How I Got My Kids to Like Cooking

Editor's Note: This is the next in a series of excerpts from Joseph Sadusky's new book, Magic Lessons: Celebratory and Cautionary Tales about Life as a (Single, Gay, Transracially Adoptive) Dad. The book contains many stories about his life as a dad, as well as lessons learned, and we're excited to share several excerpts from the the book over the course of the next few months. Read previous installments here!

There are many ways that I can finish the sentence "I have the great good fortune that . . . ." One of the ways I have great good fortune is that my kids like to cook. And they're actually pretty good at it.

When the kids were growing up, we did everything in a democratic, consensus-based style. So one day, when the boys were about ten and eight, I said: "Starting now, one night a month, you guys are going to cook dinner." The explanation was pretty simple: As they might have noticed, in a family made up of two boys and one dad, a guy who knows how to cook is pretty useful to have around. Since we had no idea how their futures would play out in terms of partnership, living arrangements, and so on, this would be a good skill to carry with them.


The rules were also simple: The boys would, together, decide what they wanted to make. I would get the ingredients, and then they would be the chefs. I would supervise, but from a distance. Otherwise, dinner was on them.

Here's what I thought would happen: lots of hot dogs, English muffin pizzas, and tater tots. Why I expected this, God only knows. You'd think a guy would know his own kids after a few years.

What actually happened was this: A few days after my announcement, Daveon's class—we'll call it fourth grade, give or take—went to the library. In addition to his usual Harry Potter knock-off/rip-off fantasy books, he got not one, not two, but a whole set of about a dozen Cooking from Around the World cookbooks. For those of us of a certain age, I think it was a Time-Life series.

Anyway, here comes my little man home with his huge stack of (thankfully, very thin) cookbooks. Since we could only keep them for a couple of weeks, I asked the boys to go through the books and put a post-it on any recipe that looked interesting (which, now that I think of it, was the same process I went through to pick the kids all those years ago). I copied those pages, put them in a binder, and thus was born our Sadusky Family Custom International Cookbook.

Now you might be thinking: "That all sounds cute, but I bet when the kids actually ended up in the kitchen, out came the English muffins."

You would be wrong.

Within the first six months we had, among other dishes, Korean dumplings, Irish stew, and chicken cacciatore. All of them were delicious—and I don't even like stewed tomatoes. I'm a little embarrassed to say that most of the meals the kids made actually tasted better— and were certainly more elaborate and labor-intensive—than the basic spaghetti and meatballs or roasted chicken I would typically throw together. Score one for team effort.

Things we learned: Mark never met a measurement he bothered to follow. When making pumpkin roll, who cares that the recipe calls for a third of a cup of canned pumpkin, when the whole can will do? Who cares if the resulting batter is so wet, you've basically just made rolled pumpkin pudding? (Although tasty, it is very hard to roll pumpkin pudding.) And for Daveon, it was all about coming up with new and previously unknown spice combinations. And then finding out that maybe they were unknown for a reason. I'll never forget the otherwise perfectly cooked ribeye, seasoned with basil and … cinnamon.

Over the years, trying to get the kids to collaborate in the kitchen became more trouble than it was worth. (This followed a pattern where trying to get them to do anything together was more trouble than it was worth.) So, teamwork's loss became Dad's gain: Instead of working together on a single monthly meal, each kid eventually got his own monthly cooking night. Double bonus!

After the first year or two, I also retired from supervising—all I needed to do was buy the groceries, which they needed to figure out and list. After those early years of experimentation (yes, we bought a Harry Potter cookbook, and yes, Daveon made shepherd's pie out of it), things settled into kind of a routine. Daveon regularly made steak— some of the best I've ever had, in all honesty, especially when it wasn't cinnamon-topped—and baked fish. Mark's typical menu was "whatever Daveon made last time"—until Dad reminded him that it might be nice to come up with an original idea once in a while. This usually led to Mark grunting out a frustrated "Fine," grabbing a cookbook, and picking whatever looked easiest to make.

Believe it or not, after Daveon went away to school, he no longer cooked for us on any kind of regular basis. Somehow that meant that Mark—who was still at home—didn't either, which (a) doesn't make a whole lot of sense and (b) says a lot about how life rolls with older teens.

But the good news is, when push comes to shove, they know they can whip up something tasty. To their future partners/spouses/ kids: You're welcome.

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