Someone’s in the Kitchen with Mama

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I love to cook.

The idea of creating something delicious out of a few random ingredients thrills me.  Cooking is my therapy, the kitchen is my happy place, baking is my zen.

Unless my kids decide to cook with me.

Then cooking takes longer, involves crying and fighting, and usually ratchets up my stress level to somewhere near that of a Wall Street investor on a bad day.

But I do it.  I let them cook with me every single time they ask.  Even though they make my eye twitch and my head hurt, I invite them into the kitchen and let them do as much as they can to help me.


Because I think that cooking is one of the most important skills kids can learn.  Not just because I think that everyone should know how to cook at least basic things, but for so many more reasons.

Cooking teaches kids about where food comes from.  They learn that things don’t just appear in front of them, whole and ready to eat.  While Laurel peels carrots (slowly), we talk about the carrots we grew last summer, and how cool it is that they grow underground.  While Ellie uses the egg slicer to cut mushrooms, I tell them how mushrooms are fungi, not vegetables, and that they grow in dark, wet places.  As I cut up chicken we talk about Grampy’s chickens, and how isn’t it neat how chickens and eggs taste so different?  They are learning  how things connect, and how they fit into the world.

Cooking improves fine motor coordination.  It is basically free occupational therapy for Ellie.  From holding a potato with one hand and working the peeler with the other, to learning how to use a whisk for the first time, cooking requires the girls to move their hands in new and different ways.  Laurel use to have a really hard time stirring a thick batter, but now she knows how to hold the spoon properly and she can mix up a mean batch of cookie dough.

Cooking teaches math and reading.  Laurel loves to count out how many ingredients a recipe requires.  I’ll give her the list and she’ll count them up, then check that we have the same number on the counter.  She is starting to understand fractions without even knowing it.  Two half cups make a whole cup, Mama!  I point out the steps we need to take while we cook, showing her the words, teaching her about doing things in the proper order.  When she is older, she’ll see how cooking is basically science you can eat.  Just wait until I break out the baking soda and vinegar.

Cooking forces kids to slow down.  It only takes one slip of the hand to learn that when holding a knife (even the relatively dull one that Laurel is allowed to use) it is prudent to pay attention to what you are doing.  The girls, who are usually whirlwinds of activity, know that when they are cooking they have to be careful.  Their frantic movements become purposeful.  Their fidgeting stops as they watch and try to imitate what I have shown them.  They love to watch me chop vegetables, and I talk to them about how I keep my fingers curled back on my holding hand, and how I don’t lift the tip of the knife from the board, so I have better control.

Tonight I allowed the girls to do the “hot stuff” for the first time while making dinner.  Laurel sauteed vegetables, using a long wooden spoon to stir them around in the bottom of the soup pot.  Ellie got to stir the soup as it simmered on the stove.  Cooking has taught them caution.  They may not listen to me the rest of the day, but when I told them that they could hold the spoon and touch the pot handle, but NOT the pot, because it was hot, they listened.  No preschoolers were burned during the making of our dinner.

Cooking teaches the value of work.  Kids are use to people just handing them things.  They don’t often have to work for what they get, simply because they are little and can’t do whatever needs to be done yet.  Cooking is a good way to start introducing kids to the idea of taking pride in their work.  It is a magical thing, the first time your child realizes that they can produce something tasty with their own two little hands.  I think that kids who understand the value of work are less likely to act like entitled little monsters.  And more likely to eat their dinners.

Finally, cooking teaches patience.  A large part of cooking, especially baking, is waiting.  We wait for the butter to melt, the onions to become translucent, the broth to boil, the bread to rise, the cake to bake.  In a world where everything seems to be available on demand, cooking teaches kids that sometimes we have to wait for the things we want.  Most of the time Laurel gets bored and runs off to play during the longer waits, but Ellie is a much more patient child.  She will happily stand on a chair, occasionally stirring a simmering pot of soup for twenty minutes, and yell if I try to get her to stop.  I think she’s going to take after me, finding her zen in the motion of a whisk.

