Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Kids in the Kitchen (a.k.a. teaching myself out of a job)

A few months back, I wrote about how I learned to enjoy cooking, a task I used to hate.  One of the problems with my enjoying the job more, however, is that I was less motivated about teaching my children to cook independently.  For several years, my older kids have had a dinner night assigned to them, where they were supposed to help me make dinner and then do the final clean-up after everyone does their five minutes.  In theory, it was supposed to be an opportunity to teach them to cook.  In practice, over time, I got lazy about planning ahead and inviting them to help and ended up mostly putting the meals together myself.

With a baby on the way, I decided it was time to be more purposeful about teaching my kids to cook. Lillian's always loved cooking (we even gave her subscriptions to Cook's Illustrated and Food Network magazines for her birthday last year) and is great at it, so she doesn't need any instruction. Joey knew a few recipes and makes a great chicken curry, and Michael made great lasagna. Allison and Sarah knew how to make cookies but needed help for everything else.

So it was time for more deliberate meal scheduling.  My goal is that by the time this baby is born, each of them will have four good family recipes they can make independently.  It's been going well so far and despite some hiccups (like the time Allison distractedly put a cup of salt in the cornbread instead of a cup of sugar!), I'm really proud of how well my kids are learning.  I had to do a lot of instruction and hand-holding a few months ago, but over time, I've let the kids do more and more of the cooking on their nights, stepping back into the consultant role rather than the teaching.

We're not quite at our goal yet, but we're headed there.  Best of all, the kids are actually excited about their night and the food they are cooking.

Allison making delicious chili
Here's how we did it:

1.  I brainstormed and made a list of all the recipes our family eats on a regular basis. 

2.  I sat down with each child to talk through which meals they wanted to make.  Michael, my pickiest eater (or perhaps tied with Cami), of course chose his favorites:  homemade pizza, lasagna, spaghetti and sausages, and stroganoff.  He'd been wanting to learn how to make garlic knots since discovering a love for them at a local restaurant, so on pizza night, I added that to the menu.

The others had a harder time choosing and there was a bit of jostling for some family favorites, like chicken dumpling soup.  Some of the recipes I had listed the kids couldn't remember if they liked or not, so we put it on their list, with the understanding that we could switch it around if they didn't like it.  There were also things that they decided they really wanted to make that we didn't have a family recipe for, so I knew that we'd be trying out different ones along the way to decide on a favorite.

I can't overemphasize how important letting the kids choose their own meals has been to the success of our adventure.  It not only gave them ownership in the plan, it also let them choose to make things they love.  I've gotten virtually no complaints about making dinner on their assigned nights since I started this and I think this step is why.

3.  We wrote up our rotating 4-meal menu.  

Our schedule, links to recipes, and some notes on how it's gone:

Allison's Night:

  • Orange Chicken or Teriyaki Chicken and Rice (her idea; we had to go looking for recipes and try some out before settling on a good one)
  • Chili and Cornbread.  
  • Pancakes or Scones (Flatbread).  She's gone back and forth between these, depending on how she feels that night.  What our family calls scones is really just our favorite bread recipe, risen and ready to cook, then pushed flat into pancake-size bread and cooked on our large griddle.
  • Porcupine Balls and Rice.  She ended up making this once and not loving it, so we found a recipe for Sweet and Sour Meatballs she likes better to substitute.

Sarah's Night:

  • Chicken and Dumpling Soup.  A fairly complicated recipe, but one that she's now learned to make even without any help!  
  • Company Chicken and Mashed Potatoes.  She's loved making mashed potatoes, but hasn't loved the chicken recipe.  I keep meaning to find a substitute she'll love more, but haven't gotten around to it yet.
  • Meatloaf and Dinner Rolls.  It's been great teaching her the steps to making rolls, and while we didn't have a family favorite recipe for meatloaf, we tried a couple of them and settled on this one as the best and simplest.
  • Chicken Marsala and Garlic Naan.  This is another one we need to tweak.  My favorite marsala recipe is a crockpot one (similar to this one) and the other one we tried took a little too long and had some strange ingredients.  So I'm on the search for a simpler Marsala recipe.  Our garlic naan is awesome, though, and Sarah's loved learning to make it.

Michael's Night:

  • Homemade Pizza and Garlic Knots.   The recipe we use for the garlic knots calls for store-bought biscuits, but we just double our regular 3-pizza crust family recipe and use some of the extra dough to make them.
  • Lasagna.  He already knew how to make this, so it was pretty simple.  He keeps track himself of when it's his turn for lasagna and reminds me to buy cottage cheese for it.
  • Spaghetti and Sausages.
  • Stroganoff.

Joey's Night:

  • Tortilla Soup.  A simple recipe but very good.  We usually do without the chicken in it.
  • Sloppy Joes.  This was one he wanted to learn how to make that hadn't been part of our family's repertoire before.  The recipe I found has been a good one.
  • Chicken Curry.  Another one Joey's done before and been very competent with
  • Enchiladas.   We've experimented with a couple of different recipes for this one, too, and haven't found the perfect one yet.  The first we tried was good, but very complicated.  The second was easier and yummier, but one that wasn't very precise.

Lillian also has a dinner night on Fridays, but she's on her own to decide what to have and is welcome to use that night as a leftover night if she wants.  She's so busy with a heavy load at school and orchestra and violin commitments that she hasn't had as much time to plan and cook the way she wants to.

4.  I used our digital calendar to schedule the rotation and reminders.  We use good old Google for our family   calendar, and it's a pretty simple thing to write down whose night it is to make what, then click the "repeat every 4 weeks" button.

5.  We go through our family calendar every morning after scriptures.  This helps in multiple ways (like keeping me from forgetting doctor/dentist/ortho appointments), but it's also been a great way to know every morning what is for dinner and who is making it that night.  If we need to make a last-minute change or have a conflict that night, we adjust when necessary.

We've been following this schedule for nearly four months now and it's been wonderful.  It's been fun to watch some of my kids be totally dependent on my direction to being more and more independent. Joey makes his meals all alone, Michael needs me here and there, and Allison and Sarah need me about half the time.  I love teaching myself out of a job, and I know that at least one area of my life will be easier when this baby is born.

Best of all, my kids are learning great life skills!


Jenny Evans said...

I love this idea. By the end of this summer I want to have my 10-year-old making dinner completely by herself once a week. Usually she likes to help but I'm still the one in charge. Although she does do waffles and granola by herself all the time.

Kristen said...

My dad's Marsala is super easy and delicious. Use cutlets or pound chicken thin. Season with salt and pepper and brown in butter and olive oil on medium-medium high heat. Remove from pan and sauté sliced fresh mushrooms til brown (s&p once brown). Add equal amounts Marsala and chicken broth. Return chicken to pan and cook 20-30 minutes, flipping chicken occasionally. We serve with rice.


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