Since returning to Europe from Brooklyn 2 years ago, we started a new summer tradition to spend two weeks with my two kids together with their four French cousins in Saint Malo, a beautiful town on the cost of Brittany, France, where their grandfather lives. For part of that time, I am by myself in charge of the kids, three of them in their mid teens. The idea was for them to go to a day sailing camp and spend time together.
The first year, the children had a great time. I didn’t. Meals were the culprit. Cooking from scratch by myself was a lot of work that went totally unappreciated. The kids were too busy playing. Cleaning up was a battle if I expected them to help. After each meal, they magically disappeared. Who to ask to clear the table? Clean the kitchen? If I caught one and asked for help the eternal question came out: 'why me? What about the others?‘ In the end, it was I who did it.
The transformation occurred the second summer, when I organized a cooking camp for dinners.
To my surprise, we all bonded and enjoyed every minute of our time together for our last two summers. We laughed a lot and enjoyed delicious food (better than I expected!) and future family chefs were born.
THE SECRET? Writing rules, assigning roles and expecting each child to bring their favorite recipes. Dinners were planned in advance, each child took responsibility for their own recipes, and I shifted my energy to make sure the kids were enjoying themselves. What a difference! The rewards far outweighed the couple of hours I invested in advance planning. Not to mention late dinners (kids cook slowly), and some raucous cooking sessions with loud music!
Benefits far outweighed any inconveniences
As we share in our book, food has a special meaning when it is shared, appreciated and valued. When kids cook they quickly learn to appreciate their home-cooked meals. Kids were empowered by the experience, and got a feeling of accomplishment. They now know where meals come from and that they can cook them. Additionally:
- The kids were exposed to wider range of foods. To my children’s surprise, their cousins chose to cook some of their least favorite vegetables. I made sure my kids were the sous-chefs of those recipes to expose them to those foods. I loved how they were watching their cousins eat those vegetables with so much gusto.
- They became adventurous to try new foods because their peers cooked them.
- Children begin to appreciate a clean, organized kitchen (when they are the ones mopping the floor, they´ll complain if you step on it with dirty shoes!)
- Cooking reveals previously-undetected skills in children! Who knew Sofia would lead many dinners during the following year, or that David would ever be willing to chop onions?
Top winning strategies for my successful summer cooking camp
- Writing a plan for the whole week, with assigned roles for each kid. To my surprise there was no need for negotiation. Once written and agreed upon it was sacred. Note: if you leave anything off accidentally, you´ll have to do it. Note to self: I forgot to assign who empties the dishwasher. Result: too much whining about it – I did it!
(I did not help cooking but was there at all times giving advice and encouraging.)
- Daily celebrity Chef ‘star’ designation, taking turns: I did this by filming them. Using my smart phone, I recorded snippets of them prepping, cooking and cleaning. Suddenly, when they were in front of the camera, they wanted to do their best job even if it was dancing and being silly.
- Bringing my iPod and player in the kitchen: Listening to their favorite music made them happy to do even the most tedious tasks: chopping onions, washing pots and cleaning. Amazing!
- Taking the kids food shopping on day one: Each child was assigned the ingredients from their recipe to find in the market, plus we assigned other foods for breakfast, etc.
- Implementing everything the first day: The learning curve to establish and then keep them on task takes a lot of effort. The first day, there were a couple kids who ‘escaped’ to the TV; reinforcing assigned cleaning made me unpopular that night, but it made all the difference to keep everything on track.
And what about the menu?
Risotto, tomate farsi (tomatoes filled with ground meat), ratatouille with chicken au citron, pizza made from scratch topped with sautéed mushrooms, onions and zucchini, pasta with spinach and more. I have to admit that our French cousins impressed me with their adult palate. They do eat almost everything as Karen Le Billon claims. Can't wait to next summer and to next menu!!