So, let’s hear from you.  Hop down to the comment section, and tell me if you let your kids cook with you.  How old are they?  What are their favorite cooking tasks?  Or do you think kids should stay out of the kitchen?  Let me hear it!

Food Snob

I'll cook anything for love

I’ll cook anything for love

It all started with a simple question.

A friend and I were discussing what we were making for dinner.  I told her that I was making meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  She then said, “Oo!  Meatloaf!  Can I have your recipe?!”  I don’t have a recipe for meatloaf, and I told her so.  She got a sort of miffed expression on her face and told me I didn’t have to be such a food snob.

A food snob?  Me?  I’m not talking about making duck a l’orange here.  I’m talking about meatloaf, one of the most basic staples of housewives for generations.  So I asked her to elaborate, and she told me that this isn’t the first time I’ve told her that I didn’t use a recipe for something I was cooking.  That in the past she has asked me for my recipe for something and I’ve just rattled off a list of ingredients and instructions to her, when she really just wanted me to email it to her later.  She said it made her feel like I was acting superior to her, because she didn’t memorize things so easily.

Whoa there, I told my friend.  I use recipes a LOT.  I’m always making new stuff, and thanks to Pinterest, my family never gets a chance to get bored with any of it before I find something new to make.  I have a folder stuffed with recipes that I’ve copied down from online, recipes I’ve ripped out to magazines, and recipes that I’ve collected from family members.  I have very few things memorized.

She scowled and said that making new stuff all the time makes me sound even snobbier.  She makes the same basic stuff all of the time “like a normal person.”  Apparently I make her feel like she’s not doing enough, like she’s a bad wife and mother.

Ok, hold up.  Is it me, or are you seeing this a lot lately?  Moms feeling like they are in competition with each other?  Or that they aren’t as “good” as other moms?  Me too.  And it needs to stop.

Look, I told my friend, just because I can make stuff without a recipe doesn’t mean that you aren’t as good of a mom as me.  It means we grew up differently and have different priorities.

I grew up in a house where most stuff was made from scratch.  We didn’t have a lot of convenience foods around.  I didn’t know that mac and cheese could come from a box until I was in high school, and didn’t actually taste it until I was in my twenties.  Take-out didn’t really exist yet, and nobody delivered to our farm.

I can remember my mom teaching me how to make meatloaf when I was a kid. I thought it was cool because I got to smush it with my hands.  I’m sure she was quite willing to pawn that job off on someone else.  My mom was (and still is) a pretty boring cook, and most meals consisted of meat, starch (usually potatoes), and (frozen) veggies.  Rice was exotic.  Spices didn’t move much beyond salt and pepper.  She was an awesome baker, however, and some of my fondest memories revolve around cookies, cakes, and pies.

From the time I was 14 to 17 my mom was the Camp Director at a Girl Scout camp, and she was only home every other weekend for the entire summer.  Since my dad worked all day, it fell to me to do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry.  I still hate cleaning and laundry, but I really fell in love with cooking during this time.  My dad has a much more adventurous palate than my mother, keeping a cabinet full of things like Thai spices and lentil soup mixes that he cooked for himself on weekends.  Because of this, I felt that I could branch out from mom’s standard recipes into unknown territory.  I searched through cookbooks and cooking magazines for fun new things to try.  Sometimes I crashed and burned.  I remember when we decided to try making General Tso chicken at home.  It was so bad that we went out for pizza.  But most of what I made was really good.  I learned new techniques, and more importantly, I learned how to put together flavors.

In college I was the only one of my friends who lived in an apartment instead of the dorms.  The food on campus was….sad.  So I’d invite my friends over to my place and cook for them.  They would take turns asking for stuff they missed from home. (Non-mushy pasta was a theme.)  For the end of the year, I made five cornish game hens, each stuffed and seasoned with different stuff.  It was during college that I realized that food could bring joy and comfort.

