The Real Pat-a-Cake: Lessons from Cooking With a Mini Sous Chef

I have a confession to make about my parenting style: My name is Sherri and I do not like imaginative play. There. I said it. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I was of “advanced maternal age” when I had my daughter. Maybe I’m too old and bitter for make-believe. Maybe (gasp!) I do not have a good imagination. Whatever it is, a little part of me dies inside—equal parts dread and guilt—when A looks up at me, thrusts a doll in my direction, and says, “Mommy will you play with me?” I’m just not very good at an activity that requires me to engage in conversations or act out scenarios with Barbie and her BFFs in a pretend world. I can’t relate to, much less imagine being, Barbie. Sometimes I even feel a wee bit resentful of Barbie, the way she waits for me all stylish and chill in her pink Camaro when I’ve been at work all day. In short, I have nothing to say to Barbie.

Aissa CinderellaBefore you get all judge-y and think I’m a total jerk mom, let me clarify. When approached with a request to “play,” I sometimes suck it up and play Barbie. But even when I really don’t have it in me, I don’t say no. Instead, I use my management skill of “Yes and…” when presented with an idea that just won’t work as currently stated but want to encourage rather than squash enthusiasm. So, I’ll answer “Yes and…do you want to color/paint/bead a necklace/play Legos/build a snowman/ride bikes…” and crisis averted, I’m spared from rolling a pink car on my kitchen floor.

My best answer to avoiding make-believe came when she entered the late-toddler years and I realized I could invite her into my world—the kitchen. I don’t have patience for crafts, I don’t really have hobbies, but cooking and baking is my thing. As in, if I were a contestant for Miss America, my only talent would be whipping up a flaky pie crust that could blow the baton-twirlers and violin soloists away. We started small, learning to stir and use a rolling pin. As she grew into preschool age, we moved to more advanced things like measuring flour, cracking eggs, and breading chicken. I think I was as proud as when she took her first steps when she successfully flipped a pancake. Cooking and baking became our thing. Gradually, I began to realize that it was ok that I didn’t want to play Barbie; we could play “sous chef” instead. The important thing was sharing time and giving attention. I learned a few other things too.

Aissa chef hat with cookies

1. Cooking with your children demonstrates what you value about food. When you invite your little one into the kitchen, you are teaching him/her to appreciate food for what it is: A means to nourish yourself and your family, to celebrate significant days or accomplishments, and to provide comfort to others in need. It can also inspire you to use more whole, unprocessed foods because let’s face it; it’s more fun for kids to dig into dough, batter, and vegetables that they have prepared.

2. Cooking together means eating together. The final step in preparing a meal together is sharing it with others. Preferably at a table. Sitting down. It’s a chance to enjoy, savor, and relish both the food and one another. To be sure, there will be nights when enjoyment is replaced by tantrums, sullen teenagers, or visibly stressed-out partners, but at least you know you are all in it together.

3.  Cooking demands attention. There are never enough hours in the day, but no matter the schedule, you have to eat. There are nights when time is too crunched to have little hands in the kitchen, but when at all possible, cooking with your children allows you to spend time together and still get dinner on the table. It also demands that you be present with your little person, to unplug from distractions. You can’t hold an iPhone with egg and flour all over your fingers.

4.  Cooking requires you give up control. This is a big one for, eh hem, those of us that like to be in control and have perfectionist tendencies. Cooking with little ones means that you’ll have to sweep up the flour that didn’t make the mixing bowl and rework the fallout from over-seasoning. Allowing trial and error shows your kids that learning something is a process and that there is grace in making mistakes and trying it again. I don’t know about you, but closing my eyes and taking a Zen breath when the egg goes splat! reminds me that I’m not in control of everything, that a little mess is good, and that you literally don’t need to cry over spilled milk.

5.  Cooking can connect you to your family food traditions. Cooking is a way to feel connected to your family and to pass along food traditions.  I live 2,000 miles away from my family and childhood home. My mom was an old school, pre-Instagram and playdates, stay at home mom. She made nearly everything from scratch and her homemade bread always seemed to come out of the oven just as we were getting off of the bus. Did she plan it that way? I’d like to think she did. When the holiday season is here and my homesickness is palpable, I call on the best antidote I know—making my mom’s Sugar Cookie recipe (how did she get them so pillowy-soft yet firm enough for decorating?) with my little one, giving her free reign over the sprinkles.  And the traditions continue.

Aissa licking spatula

So, if you have been hiding in your secret shame because you, too, find you are at a loss for words with Barbie, don’t despair. Invite your little ones into your world, sharing your love of food, craft, outdoors, whatever it is that gives you joy. Your time together can be more than  make-believe—it can be something that they can call on for the next generation, when another little hand will reach for theirs, asking them to play.

Sherri is a transplant from Oregon who came to be a Hawkeye in 2006 and stayed for the sweet corn...and for the Iowa boy she met along the way! She and her husband (Kyle) have a 9 year-old daughter, Aissa. Sherri earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa and works for Ruffalo Noel Levitz as an Enrollment Marketing Consultant for colleges and universities. When she's not working, you can find her with her family, enjoying Iowa City and cheering on the Hawkeyes.

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