Welcome to Kids & the Kitchen, our new landing pad for parents who love to cook. Head this way for kid-friendly recipes, helpful tips, and heartwarming stories galore—all from real-life parents and their little ones.
I remember the precise smell of my mom’s lamb curry. It would carry down the driveway, walloping us when we got home from school. I hated it, just like I hated eggs, but that didn’t stop my mother from serving those things. She didn’t ask us for our suggestions; we ate what she felt like cooking. And at our family dinner, when she served something she knew my siblings and I disliked, she didn’t flinch when we moaned.
Today, I have two kids of my own. And I think my mom was on to something: The secret to family dinner is that you’re not making it for your children, but in spite of them.
If you love food, nothing will suck the joy from cooking faster than becoming shackled to the demands of your children. Nothing will make nightly dinner feel more like a chore than baking endless rounds of macaroni and cheese, cajoling kids to try just a tiny bite, or—God help us—making them a separate dinner.
To be clear, I know it’s not easy. Working parents, single parents, guardians of fussy eaters or special needs children: My hand is on your shoulder. Nightly dinner can be a thankless, grueling task, and sometimes the only way to make it easier is by capitulating. But I’d still argue that if you want to raise adventurous eaters and maintain a love for cooking, you need to show them the way. It’s our job to teach about the good stuff: first-of-the-season asparagus; a really nice omelet; homemade fried chicken.
Even when they wrinkle their noses and ask for buttered noodles, I do not budge.
I loved cooking before I had children, and their arrivals did not change that. I was willing to make some adjustments, starting with the amount of time I was willing to spend in the kitchen, the number of dishes I was willing to dirty, and the distance I would travel to a specific market to get a particular ingredient. What did not change was my commitment to cook what I want to eat, and to make what I feel like making.
I do not ask for feedback. Feedback comes, of course, but I taught my kids to say “That’s not my favorite,” rather than “Yuck,” which preserves the cook’s feelings while also acknowledging their effort. Feedback also comes in the form of requests: The kids know that if they ask for a favorite meal, or if they express any interest at all in trying something new, I’ll make it, because I want to throw some kindling on that spark of interest.
I don’t dumb down recipes for my boys, but I don’t force the issue, either. I’ve learned that deconstructing a dinner into its constituent parts allows me to make one thing that can be enjoyed many ways. I’ve learned the power of an exciting condiment for my wife and me—a zippy salsa verde for steak; chili crisp on almost everything—while our kids opt for unadorned servings. And I always put something on the table I know my boys will eat, be it bread or rice or a sliced apple, a sort of culinary security blanket.
Lest you think our kids are champion eaters, grateful to have a cook for a mom, let me assure you that, like all children, they’re fickle: The list of vegetables they’ll willing to consume is short, they favor carbohydrates in all forms, and one of my children really dislikes peanut butter, while the other is not a huge fan of cheese. The secret is that I don’t care, and I don’t give in to their idiosyncrasies. I don’t care whether they try a micro bite of a food they claim to detest, or if they only eat bread for dinner, or if they pull every tiny piece of basil off their pizza one day only to eat spaghetti with pesto the next.
What I do care about is being together at the end of day, exposing my kids to new ingredients and recipes and ideas, and preserving my sanity and love for a task that can feel relentless in the best of times and unforgiving in the worst.
And let me tell you: Not caring on the micro level—while caring an awful lot on the macro level—has set me free.
To fellow parent-cooks, one final piece of advice: Don’t give up, and don’t give in. I like to imagine my future adult children making my recipes for black beans, or cacio e pepe, or tortilla soup—all things they’ve now learned to love—and serving them to their own children, who might wrinkle their noses. But like their mother and grandmother before them, they won’t flinch.