The fading daylight makes the glow of the dining room chandelier warmer and brighter.
I’m tapping a wooden spoon on the rim of a pot, having just stirred a final sprinkle of salt into dinner when my husband comes home. I call our two boys, ages 5 and 3, and they tumble through the kitchen to their places at the dinner table. We say a prayer of thanksgiving, and we all dig in.
We talk. The food is delicious.
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And once, it actually happened that way.
It certainly doesn’t happen that way every night. It never happens on nights when I give up and declare “kitchen dinner” — everyone hovering around the kitchen table eating take-out pad thai, delivered pizza, or out-of-the-box macaroni and cheese.
Like exercise, cooking dinner often sounds daunting before I start, but I never regret it when I’m done. Many Americans are missing that experience. Fewer people than ever are cooking these days. Whether it starts with chopping an onion or melting butter in a saucepan, there are so many reasons cooking beats takeout. It’s worth some time and effort to learn how.
I know no better antidote to helicopter parenting than cooking.
Reason #1: My Family’s Health
When I cook, I control what we eat. I could order takeout vegetables — a Greek salad with our pizza, perhaps. But I don’t know a single pizza joint that sources mozzarella and feta made from milk that wasn’t produced with the help of rBST, the synthetic hormone most major dairy producers administer to milk cows to increase yields. It’s not approved for use in Europe, among other places, and I prefer to avoid it.
The same goes for butter and eggs. I want our family to get the omega-3’s in organic, pastured versions. It’s the same with veggies. Organic when possible, thanks. We eat healthier when I’m picking the ingredients.
Reason #2: The Kitchen Experience
The health benefits of cooking aren’t just physical, though. They’re psychological. I know no better antidote to helicopter parenting than cooking. When I’m elbow-deep in mixing ground beef and raw egg into meatballs, I can’t solve the kids’ conflicts for them.
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I can hear them, though, so I know that more often than not, they work things out.
If not, one kid might choose to hang out with me in the kitchen. By my elbow, he learns everything from fractions (“A half cup of flour, please”) to food safety (“No, you can’t lick the spatula with raw beef on it”) and the names and smells of different herbs.
Experiencing the smells and colors of ingredients makes kids bolder with finished dishes at the table. My kids love eating what they helped make, so their help with cooking helps them become more mature eaters.
“I think the benefit of learning some cooking skills is that every parent is their child’s model of how to be a little human,” said Haley Peck, a chef who teaches in-home cooking classes and a fellow mom at my church. “When you’re learning your own cooking skills, that’s showing them how to take care of yourself and others.”
Reason #3: Shared Community
The cooking at our house ramps up and gets more festive on weekends, when we invite friends and family to join us.
“Food tastes better when you share it,” I tell my boys, and I believe this to be true.
Food fosters community. While friends can share Chinese takeout containers, cooking together helps us know each other better.
Experiencing the smells and colors of ingredients makes kids bolder with finished dishes at the table.
Reason #4: Saving Bucks
When I was little, my mom made rice-and-bean casserole. All. The. Time.
Until I was 5, she and I lived alone together and got by on her graduate-school assistantships. Frugality reigned. If you ask about the casserole today, she will announce triumphantly, “One batch would last us a whole week!”
I’m talking every night, people. Brown rice and kidney beans with cumin. From her I learned that cooking can save money. And I never want to see another kidney bean, ever.
But the economic lesson was important. Cooking buys an ability to fine-tune your food spending when you need to. You can work with what’s in season and on sale (often related events). You can buy ingredients in bulk and save loads.
If you’re really canny, you can use vegetable trimmings and meat bones to make your own stocks. You can repurpose leftovers from one meal, say risotto, into another, like arancini, those luscious cheese-filled, fried Italian balls. If you make extra rice the night you’re serving it with chicken, you’ll have what you need for chicken fried rice a couple of nights later.
Cooking buys an ability to fine-tune your food spending when you need to.
Reason #5: Yum!
The most satisfying result of cooking at home is that the food tastes so good. Many of our favorite dishes wouldn’t survive as takeout, even using a restaurant-delivery service. Pasta congeals in its sauce when it sits. A ranch-raised rib-eye expertly heated to a perfectly crusted medium-rare gets cold fast and can’t be reheated without overcooking. A soufflé? An omelet? Such simple classics simply must be eaten immediately. If we relied on takeout, we would never taste them at their best.
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Tonight, I browned some baby carrots with dried dill in a skillet of melted butter and olive oil to accompany mashed potatoes, cooked apples, and chicken Normandy left over from Sunday dinner.
Thanks to the time change, it was dark outside when we sat down to eat, the candles flickering brightly inside. Tonight, it happened that way — I cooked, and everyone came to the table. We talked, and the food was delicious.
Beth Goulart Monson writes about food from Austin, Texas.