Bork bork bork!

By Mir
June 6, 2011

When school let out this year, I announced to my perfectly capable 11- and 13-year-olds that for the duration of the summer, they would each be planning and making dinner for the family one night each week. I delivered this decree with calm cheerfulness, but in my head I was seeing this:

The thing is, one of the results of having grown up extremely self-sufficient by necessity is that—and I know this is going to come as a complete shock—sometimes I kind of baby my kids. I KNOW. I mean, it’s crazy, because I’m such a complete hardass in so many other ways. But I am sometimes slow to get my kids on the self-sufficiency train, as evidenced by the time my lovely daughter and I faced off and I decreed she should pack her own school lunch for a week, and she completely melted down. At 12. Because packing her own lunch seemed such a terrible punishment. (I did not tell her that I packed my own lunch from kindergarten onward. Because I am nice.)

The kids sometimes do this learned helplessness thing that pokes at my tender pink inner child and causes me to rush in and fix it for them instead of saying, “Huh. That’s interesting. Good luck!”

But the dinner thing, I stood firm. They’re plenty old enough to cook. Both of them enjoy helping me in the kitchen. And I know people whose kids have been cooking entire meals since they were younger than my kids are now, so clearly it’s time for my kids to GET WITH THE PROGRAM.

The news of this new responsibility was met with… mixed feelings. Monkey panicked; he doesn’t know how to cook things! Where is he supposed to even figure that out? CAN WE HAVE CEREAL FOR DINNER? I talked him off the ledge by assuring him that I would be his willing sous chef, and he could start with foods we already eat regularly, and then—if he liked—we could branch out to some new recipes. He calmed down. Chickadee, meanwhile, announced that she would be making eggs. Just eggs. Every week. When it was suggested that she might take this opportunity to expand her repertoire, she agreed to occasionally switch it up with pancakes.

I was ready for a long summer.

But funny things started happening.

The night we sat down to eat Monkey’s first creation—shrimp and gluten-free pasta in a tomato basil cream sauce—his chest puffed up from our compliments and he ate three platefuls.

Chickadee spent several hours making the world’s largest vat of fruit salad, one week, which we all ate morning, noon and night until it was gone, and this week she came shopping with me to pick out more fruit so that she can do it again.

Monkey pulled out a few of my cookbooks, yesterday, and asked if he’s allowed to use the grill. (Answer: No. You must be THIS HIGH to work with an open flame, kid. But if you want to prep everything to go on the grill, we’ll call that good.)

Chickadee got up early today and baked a pan of brownies (“I figured I’d run the oven before it got really hot in here”), and while they were in the oven she unloaded the clean dishes from the dishwasher and loaded in the dirty ones.

The first kid-cooking night I mentioned Monkey’s success on Facebook and someone asked me to write about how we were doing this, and I thought “Um, that would be a really short entry. How we’re doing it is that I told them ‘pick a night, give me your shopping list, cook something.'” It didn’t seem too involved to me, really.

But what I’m realizing is that the key isn’t the cookbooks or the willingness to take direction from the youngest member of our household as he commands me to “squeeze that garlic in the thing, because it makes my hands hurt when I do it.”

The key is simply acting like I know they can handle it. And I’m not going to lie, the first few weeks, I WAS ACTING. But now I’m not, because they can.

Also, fortunately, no one has tried to make turtle soup out of a muppet turtle. So there’s that.


  1. Nickeletta

    I’m happy to hear that your putting your kids in the kitchen is working out. My two are home for this summer (instead if camp, like we’ve done in the past). I just checked out a big stack of cookbooks for kids and teens hoping that they’ll learn to cook a little, and expand their willingness to try new things. Perhaps I should go one step further, and put them in charge for dinner one night a week. Excellent idea, thank you!

  2. Kelly

    That’s awesome. I definitely want to do that when my kids are older. I think I’m going to have them start helping already, just in terms of making mommy accountable that we are eating well rounded meals. Maybe print out the pyramid or that new plate thingy and have them help match up their plates to it.

  3. Katherine

    I think Monkey is old enough to grill. Especially under supervision. I remember when my kids were Tiger Cubs, so first grade, and werevasked to grill. I was petrified, but they got to learn, under dad’s careful supervision. My 12yo still needs a bit of help grilling, but he’s getting there.