Fast forward to the present, where I have a spouse and two kids to feed.  All three of them are pretty picky, so my cooking is limited to what I can actually convince them to eat.  (The girls are more persuadable than Chev, by the way.)  I don’t really cater to the girls’ tastes, because it is my opinion that four year olds don’t have the experience to tell me definitively what they do and do not like.  So I cook what the grown ups like, and if the kids don’t eat, well, then they don’t eat.  But I really like when I find a new recipe that all of us like, and I don’t want to fall into a rut, making the same handful of things all the time.  I cook for fun as well as for fuel.

And there is the difference between my friend and I.

I’m not really a food snob.  I just really, REALLY like to cook.  I’ve been cooking for twenty years.  I love combining new flavors, trying new spices, and figuring out delicious ways to get my family to eat things they all claim to hate.  If I were young and single, I’d be a food writer and eat my way across the globe.

My friend didn’t grow up cooking.  She just wasn’t interested in learning how to cook from her mom or grandmother.  She was in sports, choir, 4-H, and band.  She had practices every night of the week.  In college she lived in a dorm and lived off of Ramen noodles.  Now she is married and has the cutest little boy I’ve ever seen.  For the first time in her life, she has found herself to be the person in charge of putting food on the table every night, and while she has basic cooking knowledge, she is no master chef.  Cooking just isn’t her thing.

And you know what?

That is ok.

We all have our own strengths.  My friend is super active.  She takes her little guy to the park almost every day.  She runs, plays tennis, and sings in her church choir.  Her son is in karate and t-ball.  Her hubby just did his first half marathon.  Their Facebook photos all depict them doing fun things like hiking, swimming, and having epic snowball fights.

They make me feel bad about me.

The fact is that the only kind of marathon I’m interested in involves Doctor Who and a large tub of popcorn.  My kids watch too much TV.  Chev and I are much more on the sloth end of the activity spectrum than the cheetah end.  I have zero desire to hang out in the frozen tundra of our yard while Laurel chucks snowballs at me.  I fear that we are raising the next generation of couch potatoes.

I explained this to my friend, and she got very quiet for a few minutes.  Then she hugged me.  She told me that she was afraid that I thought she wasn’t a good mom because she would rather go for a run than bake cookies with her kids.  I laughed and told her that I figured she thought I was a bad mom because my kids watch so much television.  It was like a barrier had broken down between us.  We were no longer judging ourselves by how we thought other people saw us.

We were just moms, talking about what we were making for dinner.


Painting Cookies!

They look good enough to eat...all in one sitting!

They look good enough to eat…all in one sitting!

Today Laurel and I made cut-out cookies.  I wanted to make up for making cookie-looking non-cookie ornaments the other day.  Because I’m all about fairness.  And baked goods.

The fates smiled upon our house today, and Laurel was on her best, most adorable behavior.  So after we put Ellie on the school bus we broke out the cookie dough we made yesterday.  Laurel picked out which cookie cutters to use, and helped to cut the dough.  The only fuss she made was when I wouldn’t let her roll the dough out herself.  (That’s a quick way for it to end up on the floor!)  She told me how many of each shape to make, and we had a great time.  Then it was off to the table to decorate them!

If you have ever made cut-out cookies with a young child, you have seen the way they apply sprinkles.  Usually it involves 1/2 an inch of colored sugar on top of each cookie, non of which actually melts, and it just gets everywhere.  So I wanted some kind of (less messy) alternative to sprinkles.  Enter…..Cookie Paint!

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Paint + Cookies = One happy Lil’ Bear!

I remembered seeing a post somewhere at some point about making cookie paint out of egg yolk and food coloring, so I decided we’d give that a shot.  And it worked great!  Laurel loves to paint more than anything in the world, so it was a natural fit.  I decided on a limited pallet of colors, and only made red, green, and blue.  The blue didn’t really want to come out blue because our egg yolks were very yellow.  So it was sort of greenish, but I didn’t really care that much.  If you want a truer blue, I’d try using the egg whites.  I’m not sure how that will turn out, though. It might make them extra crispy.  You’ll need to add a bit of water to the yolk/food color mixture as well, to thin it out a bit.  And you don’t need much of it.  I probably could have split the yolks up and used only half a yolk per color, instead of a whole one.  In any case, I love how they turned out.  The paint got really shiny and pretty.  We will definitely do this again!

