What food expert Bruce Bradley learned from cooking with his son, and what he wishes he had done differently.
One of the best decisions I’ve made as a parent has been regularly cooking with my son. I was very fortunate—my dad set a great example. He wasn’t one of those men who dismissed cooking as women’s work. While the burden of daily cooking still fell on my mom’s shoulders, my father always cooked on the weekends and was a great role model that real men cook!
But in this day of fast food and busy schedules, the issue of Dad’s cooking with their kids is more than just one of gender roles. Here are just a few reasons why I think you’re missing the boat if you’re not cooking with your kids:
- Kids learn by example. We’ve heard it before, but kids are literally sponges. The challenge is to fill up their super-absorbent brains with great habits. What healthier, lifelong habit can you teach your kids?
- With experience cooking becomes less intimidating. Do you have some friends who are afraid of cooking? Or perhaps they just hate it? Fear and an intense dislike for cooking are usually the result of bad experiences. So set the stage and create some positive memories for your kids in the kitchen!
- Life is just better when you’re engaged versus being a mere recipient. Yes, we all enjoy getting waited on occasionally, but living a full life means being engaged. Teaching our kids how to cook, take care of themselves, and prepare food for others reinforces this basic life lesson toward happiness.
- Cooking makes us more grateful. When we’re involved in cooking a meal we gain a greater understanding of the effort it takes. And with that understanding comes appreciation. We realize food doesn’t just appear—there’s real effort involved. Once kids experience cooking firsthand, they not only learn lifelong skills, but they also become much more grateful when they’re the recipient of a wonderful meal.
- It’s a fun way to spend time together. Without a doubt cooking feels like a real chore some days. But if you approach it as a team, and you’re working together, cooking takes on a completely different role in your family’s life. Instead of feeling alone, resentful, and isolated in the kitchen, cooking can be a time for coming together and having fun.
- Cooking is a great time to talk and share news from your day.Yes, mealtime in general is a great time for sharing and talking. But kids, and especially boys, may be reluctant to share their news over a meal if it feels like a command performance. However when you’re cooking together the focus is on the task at hand, and the conversation about one’s day is much more casual and relaxed versus center stage. And once the ice is broken, I’ve found the conversation flows into dinner much more easily!
What lessons have I learned from cooking with my son?
Along the way I’ve also learned enough to share several pieces of advice on how to get your kids cooking:
- Start young enough that your kids don’t see it as a punishment. I’ve seen plenty of parents start when their kids are teenagers, and it’s really hard to make this work. While it’s never too late, the older your kids are the harder it will be to change their expectations. Ben started cooking with me by the time he was two. And I love this picture of my two-year-old nephew Colin who’s already getting in on the action. Go Colin Go!
- Traditions are a great way to start. My son and I started by making Saturday morning breakfast together. It was our first cooking tradition. Waffles, pancakes, and eggs are all pretty simple meals where even the littlest of hands can help.
- Make it fun. If you approach cooking as a chore, your kids will too. Also, ask them what they’d like to make, listen to their input, and occasionally make dessert!
- Don’t be afraid of mistakes.Mistakes are fun! Some of my fondest food memories are the food disasters I created as a kid … like the time I demanded mint jelly on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich … or when I used the mixer on the blueberry muffin batter after adding the blueberries. Not only do we learn from our mistakes, but we also learn how to laugh at ourselves—an important lesson for humility and happiness. To this day I still share stories of our mistakes in the kitchen. So relax. Don’t get uptight. Embrace mistakes.
What do I wish I had done differently?
Although I’m proud of the example I’ve set for my son, by no means have I been perfect on the cooking front. Here are just a few things I wish I’d done differently:
- Let your kids lead more often. I still struggle with this one. I’m a little “Type A” and like things to be perfect. But letting go more often and having your kids lead can really be helpful. Not only will it build their confidence that they can cook on their own, but it will also take some of the pressure off. And as I mentioned earlier, if they make a mistake, so what? Just as long as they don’t burn the house down everything will be fine.
- Don’t get stuck in ruts. Having “go-to” recipes that you can cook with your eyes closed is great. Certainly developing your “muscle memory” is really the cornerstone of turning cooking from a chore into something that’s approachable and easy. But there’s a point where you do need to mix things up. Trying new recipes and experimenting brings needed excitement, interest, and challenge. Creating recipes for my blog has really helped us mix things up. And when my son took a Culinary Arts class in high school, it really reinforced that exploring new recipes together can be fun!
- Shop for groceries together more. I’m still guilty of this one. Let’s face it, our schedules are often crazy and hard to coordinate. And as a divorced father I’ve always thought, “I’ll do the shopping while Ben is at his mom’s house so we can make the most of our time together.” While there may be some truth to this, I wish we had shopped together more since this is a part of the food equation where my son doesn’t have a lot of experience.
So get back in the kitchen! Ditch those pre-packaged meals and stop being a regular at chain restaurants or the fast food drive-through. Instead, cook with your kids! You might just be surprised how much you’ll savor your time together!
A version of this article was published earlier on Bruce’s blog.