    I’m trying to have the kids cook this summer, but all they want to fix is ravioli. So far I’ve said they can’t both cook the same thing in a week, but maybe I should just let it slide….

  4. Christina

    That’s awesome! My kids are really picky eaters and the OT suggested having them help with the grocery shopping and any prep possible (my oldest is 6). Letting my daughter pick out her own fruit at the store definitely did something – despite refusing strawberries and raspberries numerous times, when SHE picked them out they were great!
    Keep up the good work!

  5. marissa

    Oh, Dear. I require Ativan just to sit at the table and EAT with my kids, what with the ‘Are you SURE you washed those hands?” and “Can you turn AWAY from the table when you sneeze?” and…Oh, wait- those offenses were committed by The Husband, not the kids!

  6. Ani

    Dang, that’s genius. Must get on that bandwagon as soon as eldest returns from sleep-away camp.

  7. addy

    Awesome! I’m with you on the gril thing – no open flames until you are at least THIS HIGH! Mine is now in college and comes up with some pretty great recipes. We go shopping together and she picks up what she needs. Works for us.

  8. RuthWells

    Very awesome.

    I’m with you in the slow-to-insist-on-self-sufficiency thing. BUT! Have recently discovered that ripping your kitchen out is a good way to teach your kids how to hand-wash dishes.

  9. Jessica

    We have our oldest niece staying with us for a few weeks, and we asked her to help us with the laundry yesterday. (I should note that her laundry was in there and she is 14 years old.) She looked at me as though I had sprouted a couple extra heads. She finally got up and helped a bit. I finally asked if her mom made her help with laundry or even fold her own, and she said that it just depends on if her mom felt like folding it or not, but usually she didn’t.

    I also didn’t mention that I did my own laundry completely from age 7 because my mom made a bunch of my whites pink, and I hated pink — even on my underwear.

    I might ask her to make us dinner one night, though, as that’s a good idea and a good way for her to help us while she’s here. I’m glad this is going well with your kids. I think that, given the chance, kids often amaze us with their knowledge and abilities!

  10. Javamom

    I think that is so awesome. I too try to let my kids help in the kitchen and with food whenever they want to (which is most of the time) so that they hopefully will enjoy (and understand) about food and cooking when they get older (they’re 6 and 3).

    The 6yo sometimes asks if he could make supper. Twice he made a pasta dish with my help (very little help) and with the 3yo helping to grade cheese or chop up something. They were simple dishes involving pasta, cheese, sometimes eggs and milk, sometimes cauliflower and canned tomatos but WOW.

    The reality is that we spend a lot of time shopping/prepping and eating food, so why not get those kids involved!

    Bon appetit!

  11. Jen

    Maybe…I should…gasp…attempt this. I realized last night, as I was tossing and turning and cursing the insomnia, that a great deal of my stress is from meal planning for my crew. Of the three of us (which’ll be four when hubby comes home this weekend), two are gluten free, one is also dairy free, two love Chinese food, one hates it…you get the idea. I think there are MAYBE six meals that guarantee mealtime harmony. Hm. Food for thought here…

  12. Varda (SquashedMom)

    This is so awesome. I have been thinking an lot about this lately, whatI should now be expecting my twin almost 9 year-olds to do on their own and/ or help with around the home. It’s very complicated for me because, first off, one of them is autistic so obviously has to have different expectations / much more support to complete his tasks than his brother (and is also the reason why I am so behind in this) and trying to figure out how to make this feel “fair” to the non-autistic one (who is already full of resentment towards his brother) is making my head spin.

    Secondly, I feel I can’t look back to my own childhood for a model for this (as it seems you can’t either) because the circumstances were so different… I was an only child in the suburbs with 2 working parents and we had family dinners every night. My boys are urban, I am home, we almost never have true “family meals” (due to special diets/food allergies & odd schedules) plus our laundry room is in basement of building where I would never send a kid alone, etc. etc. Sigh, this is tricky.