Truly Scrumptious

Truly Scrumptious

Gluten Free Cut-Out Cookies

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter at room temperature
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 3/4 cup gluten free flour (I used King Arthur’s Multipurpose Flour)
1/2 cup almond flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon xantham gum

– Cream the butter and sugar together.  Beat in the egg and vanilla.  Mix in the dry ingredients.
– Form the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and stick it in the fridge for at least an hour.
– Preheat the oven to 350 F.
– Roll a chunk of the dough out on a floured surface until it is about 1/4 inch thick.  Remember to flour your rolling pin (or wine bottle or other rolling implement).
– Break out your favorite cookie cutters and have at it.  Remember to dip the cutters in flour if they start to stick.
– Put the cookies on a cookie sheet.  Use parchment paper if your heart desires it.  I don’t bother.
– Take the left over dough and squish it up with another chunk of the unused dough.  Repeat the rolling/cutting steps until your cookie sheets are full.
– PUT THE REST OF THE DOUGH BACK IN THE FRIDGE.  Otherwise, while you decorate the first batch, your dough will get too soft and sticky and you’ll never get it rolled out.  Trust me.
– Decorate your first batch of cookies however you want.
– Pop those cookies in the oven for 8-10 minutes.
– Cool on wire racks.
– Once you have a free cookies sheet, get the rest of the dough out of the fridge and start rolling/cutting.  You get the point.
– Devour.


Cookie Paint

1 egg yolk per color
1/4 teaspoon water per color
a few drops of food coloring

In small bowls, containers, or ramekins mix up a yolk, the water, and some food coloring.
Make sure you use CLEAN paintbrushes.  Not the ones your kids were using the other day that you just sort of half-assed rinsed out.  Either use new brushes or give the ones you have a proper cleaning with dish soap and hot water.  Use a different brush for each color; don’t try to rinse between colors. It will water down the paint too much.Again, if you use yolks that are a dark yellow, you may have problems with some of the colors.  I had to add a lot of red to make the paint red, not orange.  You can try the egg whites, but I haven’t tested that theory yet.
Paint the cookies!

Baking Up Some Fun

Oh so salty

Oh so salty

Today I decided to make salt dough ornaments with the girls, because that would be a fun, easy project which would result in lovely Christmas gifts for their grandparents and great grandparents.  Just think of the nice family bonding we can do; sitting around the table, listening to Christmas music, painting our ornaments!  It will be heartwarming and memory building!

Ha. Ha. Ha.

I start off the project by mixing 2 cups of gluten free flour with 1 cup of salt, then slowly adding 1 cup of warm water a little at a time.  That makes the dough a little too sticky, so I add a bit more flour.  Perfect.  So far, so good.  This is when I remember that we had to get rid of our rolling pin when we de-glutened the kitchen back in July.  I remember that a friend had posted about using a wine bottle in place of a rolling pin once, but we don’t drink, so that wouldn’t help.  Oh, wait!  Chev brought home an empty wine bottle from work a while back, because she wanted to try that thing where you turn a bottle into a glass.  (Yeah, that’s never going to happen, but I don’t like to smash her dreams.)  So I dig out the wine bottle and we are in business.  I flour the counter and roll out the first ball of dough.

This is when all hell breaks loose.

Ellie sees the dough and thinks “COOKIES,” and freaks out when I won’t let her eat any.  Laurel, the little sneak, takes advantage of my distraction to steal a bit of the dough.  Amazingly it doesn’t taste very good.  Which she lets us know in no uncertain terms.  Much to our entertainment.  Ellie, however, is not convinced, so we let her taste a bit as well.  You would think the dough made of fire for the way she spits it out and runs screaming from the room.

