How To Find Motivation to Cook Dinner

Find the motivation to cook dinner again with advice from food and nutrition experts and throw away those old, worn-out takeout recipes.

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Photography by Colleen Nicholson

“I made it through my 20s shame-eating cereal over the sink,” admits Kirstin Turnbull, a Toronto professional who learned to cook in her mid-30s. “I love food… but I grew up in an environment where cooking was a chore, a means to an end. We didn’t embrace the process, nor discuss it. Food landed on the table and it ‘fueled the tank,’” she says.

Turnbull married a competent cook and they started a family. But when they divorced, she couldn’t avoid the issue any longer. “I was 100 per cent responsible for the healthy upbringing of a little boy 50 per cent of the time. As lackadaisical as I can be about feeding myself, I’m very committed to feeding my son properly,” she says.

So she turned to the Internet and YouTube for recipes and instructional videos. Turnbull also learned from friends, which helped her realize “good food didn’t have to be complicated.” She now has a tidy list of go-to recipes, including a kid-pleasing and dinner-party-appropriate risotto.

Turnbull has involved her four-year-old in meal making, ever since he sensed her frustration cooking one night, and “he actually pulled up a chair to ‘help mommy cook.’ I look at a photo from that night often, because it reminds me how much my attitude towards food can rub off on him,” she says.

Why Don’t Canadian Parents Like to Cook?

Cooking occupies a culturally fraught position in contemporary parenting. On the one hand, we don’t like doing it daily: 31 per cent of Canadians eat out a few times each week, and 23 per cent eat out once a week. This is at least in part because we enjoy the social aspect (one recent Ipsos opinion poll found that going to a restaurant or bar is our favourite way to spend time with friends and family), but it also points to a general reliance on food that isn’t made at home. When we’re not eating out, we’re grazing in the car en route to soccer, nuking a convenience meal, or reacting to hectic family schedules by eating in shifts (sometimes in front of the TV). Add to this the overall decline in cooking knowledge passed from generation to generation, and you have got a whole lot of households run by not-so-confident cooks. Yet on the other hand, serving up a healthy, from-scratch meal has become a humble-brag par excellence on Facebook and Twitter: Just whipped up some organic kale-quinoa lunch muffins. Mommy made a mess in the kitchen!

Many working parents are caught between dual careers (and 24-7 virtual offices—thank you, smartphones), our kids’ extracurricular activities, helping aging parents, and perhaps even volunteer commitments. It’s hard to find time for healthy, home-cooked dinners, even though we know we should.

But as Turnbull—and increasing numbers of Canadian parents—are discovering, tapping into our culinary mojo is not only essential to raising healthy children, it’s actually pretty rewarding.

How You Can Regain Control of Your Family’s Diet

  • Fact: 32 per cent of Canadian kids aged five to 17 are overweight or obese, as are 62 per cent of Canadian adults.
  • Fact: A 554-gram serving of Boston Pizza Homestyle Lasgana has 890 calories and 49 grams of fat (23 grams of saturated fat—the bad kind). The same-size serving of homemade turkey-spinach lasagna has 565 calories and 13 grams of fat (6.4 grams saturated).

These are stats that have given some of us reason to pause… and dust off our spatulas, with the realization that by cooking (not to be confused with heating-and-serving, or buying-and-plating) we can regain control over how we nourish our kids. Natasha Kong, a stay-at-home mom of two on Salt Spring Island, B.C., says the foods her kids eat have a noticeable effect: “I’ve become more conscious of the negative impact sugar and salt have on the kids, so I make almost all of our meals from scratch,” she says. “Our kids are pretty sensitive and we really see what happens to their moods and sleep when they don’t eat well.”

When we cook, we can cut the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol our kids ingest before it clogs their arteries. We can replace nutritionally empty refined starch with whole grains and vitamin-rich vegetables—and support local farmers and shops while we’re at it.

Through the simple act of cooking and eating together, we help our kids establish healthier dietary habits. One study of middle-school students found that the more family dinners they ate per week, the more likely they were to eat breakfast, drink fewer soft drinks and make healthier food choices, and the less concerned they were about body weight. And dining is as much about nourishing the soul as it is the appetite, notes Kong: “Cooking and eating together provides consistent rhythms that the kids can depend on; food and meals can provide anchors in our kids’ day.”

Like so much of the domestic sphere, cooking is the personal made political. By re-embracing it—moms and dads alike—we give a traditionally female activity the respect it deserves, as a food science, an expression of creative and technical skill, and an act of nurturing.

Here are some of the ways we’re taking back the kitchen to make meal times happier and healthier.

Hire Professional Cooking Help

“Past generations must laugh when they think of ‘kitchen coaches,’ because cooking from scratch and buying groceries were a part of living,” says Bianca Osbourne, an Edmonton-based natural-foods-focused kitchen coach, who blogs at The Vitality Kitchen. “But now in a world where fast food and convenience products dominate, we’re seeing a generation of people who have no idea how to feed themselves.”

Another major issue is a lack of confidence, says Toronto meal coach Anne Bergman, of The Kitchen Director. “Some clients who say they can’t cook actually do know how to cook. But they lack the confidence to apply their skills to family cooking, or they’re thrown off by having to make gluten-free meals or deal with food allergies.”

Hiring a coach to walk you through the logistics of stocking a pantry and fridge for your family’s needs and budget, and to offer guidance on meal planning, can be extremely motivating to those who are stuck in a rut. Take Lesa Mulherin, a Toronto consultant, mom to Riley, 6, and Madeleine, 4, and one of Bergman’s clients. Before children, Mulherin and her husband had a positive, relaxed approach to cooking. “But once we had kids it all changed,” she says. “It became about ‘exposing’ them to as many different things as possible. I felt huge pressure to get them to like everything, especially vegetables. When they liked a new food it was cause for celebration. When they didn’t, I felt like a failure,” she says.

