My wife once described cooking with kids—we have two girls, now five and seven—as harder than trying to shower with monkeys. I found that particularly funny – because in our house, I do most of the cooking.
We eat well: I’m prone to dishes like rabbit stew, linguine alle vongole, red-lentil dhal, rib eye with wasabi, mushroom risotto, and wild salmon. The one downside? Choosing between being in the kitchen or being with my girls. Make rosemary roast potatoes, or draw pictures with them? Bolognese, or a board game? Soup or a stroll in Prospect Park?
And, if I’m at the stove, there’s someone else to consider. When I’m not minding the children, my wife is. I spend far more hours typing at a midtown desk than with my rapidly growing daughters. She’s a new media entrepreneur, and thanks to her schedule, she already spends more time taking care of them than I do.
So I resolved to bring the children into the kitchen with me. My wife is happy for a break. I get a moment with the girls. And then we all gather for a happy little Leave it to Beaver moment around the dinner table.
Or that’s the theory. But a recipe that normally takes ten minutes will occupy half an hour with kids involved. Measuring a cup of flour will take five minutes, wiping up spills not included.
I used to think that only the insane would try to cook with kids. But sometimes the crazy choice is the best choice.
One Saturday morning, I returned from a run in the park to find my two girls chanting “Pfannkuchen! Pfannkuchen! Pfannkuchen!” Their mother had taught them how to say “pancake” in German. But now, through the shower door, I could hear her trying vainly to contain them.
By her tone, I could tell that the Maginot Line of maternal patience was about to crumble.
I toweled off. Feeling brave and under the influence of endorphins after some exercise, I invited the kids to help me make breakfast. My youngest ran to get her Hello Kitty apron. Her sister pulled a chair over to the kitchen counter.
The girls took turns measuring the dry ingredients. We beat the egg whites to glorious peaks. And with their help, I got breakfast done just before lunch, which, of course, gave my wife plenty of time to go for a bike ride.
When she came back, we had our maple-syrup-fueled moment of family bliss. But my real dream – elusive until recently – is for my girls to reach the point where they can help in the kitchen, instead of slowing me down.
One Sunday, not long ago, I was making my version of frikadeller, Danish meatballs I learned about from Laurie David’s excellent book The Family Dinner. (The recipe came from the grandmother of David’s coauthor – and personal chef – Kirstin Uhrenholdt.) Green beans were my side dish.
At the risk of extending dinner preparations into Monday morning, I called for my youngest to join me.
“Do you want to wash the beans?” Kids love playing with water. I learned early on to have the girls take turns at the sink, washing greens. They could do it for hours.
She ran over immediately, and we were well on our way to the cleanest green beans in the Tristate area.
I whipped up the meatballs. Then it was time to trim the beans. I didn’t want her to leave, so I gave her a knife, and showed her how to trim the ends off the beans. Not quite five – old enough to start learning some knife skills, I think. I gave her a small but sharp steak knife. We went over some basics: blade versus handle, and I kept an eye on her to keep her focused, lest she poke herself in the eye or gouge my arm while gesturing wildly to make an important point. She was good about that. And she loved cutting off the ends of the beans.
Her sister saw the fun and wanted to join in. The green beans were under control, but I had another interesting task for her. The Frikadeller were ready to be fried, and I had her stand with me and flip them in the pan.
I let her hold the spatula by herself. She only burned herself once.
John Donohue, a New Yorker editor whose anthology Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for their Families was recently published by Algonquin, blogs about cooking for his family at Stay At Stove Dad. Follow him on Twitter at @StayAtStoveDad.
Next page: Frikadeller recipe.