With great trepidation we began last month a project that seemed like a good idea when we thought it up it two years earlier: The Summer of Cooking. The theory was that by giving our rising 9th grader responsibility for cooking for the family all summer, he’d learn how to plan meals, grocery shop, budget, and cook. As the start date for this brilliant strategy drew near, we were gripped with the fear that we’d spend all summer eating nothing but Ramen noodles and waffles.
Teens Need to Learn to Cook
When my husband and I went off to college, we each considered ourselves ready for independent living. I had a whole pile of cooking skills in my repertoire by then: I could heat up SpaghettiOs, microwave any number of variations on a pre-packaged sausage biscuit, and use a coffee maker to heat water for instant noodles with the best of them. Also, I could peel a banana, and I sort of knew how to make pasta and chili. Fast forward ten years, and we were still, as a young married couple with a growing family, trying to figure out what to make for dinner. When you are taking care of a newborn and a toddler, it’s hard enough to get dinner on at all — let alone finally learn how to cook nutritious but simple and affordable meals.
Knowing that our children would have a significant head start in life if we taught them to cook before we nudged them out of the nest, we conceived of the Summer of Cooking. We picked the summer before 9th grade as the official cooking age because we wanted our kids to be old enough to be ready for the responsibility, but young enough that they weren’t yet trying to hold down a full time summer job.
How the Summer of Cooking Works at Our House
We had a general idea of what our plan was, but as the big day drew closer, we had to get a little more firm on the details. I decided that having the teen do all the grocery shopping was more risk than I was willing to take. If I was going to eat grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner six nights a week, I wanted lunch and breakfast for an escape valve. We decided that he and a parent would go to the store together, and while he filled and paid for his cart of dinner groceries, the parent would do the shopping for lunch and breakfast supplies. We gave him a clearly-defined space in the fridge and freezer where he could store his ingredients, because money was a big factor in the plan.
The Financial Incentive to Good Budgeting
To encourage him to be frugal about the meals we planned, we threw in a financial kicker. Every week on the way to the store, I’d give him, in cash, the week’s dinner grocery budget. I set an amount that was more than enough for feeding our family nutritious home-cooked meals, but would never suffice if he purchased all convenience foods or took us out to eat more than once a week. To encourage frugality, the deal was this: At the end of the summer, any cash left over was his to keep. To make it clear that he had to meet a minimum nutritional standard, I informed him that if he did not produce satisfactory meals, he’d be hauled back to the store mid-week to invest in better food. Grilled cheese or waffles for dinner was fair game, but I expected to see a member of the plant kingdom and a decent dose of protein in every meal.
As a further incentive for frugality, and for purely practical reasons, he was permitted to use up dinner supplies already in the pantry or freezer as part of his meal plan.
It’s an Education, Not a Punishment
I set a rule for myself that on the one hand I would not overly interfere with his work, and on the other hand I wouldn’t leave our child to sink or swim. The first week, I gave him lots of assistance in brainstorming possible meals and helping him find recipes. If he was willing to have my help, I was willing to save him a lot of errors. My rule was that I would offer advice sparingly, and generally wait until he either asked for help or was clearly getting frustrated by a problem. (Storing lettuce was a big one. He wasn’t too keen on listening to lettuce-keeping advice until after he’d had to give soggy, browning and wilted dinner supplies to the chicken. We talked not just about proper keeping of lettuce, but also the merits of having a bag of frozen vegetables in the freezer for later in the week, and eating your fresh stuff right away.) I do sometimes remind him when it’s time to start dinner, or if he needs to get the crockpot going first thing in the morning.
In the same way, I haven’t been overbearing about the purchase of spices and the like. On the one hand he’s expected to be responsible with his use of the supplies in the cabinet and contribute fairly towards shared foods. But we didn’t feel the need to quibble over who paid for that tablespoon of butter in the butter dish, as long as everyone is being fair about what they use and what they purchase. In other financial fairness issues, the week our family was going to a neighborhood cookout and my husband specifically ordered that we purchase a pile of good steaks and sides for the event, I just told my son we’d pool all our groceries, I’d foot the bill, but he wouldn’t get to keep any change from that week.
So What’s for Dinner, Son?
I’ve been bragging about my kid for a month now, because he’s really surprised us with how well he’s done. I think that choosing the year when he’s got a massive growth spurt underway didn’t hurt. So far he’s made us, all of it from scratch with no chintzy short cuts:
- Stroganoff (the real stuff, out of the Joy of Cooking)
- Shrimp and Grits
- Fried Rice
- Homemade Pizza with Homemade Crust
- Sloppy Joe’s
- Pot Roast
- Mexican Beans & Rice
- Cheese Quesadillas
- Hamburgers (he did invest in the ready-made ones the first time)
It was nearly a month until we finally had Waffle Night, and that was only because I’d dilly-dallied on getting to the grocery store. He has had a couple nights when he served frozen pizza or frozen lasagna, and I consider a leftovers night once a week to be part of normal family life. He’s charmed his younger sister into making homemade cornbread, and as I write the two of them are working together on a peach cobbler with the basket of peaches a friend gave us.
How About Your Family?
The Summer of Cooking is working well for us, and I love the luxury of not having to produce dinner every night. Erin Arlinghaus writes here about a different way that she’s gotten her children to take on dinner-making responsibility from time to time. When I was growing up, my mother went back to work full time, and my older siblings were paid to make dinner as part of their weekly chores. (Thus: My brother is an excellent cook, and always has been.) Other friends have used 4-H or cooking classes as a motivator to get the kids into the kitchen.
I’d love to hear what has worked in your family, or what you’re planning to try in the years ahead.
Copyright 2014 Jennifer Fitz