!
    I offer my self to teach tooo ! Art , Jewelry or Ski !!

    • Thanks, Lulu! That’s awesome of you to say. What kind of art and jewelry are you involved in?

  • Bee Zappa

    WoW!! Great tips!!! My daughter is grown but like you say, she was an only child & has only basic skills in kitchen…and I will share this w my SiS who has grandson in her care!!!! Thank you ever so kindly & GoD Bless!!!

  • This is such a good idea. As someone who grew up with parents who cooked, I often take for granted my love of cooking and relative level of confidence in that area of my life. I appreciate that instead of just throwing up your hands and saying “well I guess my whole family will just eat frozen pizza forever” (something I see a lot of my friends doing) you took the initiative to find someone who could teach the skill at a reasonable price. And now those kids will be able to build on that for the rest of their lives.

    • Thanks a lot, Rachel! My parents didn’t like cooking. My dad wasn’t around enough to do it (career cop – always working) and my mom didn’t particularly love it either. So I wasn’t fortunate enough to inherit a love of or talent for cooking! Awesome that you did. :)

  • Amy Peterman Wilson

    I can’t believe I just now found your blog! What a god send this would have been had I found it a few years ago! I have a family of five (just one less than yours) but we live in house that is 967 sq ft. I look for space saving ideas all the time! Although I am not a single parent most days I feel like I am as my husband and I work different shifts. Love your thought process! “If I can push responsibility down onto kids, within reason, they’ll reap the rewards of increased accountability and independence, while I’ll benefit from the increased focus on larger issues pertaining to the family.” I needed this in my life!!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Amy! Our relatively small condo combined with a large family makes chores like cleaning the house a breeze. We went from total disaster zone to eat-off-the-surfaces clean in 30 minutes the other day, with everyone pitching in (even the four year old). It’s a magical combo!

      • Amy Peterman Wilson

        You are most welcome! Will you be writing any new blog posts?

        • Yes! Got a huge list of things to write about. But is there a particular subject you’d like to see covered? Always interested in hearing what people like to read about most. :)

          • Amy Peterman Wilson

            Well I suppose for me, how the heck do you handle 5 kids as a single parent? I only have 3 and most days I’m not sure I can do it. And then to do it in such a small space. It feels like my kids fight ALL the time.

          • Well to be clear, I have them 50% of the time. So 2 weeks on, two weeks off. That makes a big difference to my psyche, although I’m confident I could do it 100% of the time if I needed to. :)

            The biggest thing that’s helped my sanity is the quote you cited above. Just trusting my kids with more, not being afraid to ask them for help or ask them to do something on their own, relinquishing the “it has to be perfect/done the way I do it” level of control, etc. Also keeping in mind that everything is temporary. What is a lot of work today will be less so later, as they begin to take on things themselves. Parenting this group is definitely shifting from being manual labour to being mental labour – i.e. less about physically doing things for them and more about tapping into their psyche to make sure they’re OK/challenged/stimulated/heard, etc… I think both are just as exhausting, but it may be easier to slack on the latter than the former, unfortunately. Something I need to remain aware of!

          • Amy Peterman Wilson

            Well for me a big issue I have in times where I’m not leading them or have given them something to do when it’s just “go play.” I feel like I spend most of that time being a referee. And I think well if my house wasn’t so small they could have their own space to be by themselves instead always on top of each other. How do you manage that?

          • Well the oldest can venture out into the world on their own, so they can always roam the building, go to a park or head to a coffee shop if for some reason we’re all cooped up here and getting on each other’s nerves. But they typically all find places to hide when they need it – in a closet, even, at times. They definitely use the bedrooms during the day, including mine. So if you figure there are three bedrooms, that’s 3 kids that can each have their own space away from others for a bit, if needed. Add to that an art room (converted in-suite storage area) and that’s 4 kids with their own space… five if you count the living room. Ergo, it’s possible to be completely segregated if we want to be – but it doesn’t need to happen often. Although I will say I find it cool when it does happen as it really feels like we’re using the space to the max!

          • Stacy Rendon

            We have 4 kids, 3 of which were born in 3 1/2 years. Basically it was like having triplets. One thing I would do when they fought a lot was let them be in charge of the time outs. For example, if child A hit child B, then child A was put in time out by child B. Child B was then responsible for letting child A back into the play time when they were ready to forgive child A. (Obviously, if it lasted too long, I intervened.) It took me “out of the discipline process.” They learned quickly how their actions affected other people and to be accepted back into the play time, they needed to play nicely so that other people wanted them there. They also learned quickly how to solve problems with each other.

  • Monica Sims

    What a great idea! Btw, where did you purchase your dining table and benches?