    But reading your post has kicked my ass into gear with the idea that I have to figure out SOMETHING soon – before I end up a) raising little princes who feel like they need to be waited on hand and foot (gag me) and/or b) get so full of resentment that my fantasies of running off alone to Tahiti start tipping into reality and I use all my Amex points to buy myself a one-way ticket.

  13. Sarah

    When the complaints of my 5 year olds started getting to me every night, I told them that they could cook dinner for us. One cooked ramen with tofu, one cooked hot dogs. I don’t love either of those, but they were excited to get to do their own thing and we pull out that trick when we all get tired of mom cooking. I think that it’s a great idea to get kids cooking. I read something about Mario Batali that showed him on a stool at the stove cooking at the age of three- never too young to get kids interested in food.

    And I love your kids’ responses and responsibility. Great.

  14. Aimee

    This is great! I actually remember with great fondness the first time I cooked dinner all by myself. I made shepherd’s pie. I love to cook and think that everybody should know kitchen basics.

    PS – Monkey’s pasta sounds delicious!

  15. MomCat

    Every summer for four years, I have told my 16 year old she will do this, and every summer she whines and I cave. If there is a secret, please tell it to me. (Is it, mayhap, “Don’t cave!” Thought so.)

  16. MomCat

    P.S. I want to try Monkey’s pasta and Chickie’s fruit salad, too!

  17. dad

    It was great to see my old friend Lars Gavardenbarden again. I had nearly forgotten how much I enjoyed watching his antics when you were 5, going on 32. That was way back in the days when watching television was condoned while eating dinner.

    I love your new independence program and it looks like you will survive it. As a matter of fact, would you tell Monkey the next time he whips his shrimp/pasta thingy to put some in the freezer so we can praise his prowess on our next visit.

  18. elz

    I have decreed that this is the summer Em learns how to pack her lunch (she’s 6). Primarily beacuse she has to take a lunch EVERY day in summer camp and I am lazy. I mean, it’s a good lesson for her; it teaches her independence.

  19. Crista

    Kudos to you for making them self-sufficient! I had a roommate once who was living on his own for the first time. He lived on ramen. The other roommate and I were constantly on him to keep his stuff out of the common areas. We had to teach him how to vacuum, dust, clean a bathroom, everything!
    On the other hand, my niece has been cooking dinner for herself and her little sister since she was 12 or 13. Mom works til 9pm and dad’s idea of “making” dinner is a Del Taco run.
    Now she is 16 and she and a friend have come up with a business plan; a Bed and Breakfast. The friend will do the business end and my niece will do the cooking and decorating. Wouldn’t that be something if they actually pulled that off in a few years! It actually started as a class project, so they have done a lot of the research already and know what’s involved. And still want to go for it! Ah, the dreams of youth…;)

  20. Sheryl

    I may have to steal this idea. Who does the clean up after dinner?

  21. bj

    “Chickadee got up early today and baked a pan of brownies (“I figured I’d run the oven before it got really hot in here”), and while they were in the oven she unloaded the clean dishes from the dishwasher and loaded in the dirty ones.”

    OMG, OMG. OMG.

    I hope you realize that. Not that she baked the brownies, but that she unloaded the dishes and loaded the dishwasher while she was waiting for them. *I* don’t do that, and instead usually wait for the dishwasher fairy to do it (my own mom, who packed my lunch for me until I was required to buy lunch at school, at the age of 15 or so, or my husband).

  22. bj

    OK, I might have undermined myself, admitting that really isn’t a dishwasher fairy. But, I think I’ll go back to it, and stick with the dishwasher fairy hypothesis for how my dishwasher works.

  23. jkf

    Your family is delightful. I was impressed that Chickadee GOT UP EARLY to use the oven because she knew it’d make it hot. That is advanced planning, right there. awesome.

  24. Scottsdale Girl

    mmmmmmmmm brownies…….

  25. Ann Garniss

    I was also expected to be relatively self-sufficient. I made dinner every week night (except Thursday – that was Mom’s day off) from the time I was 10. I wish I’d had someone to help me get adventerous though. I have about 5 recipes I can make with my eyes closed, and then I start to feel out of my depth. :)

  26. StephLove

    I am so looking forward to the day mine can cook. Other than baking, I didn’t start cooking for my family until I was 14 (I did it twice a week all through high school). It sounds like a lot of the commenters started earlier. My 5 year old loves to help in the kitchen but the 10 year old has no interest. I might need to start nudging him to learn a little about cooking since they both have to be able to feed themselves before they leave home and it would be nice to reap the benefits myself for a few years at least.

