What’s Cooking with YOUR Kids – 1 Mom’s Sabbatical with Her Daughters

One of the most exciting aspects of my six-week work sabbatical was the prospect of spending more one-on-one time with each of my daughters. My girls are 19 months apart (1.5 and almost 3), so most mornings in our home are given over to pure achievement: achieving breakfast, achieving toothbrushing, achieving clothing on major parts of all bodies present, achieving drop-off at preschool or daycare.

But these six weeks that stretched out before me offered an opportunity not only to slow the pace, but to spend entire long days with each girl individually while the other was in school…a luxury not even afforded by most weekends, since as we scurry to classes and lessons we practically toss kids to each other in mid-air, like unshowered jugglers.

Yes. I was taking it slow. My first “Mommy and daughter day” was with my older girl, who had recently taken an interest in “helping” me cook. She could count out eggs for me, set the table, get the salad dressing from the fridge, etc. But my recently-purchased colorful silicon baking cups had put a glint in her eye. OK. We would bake cupcakes. We would bond. We would laugh. How hard could it be?

As it turns out, not too hard, but not in the ways I expected.

I had gotten the ingredients the day before (all we needed was baking powder, as it turned out) and was using a recipe from Cook It in a Cup! by Julia Myall (Chronicle Books, 2008), which came bundled with the silicon muffin cups I’d bought.

I had found a number of easy mom-and-kid recipes inside, and settled on cupcakes because my daughter’s birthday was coming up.

8:30 AM was here. My younger girl was at day care, and the morning was ours.

We began by calling out each ingredient in the recipe and pulling it from the cabinet. We made sure we had everything we needed (…I thought) and, as we used each item, wiped it and put it back in the cabinet.

Mixing the dry ingredients meant patience on my part: preschoolers agree that it’s important to inspect the spoon by waving it in the air every once in a while (tip: placing a cookie sheet under the metal bowl and putting the whole setup on the floor meant no precarious chair-balancing, and easier cleanup).

When we moved on to using the electric mixer for the butter-and-sugar combination, we hit our first roadblock of the day: my husband and I had given away the electric mixer years ago. I have no idea why. Thank GOD we had a 2-speed hand blender that I had never used before. I dusted it off and gave my daughter a shot at using it. The rubberized buttons, while large and easy to press, required a bit more force than she could muster, so I did that part.

At this point she asked whether we could eat the cupcakes yet.

We moved on to wet ingredients. I was not ready to let a three-year-old crack eggs (I admit to a BIT of Type A control freak tendencies), so I distracted her with arranging the silicon cups in a pleasing formation.

My daughter had paid close attention, as it turned out, during the ingredient roll call, and SHE was the one who noticed I had forgotten vanilla extract. In it went.

Mixing everything together — flour, butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract — clearly indicated to everyone that the cupcakes MUST be ready to eat. I explained again that we needed to bake the cupcakes (the oven was preheated to 350), wait for them to cool, frost them and THEN eat them.

Roadblock — or should I say, “lesson” — number two. That is *far* too long for a preschooler to wait for the joy of eating home-cooked food. The next time out, I should pick a food that we can eat quickly once it’s cooled enough to handle.

We pressed on. As the first spoonfuls of batter dripped into the six silicon cups arranged on the cookie sheet, my daughter lost interest completely and began playing with blocks in the living room.

It didn’t matter. She was excited about the clean toothpick at the 17-minute check-in, and even more excited to see the perfect little domes emerge from the oven.

After more waiting, waiting, waiting, we turned them out of the cups, frosted them and ATE them. Well, we each ate one.

So here’s the thing (or, Lesson #3). It’s fun to bake cupcakes. And, while if you’re like me you’d eat seven of them at a sitting, I doubt you’d allow the same behavior from your children. After two more rounds of this, I had baked 18 cupcakes and was now telling my sous chef she could only have one. Or maybe two.

