43: Tough Love in the Kitchen

43: Tough Love in the Kitchen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Tough Love in the Kitchen

Children have to be educated, but they have also to be left to educate themselves.

~Abbé Dimnet

“I’m staging a cooking strike,” I said to my husband when he came through the door from work.

“The kids must be complaining again about all the ‘yucky’ food you’ve been cooking.” He smiled wryly.

“That’s exactly what’s happened. Brian asked me to start making smooth ‘white’ applesauce like they serve at school. Holly wants me to start buying corn that comes in a can. The whole thing blew up for me today at lunch when our junior food critics said the pizza crust was a ‘bit too done.’ The only thing that’s overdone in this house is me!” I lamented.

“Why don’t you just tell them you cook to please me and not them?” he asked with a sigh.

“We’ve used that strategy before and it goes in one ear and out the other,” I said. The kids’ grousing had created needless mealtime disruptions turning what should be quality family time into a not-so-pleasant dinnertime discourse.

My husband could tell I’d made up my mind to address the problem head on. “You’re right; a cooking strike might make them more appreciative of what it takes to prepare meals. So what’s the plan and how are we going to implement it?”

Our family was fortunate that I was able to be a full-time stay-at-home mom who loved cooking and baking. We lived on a small farm in Washington State where we raised all our own meat and poultry. Every year we planted a huge vegetable garden, with adjoining blueberry and raspberry patches framed by apple and plum trees. The food was wholesome and plentiful.

My kids, just nine and eleven years old, didn’t look at it quite the same way. Their continual fault finding sent a message that what I cooked for them was substandard. The truth was, they didn’t know any different, as they’d grown up with nothing other than home cooking and baking made from quality ingredients.

That night, after a thoroughly scrutinized meal of parmesan meatloaf, mashed potatoes and fresh corn and peas from our garden, we told the kids we wanted to have a family discussion in the living room.

“First thing Saturday morning a cooking strike will begin in our house, which means you two are on your own for cooking and preparing all of your own meals,” I explained to them.

“Why aren’t you going to cook, Mom?” Brian asked.

“You two have been bellyaching about everything I cook for months on end, so it’s time to see if you can do a better job for yourselves. You’ve had more than your share of warnings that I was going to take some action toward ending the complaining and this is it. We’ll stock the pantry shelves and the refrigerator with foods you can eat cold, along with some homemade TV dinners for you to just pop into the microwave. Holly, you can manage easy things on the stove like toasted cheese or egg sandwiches and soup.

“The rules are easy: inform either me or Dad if you’re going to use the stove; you eat what you cook; and all the dishes need to be cleaned up every time you use the kitchen,” I instructed.

“Do you both understand what’s going on here and why?” their dad asked.

“I guess so,” Holly replied softly. “Dad, how long is the strike going to last?”

“We have to see how things go, but the length of the strike is your mother’s call.” She and her brother exchanged unsure glances.

The plan was in place and it couldn’t have been more perfect!

The mood was light during the first week. The budding chefs weren’t taking the strike seriously — it was still a game. I heard a lot of giggling and whispering coming from the kitchen. They teamed up to help each other learn more about using the microwave, and they were good sports about sharing the choice foods.

Grumbling began at the start of week two. I overheard Holly ask Brian if he wanted a fried bologna sandwich, to which he replied, “Oh, not another fried bologna sandwich!”

By the end of the second week there was moaning about having to eat the food they made. They expressed concern about their dwindling supply of provisions, particularly graham crackers and vanilla wafers.

In the first days of week three they started turning on the charm and began enlisting me to cross the picket line to teach them some cooking tips. They were silently hoping at any moment I’d surrender the cause by waving a white apron overhead and prepare a meal that none of us would ever forget. It didn’t happen.

By the end of week three it was evident things were starting to fall apart for them. They were getting irritable and some serious bickering had begun. I surmised goodie withdrawal was playing a strong role in their cross dispositions as I hadn’t baked their most-loved chocolate brownies or chocolate chip banana bread since the strike began.

Early into the fourth week I decided to test the waters by preparing a meal of grilled pork chops with chunky applesauce, steamed broccoli, garlic mashed potatoes and grilled corn-on-the-cob.

It had been a very long time since we enjoyed a meal so much.

Complaints from Brian and Holly were now replaced by lip smacking and the quiet savoring of a quality meal. Their dad and I hid our faces to cover the glow of parental triumph.

“That was a great supper! Thanks, Mom!” Both children bounced from their chairs when they were excused and dashed toward the sink to scrape, rinse and stack their plates. I even got a big hug from them as they were leaving the kitchen.

The kids understood that generous helpings of love and camaraderie are passed around a family dinner table. It just took some tough love for them to value the time and planning it takes in preparing meals, and to appreciate the challenges involved in pleasing everyone, not just one.

The cooking strike had served its purpose — the complaining came to a halt. The foods and meals I served thereafter received glowing reviews. And when they didn’t like something, they were simply silent. They had learned!

~Cynthia Briggs

More stories from our partners