Talking with other parents, she knew she wasn’t alone. “But sharing my frustrations with friends and colleagues simply ends up a venting session. Reaching out to Anne enabled me to tap into a problem-solver, someone who could help me with specific solutions so I could accomplish at least some of my goals some of the time,” says Mulherin. For busy families, the $75/hour (minimum two hours) cost of hiring a coach is often recouped in money saved on takeout, restaurant meals, and grocery waste (food going bad in the fridge because you didn’t prepare it in time).

Try Grocery Shopping Online

Upon Bergman’s direction, Mulherin and her husband gave online grocery shopping a try. They also adopted her shopping list template and two-week meal-planning spreadsheet, which is printed out and posted in the kitchen. And they’ve dusted off their digital slow cooker.

Meanwhile, family cooking blogs, social media sites, and the inspiring (or damning) Pinterest, offer a glut of meal ideas for hungry chefs. YouTube remains the web’s top virtual cooking coach, showing the minutiae of prepping leeks, deboning chicken and anything else your parents never taught you.

Get Your Kids Cooking

Although delegation can be hard for neatnik chefs, familiarizing kids with kitchen tasks prepares them to tackle more of the load as they get older. “Yes, it’s going to be a mess—just let that go,” says Ceri Marsh, Toronto mom of two, and one-half of the blogging duo behind Sweet Potato Chronicles and the cookbook How To Feed A Family (Appetite by Random House).

“A three-year-old can learn to crack an egg, a four-year-old can grate cheese, a six-year-old can use sharp knives with supervision. The more you do it, the more confident they’ll become, and the more easily it will go. Think of it as an investment: pretty soon they’ll be making you dinner,” says Marsh. Bonus: Time together in the kitchen provides a natural opening to chat and reconnect.

Reframe Your Dinner Expectations

Motivation can flag if you’ve been at your desk all day, then chauffeured kids from school to home to sports and back again, and now it’s 7 p.m. It’s in these desperate moments that we reach for that stash of takeout-menus on top of the fridge.

“I think the number one way to get over that feeling is to meal plan. It’s the least sexy thing in the world but it really is a lifesaver,” says Marsh. “Don’t leave it to 3 p.m. to decide what you’re having for dinner that night. Make a plan once a week or even once a month. And don’t feel like you need to make something new or fancy; just create a roster of, say, 10 recipes your family likes and rotate through those. Maybe add one new recipe a month so you don’t get too bored.”

And don’t feel like these meals have to be dinner-party-worthy. Unrealistic expectations can turn everyday cooking into a more daunting task than it need be, says Marsh. “I love looking at food porn as much as the next person, but my own versions of those recipes do not look perfect. And honestly, who cares? You know what your mom told you: it looks the same in your stomach!” she says.

Promote Cooking in Schools

As much as teaching our kids to cook is an important family value, there was a not-too-distant time when the heavy lifting was handled by schools via home economics, also known as family studies. I recall a golden period of family studies in the late-1980s, when Grade 7s and 8s—boys and girls alike—learned to bake apple crumble or make minestrone soup while wearing the fraying, misshapen aprons we’d sewn earlier that semester. Family studies was a useful, quirky class, one where our eccentric teacher would warn us of the dangers to hands caused by, say, trying to cut apart frozen pork chops rather than properly thawing them. For many of us, family studies was how we learned to feed ourselves, how to comprehend the incredible chemistry of food and heat. It also offered a much-needed creative respite from the standard three Rs.

Then it just disappeared in many schools, not through official edict, but attrition and when focus seemed to go towards classes like computer studies. It might be because there’s no standardized test to measure acquisition of key life skills. Yet no other class is as explicit in its focus on preparing kids for self-care—and care of their future families.

If food literacy matters to you, lobby your school and school board to promote it, whether it’s under the banner of family studies, home economics or food and nutrition. Like riding a bike, cooking is a lifelong skill ideally taught to kids. But it’s never too late.

“I’m definitely not a natural cook and it takes effort,” says Turnbull, who recently used a barbecue for the first time, at age 37. “But it’s worth it, because once you’ve gained that skill, it’s pretty much unforgettable.

“When you know the fundamentals, being creative comes naturally,” says coach Osbourne. “Learning to cook is a journey, so not being too hard on oneself helps people keep at it. We are always learning.”

Cooking 101

It’s never too early or too late to learn to cook. Here are classes geared to different life stages.

Kids

Sign up small fry for hands-on classes where they learn about nutrition while slicing, dicing and sautéing. Look for courses at a local community centre, cooking studio or food shop with onsite cooking studio.

Young Adults

Besides teen classes available through community centres, a growing number of universities, including Montreal’s McGill University and the University of Toronto, offer cooking lessons with a focus on nutritious, delicious and student-budget-friendly meals.

Expecting Parents

Yesterday’s foodie can become today’s takeout maven when faced with new-baby time management issues (and four hours’ sleep). A new genre of baby showers makes learning about family nutrition fun and delicious. Guests enjoy a hands-on course in big-batch cooking, while the parents-to-be get to keep and freeze the meals for later.

Dietary Restrictions

Even confident cooks are thrown for a loop when someone in the household develops a food allergy or intolerance or diabetes. Private lessons with a registered dietitian, nutritionist, cook or kitchen coach provide ample one-on-one time, including a supermarket visit. When a limited income is the issue, community kitchen programs offer a supportive environment to cook, share skills and socialize, often with the added perks of budget-stretching collective grocery purchases and free child minding.

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