How is THAT fun? Again, a different choice (a kids’ entree with more protein, for example) would have meant she’d be satisfied with a smaller serving. As it was, I think I sent a pretty contradictory message.

Ultimately, she ate two that day, and I ate x. Through the next week, my husband and I combined to eat z .

It’s a good thing she forgot about the cupcakes in the next day or so, because the use of the silicon cups provided me with my final lesson of the experience: while they are AMAZING for no-stick cooking, cool very quickly, are cute to look at and simple to clean (top rack of dishwasher), silicon cups can’t offer any moisture sealing once they’re removed.

In other words, our cupcakes dried out within a day (even under plastic wrap) to the extent that I was forced to take the creative measure of slicing off the frosted “muffin top” and just eating that part, discarding the cakey cupcake below.

All in all? A success. The two of us spent valuable, quiet, relaxed one-on-one time together. OK, relaxed except for the part where I figured out how to use a hand blender while my daughter waved it swordlike through the air. We practiced counting, ingredient identification, patience (important for both of us), and *eating*.

To reiterate, the lessons learned:
– Make sure you have the equipment on hand that you need.
– Select something to cook that can be enjoyed fairly soon after it comes out of the oven.
– Select something that your child can enjoy, perhaps not in moderation, without you flipping out about sugar / fat / non-organic content.
– If you are using silicon cups as we did, keep in mind that your food storage needs may differ slightly afterward, and food will dry out more quickly.

Next Tuesday? I’m thinking ham and cheese popovers.

— Gretchen McNeely


Gretchen McNeely is an improvisor, stand-up comedian and the mother of two girls. By day she works as an information specialist at a design consultancy. Gretchen’s recently revamped blog, “Well, Actually…”, can be found at gmcneely.wordpress.com.

If you have a story to share about your adventures in the kitchen with your children, please let me know! I’d love to work with you to encourage other families to cook together!

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8 Responses to What’s Cooking with YOUR Kids – 1 Mom’s Sabbatical with Her Daughters

  1. k1ate says:

    Good tips. The making sure your kid can enjoy it part can be such an issue! My husband makes great homemade pizza, my son loves pizza, he hates my husband’s pizza.

    But I find my little boy is much more likely to eat something he’s helped make!

  2. What a sweet story. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  3. Debbie D says:

    Cooking is so fun! My nephews call their cooking adventures “making concoctions.” Eating the cooked results is usually less of the focus than the concoction (and mess) making. As you pointed out, the short attention span dictates that the concoction itself be the entertainment, then the cooked result is a whole different event. Thanks for sharing!

    • Michelle Stern says:

      When I was growing up, my best friend and I would make concoctions too! But they often left her kitchen stinking for a week (and sometimes caused things to explode – with vinegar and baking soda, for example…) But hey, that’s kitchen science – it was a valuable education 🙂

  4. Christy C says:

    For things like eggs, I used to crack them myself into a 2-cup size measuring cup and then let the kiddos pour the measuring cup into the mixer bowl.

  5. Butcher says:

    Cooking is a great way to get some one on one time with the kids. Great story, thanks for sharing.

  6. Sarah says:

    Hi! I just found your blog today and I have to tell you I love it!!

    I recently made cookies with my 2 1/2 year old daughter for the first time. Since she had never baked before, I mixed the sugar cookie dough while she was down for a nap, then put it in the fridge. After her nap, the dough was ready to use so I had her help me roll it out, then she used the cookie cutters and I worked the oven. Then we decorated them with icing (well, I decorated, she ate) 🙂 I LOVE having her in the kitchen with me. Most evenings she pulls a chair over to the counter to watch me prepare dinner. I think she’s a good eater because of it!

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Thanks for the nice comment, Sarah! What a great story – I love how you made it better for you to cook with your daughter. I think that’s the biggest challenge for people – cooking when they are too rushed or invested in the results. I am sure you are right – she is a great eater because you include her in the kitchen. (I am still working on my own daughter – but I’ll keep trying!)

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