Love Thy Kitchen Part I

I like to cook. My fondest childhood memories were spent with women in the kitchen or men around the grill. I contend that more men would be in the kitchen if we had more gas stoves. Men love fire.

In my paternal grandmother’s kitchen there was one seat. If you weren’t in that seat, you didn’t belong in the kitchen. The kitchen was small and the seat was near the stove where you could talk to grandma while she cooked. She didn’t usually talk while cooking, she usually whistled. I wish I could whistle.

My own mother is and was a great cook. She was the master of the grand party with all the gorgeous foods. The silverware matched, there were napkins, sparkling silver rimmed plates and even chafing dishes and candles.

In my own house, I stumbled my way into my own style. Women in my family don’t share recipes and other than survival foods, I didn’t really cook until I was out on my own. My kitchen now is very tiny. It is the one regret that I have in my house. It’s easier to keep a big kitchen clean than a small one.

Meals are easier, if you have an idea of what you are going to cook. I used to groan when my husband would ask me what we were going to have for dinner. Why did I have to know? Share the work load responsibly. My husband doesn’t mind cooking if he knows the options are in the kitchen beforehand. He hates planning too.

We try to keep basics in the kitchen every week.

Breakfast foods are simple. Several low sugar cereals, fresh fruit in a bowl for anyone any time, bagels and bread, jam or jelly of the week, peanut butter, butter, eggs, instant hot cereals, corn meal mush, hash browns, pancake mix, syrup, bacon and sausage for special days. Apples will ripen any other fruit they are placed with in a bowl. NEVER put bananas in the bowl with apples. One day is enough to get the bananas to black.

The cereal in our house is stored in plastic, airtight containers that pour easily. The kids have poured their own since the time they were very little. Kids love independence. Give it to them early and they won’t fight you for it later. Yes, they can be fooled into thinking at that age that choosing your own cereal is independence. Store all “independence foods” low, so they can get them on their own or with a kitchen step stool. Move at least a portion of your milk into a container that they can pour from. If there is a spill or two, don’t give up. They don’t want a mess either. In fact, put the towels and washcloths where they can run and get them and encourage your kids when they are little to retrieve what is needed to clean up after themselves. (If your husband didn’t have a lot of independence training when he was little, this is the perfect time to train him too.)

Toasters are appliances, but they are one of the first things that a kid can use…even very little kids. My grandmother used to sit the toaster on the kitchen table and the kids would take turns taking toast orders. Grandpa would put it away on a little shelf behind the table when we were finished, so Grandma didn’t have to do that. We had it on the counter with a step stool when my kids were young. Butter sat out so that it was soft and jam and peanut butter were in little covered dishes. Nothing sits long enough to spoil. I have an attractive lazy susan on my table and it places everything in reach for everyone at the table. Grandma even had a napkin holder that always had folded napkins. If you were good, you got to fold the napkins sometime in the afternoon. Hmmm…how did she know that kids would think that was fun? Well there were always compliments on how well you set the table and if you remembered to put the forks and knives in the right places and the folded napkins under the correct pieces.

Drink orders were always taken for every meal in both my grandmother’s house and in mine. Even though people might drink the same thing at every meal, there is a real benefit to asking kids to retrieve that information and retell it to you. If they don’t get it right you ask them to recheck the order. Children pay attention better at school age if they have been taught to retrieve information in small increments building towards larger and larger lists. When the kids are little, you fill the orders. When they get to a reasonable age they GET to fill the orders. (Reasonable age is relative!)

Dad cooks breakfast at least one morning a week. In our house, that’s Sunday, but when he gets a chance, it’s also Saturday. There are eggs to order since he has always been better at that than I have. I don’t eat eggs so why should I cook them? He also makes a mean french toast, pancakes, sausage, bacon, and hash browns, although never at the same meal. Daddy was the one who really perfected the thought that pancakes didn’t need to be round and expanded upon that. Mickey Mouse regularly appeared at the breakfast table in our house, but so did a few other characters. Daddy also insisted that the syrup be warmed, since that was the way that “Mom always did it.”

Mom always did it! Some things your mother or his did were good and some were not. Sort it out. A fellow young mother once told me of an argument that she had with her husband over having breakfast for dinner. He proclaimed that his mother never did that. She responded that there were a lot of other things that mom never did for him either and she was willing to give those up if he couldn’t handle breakfast at dinner time every once in a while. It had been a tradition in her childhood home to have breakfast at dinner as a fun spoof every once in a while.

Talk at breakfast about the things you are going to do for the day. Breakfast is the meal that we most often miss together. As the kids and dog got older, I realized I didn’t have to get out of bed as early. They were also on a different schedule once they were in school. I missed too many breakfast times. It doesn’t seem like it when they are young, but you are really going miss meal times when they are gone. Sometimes on the weekends, when the kids were teenagers we would find ourselves at the breakfast table laughing and telling stories until 10 AM. On weekdays it was more like planning time.

Older kids get all the “special responsibilities” and make the younger ones fight for them. By the time the siblings want to do, the older ones will have figured out the game.

1. Everyone takes their own dishes to the kitchen. Or at least everyone helps clear and put away.
2. He who cooks is rarely the one to clean. The first thing I do when I start cooking is fill the sink with water so that I can have a part of the mess cleaned up before we ever sit down to the meal. (Not my idea…McDonald’s.)
3. A recipe that calls for fourteen dishes to prepare it, better be worth the clean up time or it won’t get a second play in my kitchen.
4. “You have two choices, you can use the dishwasher, or you can wash the dishes by hand.” What I say to my kids and husband after I cook. Sometimes it’s, “You can empty the dishwasher and use it or you can do the dishes by hand.” Either way they get the idea. When my husband cooks, we clean.

Make sure that you save plastic cups and silverware for washing by your littlest helpers. After the kitchen is fairly cleaned of the heavy dishes, fill the sink with water and add the dish detergent only after the water quits flowing. Invite your kids to take the step stool to the sink and help mommy by washing the last few dishes. The water will suds the more they play with the cups in the sink. They can do this for a LONG time. When the water puddle gets too deep on the floor, say uh oh, show them the puddle and let them clean it up with the rag and then have them take the wet towel where ever you put things going to the laundry or hang it to dry.

There is a VERY sweet website that has been built by a priest on the East Coast. It is called gracebeforemeals.com.

To quote the website: Grace Before Meals is centered on one fundamental concept: the simple act of creating and sharing a meal can strengthen all kinds of relationships. Founded by Fr. Leo Patalinghug in 2003, Grace Before Meals has grown from a simple idea to a worldwide movement, producing a book, blog and even a pilot for a TV show endorsed by PBS.

Research shows that having frequent family dinners can reduce the susceptibility of teens to risks like teen pregnancy, smoking, drug use and depression. And these benefits don’t just apply to traditional families or people with kids. Stronger families foster stronger communities, and that’s the goal we’re striving for–one meal at a time.