This summer I had some amazing guest writers lined up for The Nap Times (subscribe here). I wanted to bring in people who are experts in categories I think many of us struggle with and this is one of the topics Abbey so graciously shared her wisdom on back in July. So many of you requested that it have a permanent spot on the blog. I have written on this subject before, but cooking with little people tends to be a popularly requested topic and for good reason. It is HARD, and yet worth the time in energy it takes. Abbey does a beautiful job telling you how and why she welcomes her kids into the kitchen.
Allow me to introduce Abbey Wedgeworth. She is an incredible author (order her new book series here!) and mom of three young boys. You can find more writing and podcast interviews here. I think you will find the principles that Abbey talks about below to be really, really helpful. I want to print this out and tape it to my fridge!
It’s 5:00pm. This is about the time every day when the wheels fall off. My body tenses in anticipation of what’s usually coming around this time with a 7, 5, and 2-year-old (who thinks he’s 14). Ironically, the time of day that I am most occupied is the time of day they seem to need the most of my attention. There are no reinforcements coming, and I think it qualifies as an emergency to subdue the hunger before it becomes the sort of hanger we can’t recover from. As usual, my youngest is sabotaging whatever elaborate game my older two are trying to play. I can’t even keep track of what step of meal prep I’m on because I keep pausing to remind people of the way we use our hands and walking over to remind them to use “kind, calm, productive words” for the thousandth time today, ironically while trying my darnedest not to scream, myself.
The four-year-old launches into his speech about how life would be better if we didn’t have this “ruins everything baby,” who, bless his little heart, so desperately wants to be big. And so, I bend down and speak to him as if he is just that—big. With all the self-control I can muster, I squat down to his level and say in a de-escalating whisper. “Henry, mommy needs a big helper in the kitchen. Let’s see if you’re big enough to do this job…” His screaming suddenly ceases, and I carry him, ears still ringing, to the kitchen.
I set a stool in front of the stove, and open the freezer, challenging him to lug the giant bag of Sam’s club frozen meatballs to the stove. The “challenges” continue, “Oh, Henry, do you think you can get this pan onto that eye by yourself?” “Oh, Henry, can you take one meatball out at a time and put it in the pan.” He climbs up and down the stool to retrieve and deposit every frozen meatball. He dumps the marinara sauce. He turns on the burner. He retrieves the blue box of pasta from the pantry, he opens the microwave, puts in the steamfresh veggies bag, and pushes the buttons to start it.
And after every step he beams as I respond with overdramatized shock, awe, delight and gratitude. His brothers play happily, basking in their reprieve from the threat of the “ruin everything baby’s” stomping feet to build whatever tiny world they’re creating with matchbox cars and magna-tiles. Henry’s love tank fills, my ears stop ringing. We light our candle and sit to eat in about 15 minutes and I prompt the big boys to receive Henry’s service with a grateful heart, because he made their entire dinner, after all. They play along and offer big thanks and hugs. We’ve survived. Wait a minute. We may have even thrived.
One of my favorite motherhood mantras is “Don’t escape, engage. Don’t pull out, press in. Don’t ignore, invite.” When I am tempted to check out, when I want to throw something or hop in my car and drive away, I have found that what I often actually need, and what my kids really need too in those moments, is for me to come closer—to pull them closer. I have found this philosophy to be most helpful when it comes to meal times—the times I most feel that I need to distract or evade them in order to accomplish what I need to. Sometimes it’s the big boys who can’t seem to get along, and so I hand each of them a kid knife and cutting board and give them something to chop, even if I don’t need it for the meal. Don’t get me wrong, there are days where I put on a 15 minute show and let them have a break, but sometimes I’ll go and pull the kid who is feeling most frustrated, neglected, or misunderstood, and whisper an invitation to come and “have special time with mommy” while I cook. I’ve made a commitment to include my kids in the kitchen because the benefits far outweigh the cost of creative energy I’ve got to use to invite them in and engage them with a job that meets them where they are developmentally.
I want to invite you and equip you to do the same. Because I really think it will bless your home and your precious mother heart. So, we’re done with the long form part of this email, because let’s be honest, you probably don’t have the time or the attention span for more, but I’m about to give you two lists.
1. Quality Time
Some of my happiest memories as a child were created while cooking in the kitchen with my grandmother. I can still hear her voice coming over my shoulder as I cracked eggs to scramble in the cast iron skillet: “One for me, one for you, one for the pan.” These are core memories that established that I was loved. I have heard multiple child specialists suggest that if your kid is having behavioral issues, spending quality time is the most impactful thing you can do. When our kids feel connected to us, they are more likely to listen to us. When we are feeling connected to them, we’re more likely to be attuned. Cooking together is a way to spend quality time. My boys talk most freely when they don’t have to make eye contact. I learn a lot while they’re chopping.
2. Developing skills/equipping them
I often joke that the whole point of motherhood is to work yourself out of a job. My friend Julia is a child therapist and consistently tells me “If they can, they should” concerning what I should ask of my kids. When I lived in Kenya, I remember that the 3 year olds made chapati over an open fire. I’ve learned that I severely underestimate what my kids are capable of, or am tempted to do it myself because it’s easier, but part of the work of parenting is ensuring that our kids are equipped to thrive on their own and as a part of a community. Every time we’re in the kitchen together, they are developing skills. They’ll learn how to hold a bowl with one hand and stir with the other so it won’t spill. They’ll learn how to crack an egg without getting shells in the bowl. They’ll learn how to measure, how to safely use an oven, and how to follow a recipe. One of my goals for my boys is that each of them will have one meal that they can make completely on their own by their tenth birthday. My hope is that they will never be lost in a kitchen, because their mama always made them feel at home there.
