We just had our special Christmas dinner, and it was only a week after Christmas. We visited Julie’s relatives on Christmas day and had our official Christmas dinner in Minnesota. However, I like the idea of having a special meal that celebrates our immediate family’s Christmas.
I did some grocery shopping early and bought a beef tenderloin at Costco the week before Christmas. I had rebate money on my Costco credit card and decided to blow it on the family. However, spending $130 on a single chunk of meat took my breath away. I tucked it safely into the freezer as soon as I got home. The thought of it spoiling before our celebration was a strong motivator. A few days before our Christmas meal I went shopping with my daughter, Kathryn, to buy all the sides. Brussel sprouts, carrots, potatoes, rolls, kale salad, and a chocolate pie. We were all set!
Since she was COVID evacuated from the Peace Corps, Kathryn has lived with us, and my two youngest are home on winter break. My kids are all adults now, so we had to coordinate the meal based on their work and social schedules. The Sunday after New Year was open and so that day became the day of our pretend Christmas meal.
When Julie returned to the paid workforce many of our meals went from homemade dinners to frozen pizza. She was adjusting to adding a new and time-consuming job to her schedule, and she didn’t have the energy to continue her home duties as she did before. I started taking over many of her former jobs, from cleaning the house to making family dinners (she continues to cook several days of the week).
I always cook the Sunday meal, and I have involved my kids in meal preparation for many years. My goal was to teach them the fundamentals of cooking so they would never have to rely on restaurants, fast food, or frozen dinners. Cooking becomes easier with practice, and learning one skill or technique makes it simple to learn the next.
If you want to cook regularly, you must develop accessory skills. I felt that teaching these skills to my kids was every bit as important as teaching them how to saute vegetables or how to bake a good cornbread. So what are accessory skills? Let me tell you…
Plan it: Meal planning is straightforward if you do it all the time. However, it can be a nightmare if you are an occasional cook. I’m comfortable making just about anything. However, my kids like simple dishes, and so that is what I focus on. When I was a divorced medical resident I had no money, and I needed to adopt economical meals as part of my regular eating regimen. I embraced casseroles and one-pot meals. I stretched meat by making it a side-attraction rather than the main event. I prepared breakfast foods for dinner. I never felt deprived, and I was always well fed. I have tried to pass on the same way of thinking to my kids. At some point, they will be living independently, and they will probably be on a budget. I don’t want them eating fast food every day.
Simplify it: Most of us don’t want to eat the same meal every day, but do we need a thousand choices? Too many options can lead to decision fatigue. At our house, we tend to eat a few dozen meals repeatedly. Yes, we add other recipes on occasion, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Purchase it: You have to have the ingredients to prepare your food, and in my humble opinion, you should always have essential ingredients on hand—items like flour, seasonings, canned tomatoes, eggs, pasta, and the like. Part of my effort with my kids has been to teach them this rule and how to shop and where to shop. I usually take one or two of them with me when I buy groceries, and we compare prices, make choices, and stockpile often used ingredients. In addition, the person who shops with me is privileged to pick out some special treats, which serve as a small incentive to encourage their participation.
Dump it: Before starting any meal, I ensure that the dishwasher is emptied. Honestly, I hate emptying the dishwasher, and I’ll either assign it to one of my kids or empty it with their help. However, having an empty dishwasher when you start cooking makes cleanup exponentially easier.
Use it: My kids know how to cook using simple tools, like a good knife. However, I also have taught them the benefits of using time-saving kitchen appliances. We Kunas are fans of the Instantpot, slow cooker, and food processor. Oh, and Kathryn bought me a new waffle iron for Christmas to replace my worn 40-year-old one. I love waffles for dinner.
Clean it: This is one of the most essential skills to teach fledgling cooks. If you use every pot and bowl in the kitchen and then leave the mess to be cleaned after dinner you will hate the idea of cooking. We have a rule in our kitchen called wash as you go. For example, if you use a measuring cup, wash it immediately so it will be available for subsequent use. That way you only use one measuring cup. The same rule goes for any other item used in cooking. When the meal is done, all of the preparation gadgets are washed and put away. Beyond necessary things, the kitchen is clean. This makes for a pleasant eating experience.
Finish it: When we are done with our meal, everyone helps clean. We all clear the table. If I’m the chief cook of the day, I take the dishes (that are now on the counter) and place them in the dishwasher. One kid will wash down the table, and I’ll clean the counters and stovetop if they are not already done. Other kids will put away the leftovers. In less than 5 minutes, the kitchen is clean, and no one worked very hard in the process.
My kids have become skilled cooks. However, we have all gained a lot more than food knowledge. Cooking together requires teamwork and compromise. It encourages leadership skills as well as the ability to follow.
The most significant benefit to our cooking time is social. We enjoy preparing a meal as we joke around and shuffle from one counter to another. We work as a team, and we all benefit from the fruits of our labor. That cooperative effort extends to the meal itself. No electronic devices are allowed during dinner, and we go around the table so every family member gets a chance to check-in and tell us about their day.
Cooking dinner with my kids has become a high point of my day. Let’s face it, daily events are often more significant than special ones, and I suspect that my kids will remember cooking meals with me more than some random event.
Life is primarily routine happenings and encounters. Yet, we tend to focus on trivial things, like a two-week vacation. Yes, those things are important, but why not celebrate what we have to do every day? That way, we have pleasure 365 days out of the year.