Here is something simple your family can do to help share the load more evenly (if you’re not already!) Have Dad be in charge of dinner one weeknight each week – and I mean all the way in charge. He plans it, shops for it, and fixes it. He can do the dishes too, unless that’s his job already on nights mom cooks. He should do this even if he works full-time outside the home, and you work full-time at home. This kind of job trading is invaluable.
We started this formally when my husband went part-time 15 years ago. At the time, it made sense for him to be in charge of dinner on his day home with the kids each week, and I was in charge the other 4 days. This simple decision has had a surprising impact on how we run things at home. Most importantly, it made us really think about the base assumption that the person at home all day should be the one who cooks dinner. There are lots of times that makes sense, but also plenty of times it doesn’t, because the person at home is working too. The older the kids get, we find that trying to get a meal on the table while also being in charge of getting kids to all of their stuff can be pretty crazy. And really, trying to get a meal on the table even if the kids are home can be pretty crazy, because dinnertime is also a heavy parenting time. While cooking dinner you might also be helping kids with homework, helping them practice an instrument, trying to keep them entertained, or just managing their behavior during the time of day that many parents learn to think of as the witching hour (the hour before dinner when everyone is tired and hungry and cranky).
The real conclusion we came to is that there are often two jobs that need doing at dinner time. One is fixing dinner. The other is managing the kids. It is incredibly hard to do both, and having both parents engaged in the family work around dinner time is often needed. Having mom do all of it alone because she “doesn’t work” is insane.
What we have learned to do is look at our calendar for the week ahead, and figure out what we will eat as well as who can be home to fix it, without assuming by default that the stay at home parent will be the one who manages the kids and also cooks. We still usually have Matt cook on Thursdays (his day at home), but now he also sometimes cooks on other days, even if he was the one “at work” that day. When Matt cooks, I’m often driving the kids to soccer, or to their music lesson. And sometimes Matt will leave work a little early to get the kids to or from soccer so that I can have time to fix dinner.
I’m not at all sure we would have learned to split this work as much as we do if Matt hadn’t been in charge of dinner one night a week. As he and I have discovered over and over again, walking in each other’s shoes makes all the difference in the world for truly understanding the workload of raising kids and figuring out how to work together to get it all done without overloading one parent. Because Matt has been in charge of Thursday dinner for years, he truly understands the work involved in planning, shopping for, and preparing a healthy meal that the kids may not eat, week after week, all while managing homework and the kids behavior at the exact same time.
Note that it is super important that he doesn’t just prepare a meal I planned and shopped for, but that he does the job end to end, because the work of cooking dinner is not limited to pulling ingredients out of the refrigerator and standing at the stove for an hour. The menu planning and shopping and cleanup all take work too. Even the extra mental load of making sure the meal is healthy, and dealing with who will and won’t eat what, and the tedium of eating the same thing again and again, or taking the time to find new recipes in order to avoid that tedium, and dealing with the draining complaints about the gross food you just spent an hour (much more than that, really) preparing – Matt experiences all of that. Now when we look through the calendar for the week to figure out how to get food on the table every night, I don’t even have to ask for help – he knows when it will be too much work for one person and assumes he will step in to help with either the kids or the cooking.
Matt has also learned that giving up the mental load is probably even more important to me than giving up the actual cooking. He used to ask me (out of kindness) what I’d like for dinner on Thursday nights, hoping to make something I’d enjoy. I quickly made it clear that what I wanted was to not have to decide!
As for my side of this equation, I get to experience how annoying it is to be expected to leave work early and help with home stuff on the night that Matt is in charge of dinner. Now that our kids are older, during some of the year I can work a normal schedule and he can cook dinner and manage the kids at home on his own. But during soccer season, or when the school play is happening, or <insert time consuming kid activity here> he just plain needs my help on Thursdays, and I have to cut my work day short and get home to cart kids around. It’s frustrating. Getting in enough work hours is a constant struggle, and it’s annoying to have to cut the my one full work day short. It’s annoying, but necessary. I do it because I need to, because I had kids and that’s what I signed up for. Our trade has made me have to absorb that cost myself, which means I recognize that it’s hard for Matt too on the days he leaves work early to deal with kid stuff. I appreciate even more the sacrifice he’s making and that he keeps choosing to make it – and he chooses that because he also had kids, and this is what he signed up for by having kids.
