quarantine

‘Everything Tastes Better Together’

Teaching my 6-year-old to cook for himself.

Photo: Marlene Rounds/Getty Images
Photo: Marlene Rounds/Getty Images
Photo: Marlene Rounds/Getty Images

I am as shocked as anyone to discover that my two children, when home, eat 36 eggs a week. We scramble five almost every morning, to pile on buttered toast, and the rest get folded into endless muffins, cookies, waffles. And that’s just the eggs! Their little bodies are like clown cars, an unfathomable amount of groceries — two gallons of milk? Three loaves of bread! — tumbling into their wide-open mouths, before they careen around the three-ring circus of our unkempt house.

Granted, for the last few months, under lockdown, my husband and I have enjoyed having real time to cook for them. We did challah, Thai, Indian, pizza from scratch. We ate everything. And then, I became so tired of eating. After more than 12 straight weeks of proofing dough and chopping veg, I didn’t want to cook. I no longer wanted to order in. And I didn’t even want to look at groceries. Which is why I decided recently that it might be time to teach my 6-year-old son to prepare his own meals, so that I don’t have to. He’s pretty good at making coffee on our one-touch machine, and last month I watched him handle hot toast with oven mitts. Who am I to stifle his natural talents?

I figured we’d start with breakfast, because we need to leave some eggs for the rest of California. While he prefers a warm meal in the morning, we’ll keep fire my domain, for now. But how about a parfait? We layered yogurt, fruit, and granola in a glass and it reminded him of the rainbow sand sculptures they made at school. The memory of actual friends, ones he could hug, slowed him down, until he tasted it. “Like digging up blueberry fossils!”

He rolled his eyes when I asked if he knew how to “make cereal,” so we moved on to a lunch classic: PB & J. He slathered two pieces of bread and slapped them together, marveling that “Everything tastes better together than it does apart.” His baby sister, in her high chair, was impressed, staring at her own plain roll like it’s cardboard. Wanting to be part of the conversation, she interjects whatever relevant words she can summon: “Peena buttah! Toost! Silly!”

As they chattered on, a siren sounded in the distance, and both kids’ ears perked up. “Fi’ truck!” she shouted. “Oooh! Or a police car!” he told her, thrilled. The noises of a problem far, far away. “What do you think the police are doing, mama?” “Oh you know, chasing a speeder, that kind of thing.” I waved it off, impatient to move on.

Satisfied with my answer, he asked about his favorite hot sandwich, the grilled cheese. To sideswipe the burn aspect, I heated up the waffle iron because I’m a Fun Mom. He loves sandwiches like this. The cheese oozes out, crisped up into a golden pancake around the toasted bread.

Then, it was onto the next day’s menu: “How old do I have to be to make a hot dog?” he asked. “That depends on your standards,” I told him, and taught him that old after-school trick: microwaving a rubbery sausage for 45 seconds, toasting a pillowy white bun. He swallowed it seemingly whole, and quickly “cooked” another, the scales falling from his eyes as he realized my culinary magic is … entirely attainable. “Can we make chicken soup next?”

Absolutely! And out comes our Instant Pot. We chopped up mirepoix, which I now realize I can buy pre-chopped, if I really want to put my feet up. I briefly drifted into a vision of reading magazines while my child makes dinner.

What else we should put in the soup? “Ginger? Garlic!” he suggested, with newfound culinary confidence. I grabbed both. See, look how easy this could be! He begrudgingly allowed me the contribution of a bay leaf, but before I added the broth, he had a thought: “This chicken looks too good for soup.” he said, peering in. “Could we just make it … chicken?” We could indeed. We sealed the pot, cooked for 15 minutes, and sat down to a complete meal that tasted not unlike Zuni Cafe’s chicken Bouillabaisse. He insisted we call it “Not-Quite-Chicken-Soup,” and that I share the recipe with other kids — my child readers who cook, you see.

I put him to bed that night, and asked him what made him feel grateful. It’s something we’ve gone over every night since the planet shut down and he can’t easily access the friends, playgrounds, and outdoor spaces that usually make him happy. “I’m grateful the universe is still alive, and the sun hasn’t exploded.” I told him I agree, that I’m so proud of his special mind, and proud he’s becoming so independent.

But the next day, that independence hit a speed bump. He asked for another grilled cheese, and I said, “Why don’t you try on your own?” His face fell. “Can’t you just make it for me?”

“Because it tastes better? Because it’s made with love?” Yes, I was fishing for compliments, but he just looked at me like I was a moron.

“No. Because I can’t reach the bread.”

Oh. I am a moron.

I cleared out the bottom shelf of the fridge, filled small jars with yogurt and berries. I put single servings of milk in the fridge door, the fruit on a lower shelf. Cut-up veggies and bread where he could reach them. I stocked the freezer with waffles to toast, for a change of pace. We were getting this figured out, and I knew I wouldn’t be his line cook for much longer.

And then … the world explodes into a tidal wave of civil unrest across the nation. At night I toss and turn, listening to sirens, helicopters, and gunshots in our neighborhood, the sounds of Los Angeles buckling under so many years of unresolved pain and rage. I feel for the protesters, so many of them kids who grow up with lives a wearying incline, and I feel for the mothers, the mothers, the mothers. The mothers who hear sirens and can’t dismiss them as a fun sound, far far away. The mothers who wish they could be making sandwiches for their sons, and no longer can.

Now, I wake up grateful for the incessant daily needs of my small children.

“What would you like for breakfast?” I ask my son. He shrugs. “I think I’ll make some toast.”

“I’ll make a scramble,” I say, and get to work alongside him, our time together fleeting, urgent, a gift. He has the rest of his life to cook. For now, my baby needs eggs.

How I’m Teaching My 6-Year-old to Cook for Himself