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Teaching Children to Cook: Four Terrible Family Secrets and One Marvelous Outcome

September 24, 2015

Teaching My Own Children to Cook

Four Terrible Family Secrets and One Marvelous Outcome

In honor of CASA* Family Dinner Day, September 28.

The Family Dinner Project helps promote an annual day in the U.S. to draw attention to statistics on how eating together as a family accomplishes much more than just filling tummies. Faithful followers of this blog are well aware of the book I wrote tying into the research conducted by *Columbia University’s Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, titled Whatever Happened to Dinner? Recipes and Reflections on Family Mealtime, but may sometimes wonder did she/does she practice what she preaches? Did she pass on a passion for cooking to her kids? Here I bare a few family secrets on the topic.

I was cleaning a shelf recently when an old and odd notebook fell out.


My folder of cooking instructions for my daughters, from a recycled office binder.


Oh my. It was my lengthy, detailed notebook of instructions for our daughters’ first forays into cooking once they got old enough to try to put meals on the table whenever I went away on business.


Terrible Family Secret #1. My kids’ greatest cooking lessons came when I was out of the house. Gone. Away on business. Yes, I was a working mother (half time when they were preschoolers) and that included business travel, which I not-so-secretly enjoyed.


Terrible Family Secret #2. My husband, bless him, was not much of a cook except for grilling which he enjoys when he has the time. Before we married, he lived in a small mobile home on his own. I knew he survived mainly on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fast food, and by warming up pork and beans and maybe hot dogs in an electric popcorn popper. When I traveled, especially with all three of them pitching in and figuring things out, they began the art of Putting a Whole Meal on the Table. (You can see why I was in awe of my young church friend, Lizzy, just 12, about whom I recently wrote a three-part series [here] on how she cooks real food and complicated menus for their family almost every night.)


Terrible Family Secret #3. I’m not a very patient or good role model in the kitchen. Our tradition of eating together at home as a family was so strong that I would not have dreamed of leaving them without carefully planned meals before flying the coop. Instinctively I knew, though, that it was incredibly valuable for them to step up and try their own wings.

I’m not sure why I didn’t do a better job of truly teaching them—hands on—when I was at home. Perhaps because I was more inclined to Do Things Myself because it was faster, neater, cleaner, and safer. My daughters would probably tell you I got antsy watching them knowing I could get something done faster.

I also didn’t have a great role model in that regard.

Terrible Family Secret #4. My mother—bless her—will tell you quickly that she never liked cooking all that much and did not dote on mixing up wonderful dishes alongside of us. Oh we were called upon to pitch in and she enjoyed and appreciated our help, but as a farmer’s wife, cooking was quite basic. It was just a part of the chores she did: peeling (almost) daily potatoes. Popping a meatloaf or roast or ham in the oven. Frying hamburgers or boiling hot dogs on the stove. Once she found out I grooved on messing with fancier desserts, I remember she often put me in charge of making things like real whipped cream at the last minute for her rich and special date pudding or other specialties for company.

So, our daughters were kind of on their own, too in the cooking department, after they learned basics of measuring, kitchen safety, and working together to make things like cookies, cakes and vegetable stew.

Marvelous Outcomes Anyway. Guess what. My daughters have all turned out to be quite fine cooks in their own right, and in their own styles. And I guess I turned out to be an okay cook. When our oldest daughter got married, she took a wonderful cooking class which introduced her to making things like scallops and bananas flambé—enough culinary know-how that she soon took off flying, much to her husband’s glee, (who in exchange does most of their cleaning at their house. Nice set up!).


Michelle making pie in our kitchen with her husband helping.

My second daughter has learned from her mother-in-law some of her husband’s favorite dishes, picked up things on her own that she’s enjoyed in restaurants and found online—and her husband pitches in as well when both of them are home.


Tanya working on favorite Stromboli, the eager Lab “Ike” at her side.

I would say my third daughter learned the most at my side in the kitchen as she lived at home for four years after college, while employed in town at a bank. She hung out with me in the kitchen because she wanted to 1) be helpful; 2) learn how I did things. But now she has way surpassed me in coming up with her own lentil concoctions as well as following recipes for more adventuresome cooking like crepes, beef Bourguignonne, French onion soup, pot pie, and more.