  27. My Kids Mom

    Mine (because of you) are making the 3 of us lunch each afternoon. I’m happy to help but I’m tired of them sitting on their (bored) butts while I slave away all day.

    My kids love to cook- I figure it’ll gain me a great daughter in law or two someday! (Not intended to sound so sexist, but I feel strongly that my boys, because they are boys, especially need to know how to cook.)

  28. KristenM

    I think that’s fabulous and I’ll be doing the same thing when I think my daughter can handle it. She’s 7, but I do make her pack her own lunch once or twice a week. And could Monkey please teach me to make shrimp and gluten-free pasta in a tomato basil cream sauce?

  29. Asea

    Yeah, I learned to cook when I was 7, used the stove and the oven and everything. Then again, Mom was pregnant and had a toddler and I was VERY self-sufficient. My baby brother who’s now 17 still can’t cook…

  30. Tracy B

    Splended idea! I wish my momma would have done that with me when I was there age. Of course, my momma didn’t cook either. I can’t wait to hear more abou this in the coming weeks. You are going to write more about this, right?

  31. Rasselas

    That last part is the most important, I believe. Acting like they can, letting them get their own experience. My mother used to lament how we never wanted to help in the kitchen. But when she’d let us try, she would hover endlessly, take things away and do them herself. Everything that was actually interesting to do, she wouldn’t let us do, she had to do it. We were left with cleaning up. It wasn’t fair, and it certainly didn’t leave us any more inclined to help around more.

  32. thatgirlblogs

    my 2 eldest are 15 and 14, I am all over this!

  33. Boo

    so my mom and dad made me and my brother cook dinner every Friday night all through middle school (by high school we were too involved in sports and music and friends to even be home on a Friday). We also always ate dinner in the dining room with music playing, to give a baseline of family dinners, but every Friday my brother and I had to work together (we’re only a year apart) and make dinner for our family, from setting the table and picking out the music, to actually making the dinner. I remember a lot of spaghetti dinners but the best part was that we had to learn to work together in the kitchen. It definitely helped make us closer and now at 25 and 26 we communicate well and work together when it comes to family things. I would highly recommend this to any family!

  34. Little Bird

    If you get them interested in cooking now, you will only reap the rewards as they get older. My mother will gladly tell you that she LOVES having me cook for her. I will warn you that if they really get into it, you will end up buying kitchen gadgets, and some of those aren’t cheap. BUT!!! You get to eat good food that you didn’t have to cook!!!!
    Oh, and the rule around here is whoever cooks, doesn’t have to do the dishes. I LOVE that rule!

  35. Stimey

    You are the smartest woman in the entire world.

    I have all kinds of head nodding going on over here about learned helplessness and how it’s a great idea to have them cook dinner and whatnot. Brilliant.

  36. Mit

    My dad was a good cook. My mom was not. I started young-ish … maybe 7 or so doing my own breakfast. Dad would make his early in the AM (5am or so) … and then leave behind the “fixings” … waffle batter, pancake patter, indications he’d make scrambled eggs/omelets, or hot cereal. And I’d just make the same thing.

    The first dinner I recall making was on a Saturday. They’d done yard work all day … and at some point I thought it would be great if I surprised them with dinner. I did a tuna (gag these days) casserole from a “Family Affair” (ie: Jodie, Buffy & Mr. French) cook book.

    Just as twilight was hitting I went outside and announced “dinner is ready”. They were VERY impress … AND (unfortunately) it landed me cooking duty 1-night per week.

    However … I’ve spent a portion of my life as a chef – and I can say – it started from having to cook for my family as a kid.

  37. KJ

    That’s brilliant. We are big in self sufficiency (tonight the five year old made both his AND his sister’s lunch, because there could be no family meeting, with allowance distribution, until her homework was done and all lunches packed–thn he did her math, but that’s another story). I am thinking the 9 year old could do this for certain. I love this idea. But if all four of them do it, it’s gonna have to be once a month, because I love to cook and I am not eating that much pasta.