3. Appreciation for and willingness to try new foods
Statistics show that kids are less picky or complain less about the food on their plate that they don’t want to eat when they help with meal prep. My kids planted the sugar snap peas in our garden this year. Historically, they spit out any that we ever bought from the grocery store, but they’ll walk outside and pick and eat them right off of their beloved plant. Their sense of ownership has led to their love of this food. If Henry makes the meatballs, he eats the meatballs. If Walter peels the carrots, he doesn’t complain about them being on his plate. If Will chops the potatoes, he eats the potatoes.
4. You’re not doing it alone
In his book Habits of the Household, Justin Earley makes the argument that, when it comes to household tasks, if you do it alone when they’re kids, you’ll always be doing it alone. Loneliness in the work of the house seems to be a bit of an epidemic among the young moms I know. One of the beautiful results of welcoming my kids into the kitchen is that I am no longer lonely in the work of meal prep. I find that on the nights that they help me, I sit down after bedtime instead of going back in to clean up, because they’ve either made it possible to clean up as I go because they’re taking care of the tasks I start them on, or they have actually helped with the washing of the dishes.
5. Minimize Meal Prep Chaos
This probably came through pretty clearly in my opening illustrations, but when my kids are occupied, they’re not getting into or making trouble. They might be making messes, but at least they’re being made constructively. As I mentioned, sometimes two of my kids will watch a show while one helps me in the kitchen. But a lot of times, I can put each boy at a different station where they are smashing or stirring something. They’re far enough away from each other not to bother one another, and their participation creates sort of a competitive positive peer pressure to keep going.
6. Building Self Confidence
“This is a big job, but you’re big enough to do it.” I find these words coming out of my mouth most often with my oldest son. He struggles the most with feeling incompetent, and so handing him a grater and a block of cheese offers a chance to build his confidence by showing him that he has mine, and by giving him a chance to build experience with doing hard things.
7. Growth in Gratitude
In the book Are My Kids On Track, licensed therapist David Thomas recalls that before he would go to a friend’s house for dinner as a child, his mom would help him to imagine all that that friend’s mom had done to prepare to host him. More than just telling him to say “thank you” purely on principle, she was making an effort to cultivate gratitude and to see that what he was being given came at a cost of time and energy of someone else. Beyond helping them imagine what goes into a meal, having our kids participate in the preparation helps them experience first hand all that goes into making a meal. In the age of commercial free shows and same day delivery, I think it’s more important than ever for our kids to see that nothing magically appears. When they see what goes into making a meal, they’ll be more likely to appreciate the work you’re doing for them or the effort of a parent at a friend’s house.
8. Filling the time vs. passing the time
During my years at home with young children, I have often found myself trying to think of ways to pass the time to survive each day. But welcoming your kids into the kitchen is a way to fill the time to thrive in each day. It makes meaningful and productive moments, not only because you’re making a meal, but because you’re making memories and building skills and relationships. Honestly, being with your kids in the kitchen is a way to protect yourself from feeling as if you wished this time away or squandered it. Meal prep can be long and slow and fun instead of rushed and hectic when it’s done this way.
9. Helping them to see that work is GOOD
I’m not very good at playing with my kids. At least I didn’t think I was. Until I read recently that kids don’t distinguish between adult work and play. I think this is why you’ll find tools in our playroom toy closet, a mud kitchen in our backyard, and a toy sink with recycled running water in my 2-year-old’s closet (it’s his absolute favorite thing, by the way). They LOVE a squirt bottle. We have toy leaf blowers. Our work is their play. They don’t see work as bad unless we pitch it to them that way. Welcoming our kids into the kitchen shapes the way that they see the work of meal prep. This is GOOD work, work that fills bellies and hearts. It can be relational. It can be fun. Who knows, maybe it will be your perspective that’s redeemed in the process of trying to shape theirs.
10. Preparing them to be a blessing
I get fired up to watch my boys grow in ability in the kitchen. I imagine them blessing their wives by cooking for their families. I imagine them blessing their communities by practicing hospitality, welcoming people into their homes because it isn’t overwhelming for them to think about cooking for a group, and blessing people who are struggling by bringing them a meal or doing the dishes when they stay in someone else’s home. People will always need to eat. They will always have a longing to be seen and appreciated. Dishes will always need doing. And I pray that my boys will not only be equipped to love others well with the skills they cultivated in the kitchen, but it will grow out of the love that their mama poured into them at the counter of their childhood home.
1. Let them chop veggies or chicken apple sausage or kielbasa with kid knives.
2. Have them dump/stir ingredients.
3. Let them crack one egg at a time into a smaller container (so you can fish the shells out before adding them in), or if that feels overwhelming just have them beat the eggs with a fork or a whisk.
4. Let them “wash” dishes as you finish with them in a sink filled with soapy water or wash veggies and fruits. I mean, it’s basically the same concept as a bubble bath, right?
5. Let them mash bananas for banana bread or pound/tenderize meat.
6. Have them retrieve or replace ingredients. Using a stool is so exciting!
7. Get them a special apron to set apart their time in the kitchen with you and make it special.
8. Give them a spray bottle to squirt and wipe the counter while you do a task they can’t participate in.
9. Let them grease a pan or tin with their fingers dipped in butter
10. Let them press the buttons on the kitchen aid mixer or microwave.
2. Waffles/ Pancakes and Scrambled Eggs
I would LOVE to hear from you on this if you experiment with welcoming your kids into the beautiful work of feeding the family! What other benefits do you find? What other ways do you discover to engage them? Shoot me an email at email@example.com or tag me on instagram @abbeywedgeworth.