Doreen stirring filling for chicken pot pie, shown below.


Call me a happy and blessed mom, in spite of myself and in spite of my mother. Eating together almost every evening was important to us as a family, although I don’t know I thought about it that much back then: it was just what we did. Like brushing teeth and reading stories before bed.


Our daughters at about the ages when I could rely on them to put dinner on the table when I went away. L to R: Tanya, Michelle, yours truly, Stuart, Doreen.


How did you teach your children to cook? Or not?


Whatever Happened to Dinner?

If you’re new here, learn more about my book, Whatever Happened to Dinner? Recipes and Reflections on Family Mealtime


Make plans for your Family Dinner Day, September 28 (February dates in Canada), originally launched from CASA, which encourages eating together as a family as one way to fight the societal influences that sometimes lead to addictions in youth.

There’s much more on this topic at The Family Dinner Project, a website with ongoing resources, ideas and stories to promote the strengths of eating together.

From their website:
The Family Dinner Project is a growing movement of food, fun and conversation about things that matter. We are a nonprofit organization currently operating from the offices of Project Zero at Harvard University. Over the past 15 years, research has shown what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. We also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.


From → Family Life, Food

  1. “Turn off the fire – Turn off grill” caught my attention, after I read your engaging title of course. I protested though when I read your self-assessment: “I guess I turned out to be an okay cook.” There is so much evidence to the contrary here on your blog, your cookbooks and obviously in real life.

    My mother was the Do-Things-Myself” type of cook because as you say it was faster, neater, and safer. Besides, she herself loved, loved to cook. Only later did I participate whole-heartedly on visits to PA, especially as she grew older.

    As for our children: Crista has warmed up to cooking over the years and enjoys soup-making. Joel is more of a natural and his wife Sarah is almost at the gourmet cook status, enjoying 7-inch long recipes from Food and Wine. Their food-laden birthday celebrations are almost divine.

    And the grandchildren: Grandson Curtis discovered his emerging cooking talents when he spent two consecutive days with us before school started. Some photos on FB show him helping with tomato sauce and then next day spicing up a pork roast.

    Great post, Melodie!

  2. I like knowing what caught your eye and what you would argue with! I’ll tell you, working together with the food editors for the Whatever Happened to Dinner cookbook was a humbling process–some of my own favorites did not make it in. But in the end I was grateful for the things I learned in the process from the “foodie” editors, Carmen and Jodi. 🙂 I guess I am learning all the time but have not tried to make many many things (and am scared away, too from the 7 inch recipes!), Thanks for your great examples and engagement here.

  3. Athanasia permalink

    We share “terrible secret #4”, I will admit. My mother is a good cook and has a solid 20 recipes that she makes from scratch, from memory, and that I also make. They are just ingrained in our growing up. But she never tried/tries anything new. She’ll admit she avoided kitchen chores whenever possible and then she moved away at 17 for college. She did used to bake bread though, every weekend with my grandma. (The same one that taught my sister and I to bake). As my grandma aged she had to care much more for my grandpa as his health became quite bad. We all lived together, and while I was home pretty soon did all the baking of desserts.

    • Athanasia permalink

      Plus Melodie, I think your title should not be just “One Marvelous Outcome” but “Infinite Marvelous Outcomes” as your daughters all cook, looks like the spouses cook with them, the children will follow their example and cook and on and on!

      • This is a GREAT afterthought and a wonderful edit for the 2nd part of that title. I truly love it. I may use it–with a nod to your inspiration=– at some point if that’s ok! Truly where children are concerned, the outcomes are infinite as we ponder how–if we had not met and decided to marry, neither our children nor their children would have been the same. Great thought and yes, it is fun to see the grandchildren take such a vivid interest in pots and pans and such.

    • I think in general people cooked a smaller repertoire of dishes and menus back then, don’t you? We had breakfast yesterday with one of my husband’s retired cousins and he talked about his wife wanting to retire from cooking–after cooking all her life.

      Love your little insights to your own family!

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