  38. jen

    i loved this. my daughter’s first creations were bringing me these strange, granola cereal and peanut butter and jelly concoctions that I choked down with a smile.

    luckily they have moved on. and my youngest she is right there with the all eggs, all the time, channel.

    but i know what you mean. i was horrified to realize when visiting friends that their children the same age as mine actually knew how to cut up there food with a knife. oops, still doing it.

  39. Cele

    I read your blog about an hour ago… but I was too busy watching all the Cooking with Bork Bork Bork adventures, I forgot I was suppose to comment. It is fear of this that I don’t let Ducky (yes folks my husband) cook

    Popping Da Corn

    Burp and I have been cooking together for years, I believe though we would only be grazing if I left him to do the meal for one night…. Hey he’ll be ten soon, so maybe his attention span will make it possible.

    I love the challenge you have set for Monkey and Chickie and I love that they are both rising to the challenge.

  40. KarinNH

    When I went to college, my freshman roommate didn’t know how to boil water to make instant coffee, make her bed, or do laundry! It was pitiful and made her first year very painful.

    So, when my kids hit their early teens, I sat down and wrote a list of things self-sufficient adults ought to be able to know how to do. The list had everything I could think of: balancing a checkbook, opening a bottle of wine, checking the oil in the car, how to iron, sew on buttons, fix a seam, do laundry, fix a leaky toilet, unclog a drain, order flowers, grocery shop, change a furnace filter, and on and on.

    We had a lot of fun, and I was amazed at what left them puzzled and what was easy. When my oldest went to college, he was the only one in his dorm who could sew or iron and the only one with a toolbox; he called me up to say thanks!

    They also got their revenge. They taught me how to change electrical fixtures, install dimmer switches, solder, open a champagne bottle with a saber, and fix my computer. The youngest now wants me to learn how to weld. Yikes!

    P.S. Monkey might very well be old enough to learn how to grill with supervision. Adding fire to any task seems to make it more appealing!

  41. Clinton

    Great idea, thought my kids are 6 and 3 they always want to help in the kitchen. I’m usually shooing them away but I’m going to see if they can’t help in some ways. My 6 year old’s job is to unload the dishwasher every evening. We have cleared out the lower drawers and cupboards for him to put the dishes in. I’m amazed at the people who are grown and still don’t know how to do chores for themselves. While waiting tables I have witnessed two young women trying to sweep by placing one hand on the very top of the broom handle and swinging the stick back and forth. After 20 minutes or so of allowing them to continue on (yes that’s enough punishiment since you NEVER have swept before) I show them the right way to sweep a floor with proper hand placement. Wow…just wow.

  42. KarenNM

    I am totally stealing KarenNH’s idea about a “self-sufficiency list” for my son. He’s 7 now and does some work in the kitchen, but I hadn’t really thought about all those other kinds of skills that he should have. Leaving the nest is still a ways off for him, but I’m totally getting started this summer!

  43. RidgewoodMom

    That is awesome!! I think I will ask O to do the same thing. She is really keen on helping in the kitchen, especially mixing or bate bate cocolate (Dora reference. I hope you don’t remember what that is.)

  44. chris

    If I did this at my house I would NEVER HAVE TO COOK AGAIN!!!


  45. Susan Getgood

    Totally identify. My son does the same thing. Like you I was making my own lunches (and family dinners) at his age –11 — and he has trouble reheating the pizza in the microwave??

    Maybe we’ll try that this summer – letting him plan a weekend menu and I’ll help him. Or maybe his babysitter would be willing to help him put together a meal for me and dinner could be waiting when I get home from the city. Wouldn’t that be something.

  46. Kim

    I reflected that both my 3 and 5 year olds can scramble eggs. With a lot of mess and a few burns. But, hah, that is my skilled parenting at work!
    But I most wanted to tell you that we spend a happy hour on youtube watching swedish chef excerpts and laughing hysterically. Thank you for the laughs and the heart felt anguish you share as a parent. It helps us remember what’s important.

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