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family cooking

Ike and Tash Haynes, with their daughters, 8-year-old Wisdom, 2-year-old Courage, and infant Glory, split responsibilities and aim to teach their kids skills too. Photo by Joshua Huston

You’ve got to eat! How busy families make it all work

What parents do to make sure everyone helps with daily meals.

When the world closed down in early 2020, many families found themselves engaging in something that had become a luxury: They sat down together to a home-cooked meal.

For many parents whose lives are often a whirlwind of juggling responsibilities and shuttling kids from one activity to the next, the forced slowdown was a game-changer.

“There was a lot more togetherness during those early pandemic days,” recalls Shaun Van Eyk, a Greenwood father of two. “We did a lot more cooking and a lot of experimentation.”

Katherine Lee, a mother to a 10-year-old in Ballard, describes how the homebound lifestyle allowed her to reconnect with her husband and daughter.

“I was able to enjoy everything more,” she says. “I feel like we’ve gotten along better since the pandemic.”

Now, as life begins to resemble pre-pandemic days, families worry about losing that slower pace of life. As calendars fill up with meetings and after-school activities, what will become of family dinners?

Finding creative ways to incorporate family meals into an otherwise busy schedule is essential to retaining those moments of togetherness. In Tacoma, Tash Haynes and her husband, Ike, split their kitchen and home responsibilities based on their respective skills. That helps make mealtimes feel more balanced and equitable.

“We look at what we’re good at,” Tash Haynes explains, “and what is easiest for the person to accomplish in the quickest amount of time.”

But parents don’t have to do it all on their own. Getting kids involved and comfortable in the kitchen has enormous benefits for them and their families, both in the short term and for future years.

“It’s a great equalizer,” says Laura Vida of Mount Baker, owner and founder of FrogLegs Cooking School. “Cooking brings kids of all talents together in a fun way.”

Preparing food is a universally useful skill. Being able to cook a meal on their own also helps children develop self-confidence and pride. For Van Eyk, whose 11-year-old daughter suffers from anxiety, cooking is the boost she needs to have confidence in herself.

“Being accomplished at cooking, and getting praise for doing that,” he says, “it’s been really great for her. She’s really receptive to praise in those moments.”

For parents curious about how to get their kids started in cooking, the first step is to make cooking about discovery, rather than simply serving a utilitarian purpose.

“The key is to make it fun,” says Tash Haynes. “There are so many opportunities in the kitchen to bring in your kids’ interests. It’s about teaching boundaries and creating safe spaces, and then allowing the opportunity for exploration.”

Vida adds that having a good teacher, whether it’s a parent at home or a teacher in a cooking class, is also important.

“If you have an enthusiastic teacher that loves what they do, it sets the stage for a great learning environment,” she explains.

As for Lee and her husband, Chris Stearns, understanding where food comes from helps their daughter develop an interest in what food has to offer.

Says Lee, “If you grow your own food, and you involve them in the planting, growing and harvesting, they’ll be more interested in eating a healthier variety of food.”

Fortunately, parents have access to a wealth of resources to encourage kids to cook. Subscription boxes like Raddish Kids, which Haynes uses for her 8-year-old daughter, allow kids to create meals on their own. Taking classes or watching cooking shows can also spark an interest in food.

While some families rely on words of encouragement to reinforce helping around the house, other parents have more tangible methods for rewarding good behavior. Van Eyk and his wife use an allowance and chore tracker app called Rooster Money.

For Stearns, though, it’s less about how the reinforcement happens, but when it happens. In the end, the goal is to help kids make their own decisions about food.

“We try to build up our daughter’s successes when she’s doing something well,” he says. “We make sure we reinforce the good things.”

This story was first published on Aug. 31, 2021.

More in Feeding the Family:

School-night meal idea: Try a quick, healthy tostada Tuesday

Breakfast before school: How busy families get it done

About the Author

Astrid Vinje

Astrid Vinje writes about family travel on her blog, The Wandering Daughter (thewanderingdaughter.com).