A few days ago, a friend asked me if I’d been cooking much lately.
“Uh…I guess so,” I felt a little forlorn. “Kind of. But not like I used to.” Like, Oh, that’s right. I used to cook kind of a lot. We must’ve talked about food before I started serving buttered noodles three times a week. What happened?
Following a discussion about cooking with kids underfoot, I remembered I used to make some pretty cool stuff. As I internally reminisced about intricate curry pastes, lamb racks, raviolis and tinga de pollo, she mentioned her kids didn’t flip for the eggplant pizza she made from scratch, dough to toppings, but they absolutely loved the battered-and-fried eggplant on its own. What’s more, the kids even helped her make it.
When I observe talented friends like this one, and the mythical moms of the blogosphere, as they whip up balanced, beautiful meals that everyone eats and enjoys, all I can fixate on is this: What are their kids are doing while they cook?
I picture them helping alongside Mom; coloring at the kitchen table; cleaning up their toys; practicing their handwriting; building castles out of magnatiles… It all makes me want to cry because, clearly, either my own children are defective, or something is wrong with me. It must be one or the other, right? (insert ironic tone)
I have a confession that renders me exceedingly un-spectacular in the world of parading wonder moms: When I cook, and “cook” can mean “throwing cold cuts and grapes on a plate” or “stir-frying skirt steak and broccolette,” you know what my kids do?
They watch TV.
Of course I’d rather not plug the boys into the hypnotic box (have you seen the research?), but if I don’t, I do not cook. Instead, I yell. Loudly and sometimes till my throat hurts and everyone is crying. I clean up tremendous messes. I intercede because Charlie is stepping on Kip’s head. I snuggle Charlie close after Kip whacks him with a dog bone. I banish Ralph outside because he snapped after too many of Charlie’s attempts to put a knight helmet on him. Despite my most valiant efforts—Library books on tape! Playdough fun factory! Whisks and mixing bowls full of soapy water!—my boys simply do not play quietly on command. The moment I enter the kitchen, the library book is ripped, the playdough is in someone’s mouth and the whisks are swords. Without the distraction of TV, I sure as sunrise do not feed anyone. And, as love-filled food feels important to me in nurturing my kids, my husband, my friends, my family and myself, when it comes to conscious meals vs. the evils of TV, I’m in quite a pickle.
If my aforementioned friend weren’t a refreshingly righteous chick with charm and verve and likability even beyond her chef skills, I might’ve crawled inside my inner shame factory and sat there rocking, sucking my thumb and repeating “peanut butter is not a food group; TV is bad,” for 48 hours.
But that would be rather fruitless, now wouldn’t it? Much like the shame-laced affair between TV and cooking in my house, I suspect we all have triggers that plunge us needlessly into our inner shame factories. And I hereby implore you to shut that mofo down.
You may have a separate set of triggers as a man or woman, as a partner, as a parent, as a professional, etc. On some days, the shame factory is going off from all angles. On other days, usually when we’re living in the moment and with intention, it’s boarded up and prepped for demolition.
This week, I swung the wrecking ball at the shame factory and dusted off my cook’s cape to save the day with a meal that would expand both cultural and nutritional horizons. (Who’s a parading wonder mom now?) These things take a little longer than 30 minutes, so consciously—and without the usual guilt—I plugged the kids into a full hour of PBS. I made peanut sauce. It wasn’t valiant, and, yes, it did include peanut butter. I stir-fried chicken, onions, zucchini and bell peppers, then tossed the stirfry in the peanut sauce and basil and served the dish with rice. Voila!
The boys refused the zucchini and the bell pepper, and the last couple bites were given as reparations to the dogs for four years of torture, but the boys pretty much ate the chicken and rice besides. Victory? Not until the shame factory is razed and I can be definitively gentler on myself for all future mealtimes.
We human types slog our way through countless trivial dilemmas every day. As parents, even the most trivial decision seems monumental because the wellness of our spawn is often at stake. The question of “do I take the time to cook something more complex and turn on the TV, or do I keep meals simple and play with them longer?” raised my awareness of the judges everywhere, outside and inside. Either I chastise myself for turning on the TV or for not preparing a thoughtful meal, for feeding them frozen stuff or for not allowing them the important lesson of enjoying mealtimes.
No matter my choice, something always seems to be lost. But we can’t allow ourselves to feel like we’re always failing, now can we? Alas, we live in a dualistic world. There is no clear right or wrong in a catch 22. You just pick one and trust it’s right for the moment. The only thing we can really control is being mindful and intentional about our decisions, and doing the best we can in each moment to care for ourselves, for our kids and for the world. If that means serving up buttered noodles at every meal or turning on the TV so we can boil water in peace, so be it.
My remedy: Whatever I do, do it consciously.
My sample inner dialogue: “Feeding my kids good food is very important to me. Tonight, they will watch TV so I can take the time to execute the kind of meal that matches my value of good eating.” Or, alternatively, on a different day: “I feel more than 30 minutes of TV might not be the best thing for them today, so tonight, I will feed them PB&Js.” All is as it should be and, this way, I won’t get side tracked into shame. (BTW, this can be applied to everything, not just to mama stuff.)
Burn, shame factory, burn.