Chocolate Cake

The Chocolate Sheet Cake That Made Me a Better Mom

How I finally learned to loosen up in the kitchen.

March 29, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

I have two teenage boys—Jack, who’s 13, and Oliver, who’s 15. Like other kids of their age, some of their favorite snacks include squeeze packets of applesauce, tubes of yogurt, packaged cookies, and ice cream. Jack, the pickier of the two, eats boiled hot dogs and chocolate chip granola bars, and Oliver sometimes enjoys cheddar cheese sticks.

But this was not always the case.

When they were little, if the applesauce wasn’t homemade, not to mention unsweetened, it didn’t touch their lips. Any yogurt they ate was plain, dressed up with fresh berries, dried coconut, and a teaspoon or two of maple syrup. Oliver snacked on raw nuts and Jack loved kidney beans from the can (not sure how a child who ate plain beans ended up being so challenging to feed, but that is a story for another day). And they both loved grape “ice pops” (otherwise known as frozen grapes).

In short, I am a mom who’s transitioned from the “always from scratch” years to the "sometimes not from scratch" years with (almost) no regrets. Because the truth is I believe my kids will be just fine eating store bought or processed foods now and again (and again). And if I had understood this 15 years ago, I honestly could have saved myself a lot of heartache.

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Top Comment:
“I was all about my homemade, organic, baby food puree and then dancing and singing on my head just to get my daughter to take two bites. So nice you were right there with me. However, I do believe our kids, deep....deep..DEEP down appreciate all our hard work and dedication to their nourishment. xoxoxoxo”
— Anna F.

The pressure I put on myself, a new mom, to ensure my kids only consumed homemade food, knew no bounds. Not because it was how I was raised or how I lived as an adult, but because of something else entirely: a desire to feel less out of control as I navigated the rocky waters of parenting.

For me, having kids was the ultimate test of my (then unhoned) ability to roll with the punches. Creating and sticking to a rigid food plan for my children made me feel less defeated as I lost match after match in the parenting game. Whether it was sleep training, choosing the right babysitter, or finessing tantrums, it seemed I made countless mistakes. But if I could succeed in getting some homemade rice cereal in the boys’ mouths, then I believed that maybe, just maybe, my luck would turn.

I delivered both babies drug-free with the help of a doula and knew from the start that I’d exclusively breastfeed them for the first year. And so I refused to even experiment with formula, despite how tricky breastfeeding turned out to be for me (there was an eyedropper involved) and how depressed it made me to feel like I was failing at something that seemed to me so vital to being a mother.

Then there were the hoops I jumped through making my own baby food, filling ice cube trays with pureed vegetables, and making baby cereal from scratch, grinding it from whole grains and even taking it with me in a large plastic bag when we traveled.

Chicken fingers were always homemade, never frozen, despite how many excellent organic products my grocery store offered. And there was an in-house ban on boxed macaroni and cheese, even though it would have saved me so much time and effort to just buy it. And this was all despite the fact that my boys were only 21 months apart, and like so many parents of young kids, I was exhausted and overwhelmed.

When Oliver was 3 and Jack was 1, I started baking professionally and made every single birthday cake an elaborate three-tiered masterpiece with organic ingredients only. And yet, like everything else, baking them took its toll on my sanity. How much easier would it have been to just buy the mint chocolate chip ice cream cake that my parents so lovingly purchased for my birthday every year growing up?

With all of this said, my unwavering commitment to scratch cooking for the last 15 years has had its perks. Despite the extra work, cooking this way did make me feel like I was doing something right. But at what cost? Had I not put so much pressure on myself, and thus been less stressed and less anxious about every morsel my children ate, perhaps I would have felt more proud of my parenting—anxiety and stress don’t exactly a confident mom make. Plus, there’s a lot of Richard Scarry book-reading and Lego-building that can happen when you’re not tied to the kitchen by your apron strings, or exhausted by late-night veggie pureeing sessions. But I wouldn’t know.

What I do know, though, is that I am far less rigid than my younger self and I feel pretty good about that. There was no aha moment that I can recall when I suddenly decided to change course. Instead the loosening up was gradual and due, in part, to the fact that I was working more outside of the home and had less time to spend with my blender and bag of grains. Because, yes, premade foods were faster and easier than making dinner from scratch, but they also gave me more quality time with my kids.

Even the cakes—like this chocolate and strawberry one that I'll make for Jack's next birthday— though still homemade, have become simpler, pared-down versions of their former three-layered selves. But does that make them any less special? Of course not.

Sure, there’s a part of me that feels slightly remorseful taking these shortcuts now. But what I really regret is that I can’t pull my younger self aside and tell her that premade baby food and boxed cereal is totally okay. I had not even a smidge of interest in cutting myself a break back then. But breaks are now cut on the regular, leaving me lots of time to stress instead about the hours Jack spends playing Fortnite, and an appropriate curfew for Oliver. And for that, I am honestly grateful.

What are some parenting lessons you've learned over the years?

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Bio: Jessie Sheehan is the author of The Vintage Baker and Icebox Cakes. Her new easy-peasy baking book, Snackable Bakes, hits shelves in spring 2022. She contributes to the Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Food Network, and the Kitchn, among others.


Kathy D. September 28, 2019
Recently when I was making lemon cake recipe for lemon glaze that suggested adding salt to the glaze and a scant tsp of butter. A good improvement to the already perfect cake.
that suggests adding a little salt that
Jessie S. September 28, 2019
Yes! A little bit of salt usually makes everything better in baking!
Polly H. March 31, 2019
Thank you for a wonderful article!
Jessie S. March 31, 2019
You’re so welcome! So glad u enjoyed. XO
Anna F. March 29, 2019
This story just makes me love you more. I was all about my homemade, organic, baby food puree and then dancing and singing on my head just to get my daughter to take two bites. So nice you were right there with me. However, I do believe our kids, deep....deep..DEEP down appreciate all our hard work and dedication to their nourishment. xoxoxoxo
Jessie S. March 29, 2019
Honey, love u, too ❤️
HalfPint March 29, 2019
Yes, much much later they will appreciate it ;)
Jessie S. March 30, 2019
Eric K. March 29, 2019
Very pretty, Jessie. Thank you so much for writing this.
Two T. March 29, 2019
What a nice piece. As a first time mama to a 17 month old I enjoyed it : )
Jessie S. March 29, 2019
Thank u! So happy u enjoyed. XO