Why the marriage of cooking and TV triggers my deep shame, or, how I kicked in the windows at the shame factory

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.

This is how radically unglamorous it looks when I cook with my kids. Here, I become aware that Kip has been snapping pictures of us sauteeing from his perch on my left hip.

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.

If I’m cooking in the kitchen, there’s a TV hookup going on in the sun room.

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.

Grrr. No room for shame in this house. Photo credit: Kip Quinn (“Make a siwwy face, Mommy, bahcuz, I’m a gonna take a pit-cher of ya.”)

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!

Did I expand any cultural or nutritional horizons with this meal? Nope, but it sure felt good to take the time to cook it, guilt free.

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.

Charlie savors my creation. (Note the stacks of laundry in the dining room. Yet another reason I don’t classify as a wonder mom: my house is never ever even close to perfect.)

Kip opening wide for peanut sauce chicken

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13 thoughts on “Why the marriage of cooking and TV triggers my deep shame, or, how I kicked in the windows at the shame factory

  1. When you told me that you put on the tv so you can cook dinner, I sincerely had only one reaction: What a smart idea! The cost seemed obviously worth the benefit. Way to torch that shame factory to the ground!!! By the way, I always love the photos in your blog.

    • Ah, something about your endorsement of my TV practice blows away even the final remaining ashes. Deep breath. You know you inspire me similarly in so many ways. Always have. Happy day to you and Bun!

    • Ooh, you know which mommy shame factory I’m going to burn down? The one that is constantly releasing reports about how productive I am being at any given moment. Now, excuse me while I get back to my book while the baby naps….

      • YESSS! Burn that factory, girl! The productivity reports, to use a reference dating back to one certain English class we may have had together, are like sirens–they sound good but they’ll eat you alive. (what is “productivity” anyway? an illusion. burn it!)

  2. Seriously Em I can’t even think about the idea of figuring out dinners with a baby in tow. I’m still trying to figure out how to eat breakfast and use the bathroom for god sakes. Keep up the good work Em, I will for sure be following suit with the use of TV and any and all other distractions I can think of so I can one day cook for our family again.

    • Linds, you make momming a newborn look easy peasy, but no matter how naturally you slip into motherhood, I bet everyone remembers the triumph of cooking her first meal after gaining a new baby (as well as the first leisurely shower.) It takes a while, so be gentle on yourself and know that you will one day be back in the kitchen rocking recipes like never before. And, please, let me know how I can help. 🙂

  3. A wise friend once told me she didn’t think I wa using tv enough as a tool. She kinda gave me permission. Wise words above Emily. And so good to meet you today! We’re having pizza for dinner tonight but you’re inspiring me to cook something tomorrow. Chicken and rice a la tv perhaps.

    • Thank you so much, Deborah! For a long time, I so wanted to receive that kind of permission from someone other than myself, so I’m really happy you got it from a wise friend. I like the idea of using TV as a tool. Enjoy your pizza tonight! (and whatever you whip up tomorrow. chicken and rice sounds delish!)

  4. What a woman’s and mommy’s dilemma. Jim has never been concerned about pb&j or ham&cheese twice in one week. i am so tired of feeling guilty about this stuff – great post.

    • Aw, thank you awesome Amber. No more guilt! Let’s shove the shame where it belongs (no where near you.) By the by, I’ve tasted your ham and cheese sandwiches, grilled-style, and they’re really spectacular, so I will condone no guilt over feeding that to your kids.

  5. When the kids were littler I used to always have them in front of the TV so I could cook. I just couldn’t manage the process of of sanely getting a meal on the table with them underfoot-thank God for Sesame Street. Now it’s easier, somewhat, and I have the luxury of cooking during the day or in the morning after they are off to school. So much more pleasurable and nothing beats the slow cooker gratification of dinner “done” at 9am!

    • I can’t even imagine what it will be like to have both kids in school all day. Thanks for reminding me that time will open up for us in the coming years. You are a massively important role model for me in how you feed your family. How do you think I got the idea to stirfry? 🙂

  6. Couldn’t agree more Em, with every word. Make intentional choices, right and wrong are subjective, and we do the best we can in any given moment to make the best choices for our families. It is all we can do, and it is all we should do too. 🙂

    PS My laundry pile looks just like your’s. In fact, I just bought a new folding table for my laundry one specially to hold folded laundry so my husband would stop putting it out on my dining room table. No joke. A folding table for folded laundry that does not get put away.

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