I have never used my mother’s potato masher. And honestly, I wonder if I will ever mash anything with it. It sits next to the stovetop with the other cooking utensils I hardly use. I wanted this potato masher, because I had seen my mother use it throughout my childhood; it reminds me of our togetherness, when she worked as a teacher, a single mom mashing together a meal for her two children with her unconditional love in each bite. With just a few ingredients, she created forever-loved meals that make my mouth water to this day. I took huge second helpings as a teenager, and I feel close to her now in the nostalgia of these meals while we live six states away. To this day, my mother still uses her no-fail cookbook, The Joy of Cooking.
But the thought of actually cooking bores me to death. I’m not interested in creating a 30-minute meal or even navigating the steps in a Home Chef or Hello Fresh delivery program three times a week. That’s not really me. Mostly, I believe it’s a waste of time.
Cooking a traditional meal is not only too time-consuming for me as a parent (what with the prepping, waiting and cleanup); it also conflicts with the essence of who I truly am. The orderliness and step-by-step process of measurement gives me anxiety — and reminds me of how much I sucked at math in school. The dump and swirl of ingredients into a crockpot looks kind of gross to me as a first step. And although my Texas-born husband would probably just happily cover my burnt dinner results with hot sauce and eat them anyway, I feel cooking is a gamble that most of the time has brought out the worst in me.
When I have given it an attempt, my onion soup is too salty, my lasagna is somehow wet and sloppy on the inside and black on the edges, my stuffed mushrooms stiff as a rock, and it all makes me feel like crap while I order a backup pizza. Again. I just don’t possess that type of magic. The 20 minutes it takes me to get one decent pancake, in my opinion, is time wasted — that also took me away from enjoying my kids during the fleeting minutes and hours we have together to connect each day.
I would rather spend the time spent stirring, marinating or worrying about the timer, focusing on my kids. I’d rather mix oil and water and blue food coloring to make a cool sensory ocean in a recycled plastic water bottle, and tilt it upside down 10 times. The reason I can play a round of UNO before bed is because I’m not cleaning up pots or scrapping leftovers into Tupperware. I’m being true to myself and letting their interests be the centerpiece of our life.
To me, what’s for dinner just isn’t an important part of our lives right now. Especially when, in three years, my almost-seven-year-old probably won’t care so much about our chill time together. And the thought of this, this growing-up-too-fast grief, encourages me to not cook “real” meals for my kids. Because I know this time playing with my kids won’t last. I’m not going to spend these next years worrying about making dinner exciting, new, or different.
I make picnic meals instead. This way of feeding my family is a framework of what I can do with simply a knife, a cutting board, a pan, and my wooden spatula — with the microwave as my sous-chef (in 10 minutes or less).
A picnic dinner could consist of cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes, chicken and a crescent roll. It could be strawberries or watermelon slices, mac and cheese, cold baby carrots, oranges, a turkey hot dog, maybe slices of a red or green apple. Cereal isn’t a backup; it’s a legitimate meal choice. Nothing mashed, nothing needing to be mixed. Just wash, slice, heat, stir or pour and go. Same is the mantra for breakfasts and lunches.
While I’m writing this, I ask my kids if they like my “cooking.” Their nods of approval are a bit too much.
My four-year-old daughter says, “I like your strawberries and watermelon.”
My son adds, “I love the sliced cucumbers and the beef.” (It’s stir-fry beef without the stir-fry — cooked on a pan and salted.)
I’m relieved in their satisfaction that who I am in the kitchen is enough. Because we have never had a green bean casserole together, and I doubt we ever will. But the simplicity in these modest picnic meals has kept me connected to what’s most important to me.
What I hope my children will remember as they grow up are the other things I’ve brought to the table in terms of time, energy, and imagination. In our house, cookware isn’t for cooking. My measuring cups, funnels and scooping spoons have become tools for kinetic sand and slime. We boil eggs year-round and peel them or dye them for fun, even though it’s not Easter. Over the years, we’ve use my biggest pot to carry water balloons and as a “pond” for our plastic yellow ducks and our fishing game. We use baking soda and vinegar for making volcanos. Every bowl in the kitchen is up for grabs — to hold sequins or beads for an art project, or puzzle pieces or Legos.
After dinner, whenever we sit together and play the board game Life, I can’t help but notice there isn’t a spot on the board for “cooking a big meal.” For this, I’m thankful.
These days, my mother’s potato masher is nothing more than a tool that looks like a lot of fun to press against Play-Doh, and it’s probably only a matter of time before we use it in that way. This, for me, is a reminder of making the moment count — with or without a traditional meal.