Once the tasting of the terrible dough is finished, the fighting over who gets to pick out the next cookie cutter commences.  “I want Frosty!”  Ellie tries to grab the reindeer.  “No! No Rudolph!  Frosty!”  Ellie tries to grab the Santa.  “I WANT FROSTY THE SNOWMAN RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!”

I finally manage to get all of the ornaments cut out and put on trays.  Laurel excitedly runs over to the table, asking for her sprinkle sugars.  I explaine that the ornaments don’t get sprinkles, they get painted, which only excites her more.  There is nothing Laurel loves more than painting.  Then I dropp the bomb.  The ornaments have to bake for two hours.  That’s right, folks, I have the pleasure of explaining to two three year olds that they have to wait TWO HOURS until they can decorate the ornaments.  And of course, being the sweet and level headed angels they are, they accept that fact and go off to play patiently for two hours.

Ha.  Ha.  Ha.

I wish.  No, instead I have a double tantrum on my hands.  Laurel throws herself down on the floor, sobbing that I am a mean momma.  Ellie starts throwing everything she can get her hands on.  In a desperate act to distract them I put in Polar Express for the umpteenth time.  Mission accomplished.  Thank God.

Fast forward to the one hour baking mark:  Oh shit!  I forgot to put the holes in the ornaments, for the strings to go through!  The good news is that you can, in fact, still stick a straw through the ornaments at the one hour mark.  The bad news is that you are going to burn you fingers doing it.  The worse news is that your toddlers are going to think that the ornaments are finished because you have taken them out of the oven, and then throw yet another tantrum when you tell them that they still have another hour to bake.  But, the holes are in the ornaments, so the crisis has been averted.

Finally, the oven beeps and I can put the ornaments on the cooling rack while I get the paints ready.  Now, you can paint them with kid paint, but I’ve seen the comparison pictures, and acrylic looks WAY better.  So I break out my good paint and put little blobs on paper plates for everyone to use as pallets.  I only have black, white, and the primary colors, however, so I have to mix the secondary colors.  Holy shit.  You would think that I was murdering puppies from the way Laurel freaked out about me mixing the colors on her paper plate.  “NO MOMMA!  DAT’S MY PAINT!”  For the love of God, kid, do you want green?  Yes?  Then shut it and let me work my color-mixing magic.

I divvy up the ornaments, set out all of our supplies, and we start to paint.  I put Chev in charge of helping Ellie, which basically means that it is her job to make sure that Ellie doesn’t eat the paint since I’m not sure if it’s non-toxic.  And to keep her from painting herself (a task which Chev failed at miserably) while trying to get at least a couple ornaments painted before she loses interest.  Laurel is fairly self sufficient and really just needs supervision to make sure that she doesn’t start painting herself or the table.  I get to paint some of the nicer ornaments.  Everything is finally going well.  Well, for me and Laurel it is.  Chev is fairly OCD about things, so helping Ellie is somewhat akin to water boarding for her.  Which is why I make her do it.  Its good for her to deal with messiness and chaos.  But all in all, this is the point where everything calms down and it starts to feel like a Hallmark commercial.  I can even feel the cockles of my heart warming up.

Everything is so serious when you are three

Everything is so serious when you are three

Alas, all too soon Ellie is done.  Oh so done.  Done enough to dump the dirty dish of water that she and Chev have been rinsing brushes in all over the floor and herself.  On the plus side, it helped to rinse some of the paint off of her stomach and legs (because painting is a diaper-only event in our house.)  After Chev cleans her up and sends her on her way, things settle down again.  Chev is happy because she gets to paint a few ornaments.  Laurel is banging them out like a champ, even if she is a bit pissed that I won’t let her paint them all black.  (Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like black ornaments for your tree.)  I finish up my ornaments and start cleaning up.

Masterpieces, every one of them.

Masterpieces, every one of them.

I notice that Ellie is being very quiet.  Where is she?  Oh no, she’s in the kitchen.  With the ornaments.  Please don’t let her be breaking them!

And you know what?  She wasn’t breaking the ornaments.

She was hugging Santa

She was hugging Santa

And I actually felt my heart grow three sizes.  ❤ ❤ ❤