Men Can Cook
There is still a pervasive belief that most dads can’t cook, or at least that it comes more naturally to women. Everyone can learn to cook. It is not rocket science. Every person is born not knowing how to cook, or read, write, or do math. We learn those skills. If we learn those skills, we can learn to cook, too. Yes, there can be an art to it. Some people can write best-selling novels, others limit themselves to writing to do lists. Some people can cook really well and combine and mix flavors beautifully. Others might need to keep it more simple. But that’s fine. Here are some very simple cooking truths:
- You don’t need to be a master chef to put food on the table for your family.
- There is 0 scientific evidence that xx chromosomes are needed in order to cook a meal.
- Working in an office (rather than at home) does not come with a God given right to have your meals prepared for you by someone else.
- The Golden Rule: If you eat, then you must also cook.
If cooking is new to you, here are 4 simple things to do to get you started:
- Buy a cookbook. Joy of Cooking is a great choice. It will even teach you how to make a grilled cheese sandwich.
- Watch some cooking shows. America’s Test Kitchen and Alton Brown’s Good Eats are great places to start.
- Make a plan and go for it. Like with reading and writing and math, you learn it by doing it. Make grilled cheese, spaghetti, an omelet, or a cheese burger. Learn what works and what doesn’t and try again or move to something harder. Just keep doing it. You will get better the more you practice.
- Make it clear to everyone in the family that dad should be supported (never mocked) in every effort he makes.
Set Up Recipe Sharing
At first, Matt tended to make recipes that were familiar to the family – which generally meant my recipes. Many of my recipes were in our recipe box, but some were ones I had found online, and some were just in my head. This made it harder for Matt to find them, and made him feel secondary because he’d have to call me at work for help. So we decided to store our recipes online. We chose a really simple solution – a shared folder on Google Drive. We picked a simple doc format for all of our recipes, and spent a couple of hours typing up our recipes to keep them online.
In addition to giving Matt access to my recipes, I have access to his. He likes to bake and has discovered an excellent frosting recipe. The first time I needed it I checked online, and sure enough he’d entered it into our Google Drive Recipes folder and I was ready to go.
This system is also incredibly easy to search. Google is famous for its search engine after all! Instead of flipping through recipe cards trying to figure out if lasagna is under ‘casseroles’ or ‘pasta’, I can just search the folder for lasagna.
Even better, this system is accessible from anywhere! I can access our Google Docs from my phone, so if I’m at the grocery store and realize I want to change my dinner plan, I can easily check the new recipe right then and there.
We can also easily type notes into the recipes to remember specific instructions for the next time. Recipes I got from my mom are often sorely lacking in detail, so once Matt has mastered one of these recipes, he writes in the missing parts that he didn’t just know since he didn’t grow up cooking at my mom’s elbow. I often jot down notes about the timing for a certain meal so I can remember the next time how long I’ll need (and I figure Matt will have that information then too if he ever makes that meal).
In addition to the constant value Matt and I get out of walking in each other’s shoes, we have discovered some additional benefits to having him cook:
Matt Likes To Cook
It turns out Matt likes to cook – more than I do. What started as him following in my footsteps, learning from me, and cooking my recipes, has turned into him watching a ton of cooking shows, learning to make things I’ve never made before, and becoming a very good cook in his own right. That success has helped him feel confident in his cooking and really enjoy it.
We’ve also learned to make a distinction between cooking for necessity and cooking for fun. I tend do do a lot of the drudgery of just getting a meal on the table night after night. Because Matt enjoys it more and doesn’t feel as drained by the drudgery of it, he has learned to enjoy cooking more elaborate meals, and often chooses to cook on the weekends. I love the break from cooking, and he gets to try more complicated things than what we have time for during the week. I am very much looking forward to our retirement when I hope he will be doing most of the cooking now that he has learned to like it so much!
Our meals have gotten healthier over time partly because of how we share this task. When I have to cook and get the kids to all their activities all on my own, we end up at the McDonald’s drive thru more often than we should. Being able to count on Matt leaving work in time to have dinner on the table when the kids and I get home from soccer makes us eat more home cooked and therefore healthier meals.
Trying New Things
When you’re in charge of cooking, you tend to cook things you like to eat. So for a long time we ate mostly foods that I like to eat. When Matt started cooking, he wanted to make things he likes, and the variety of our meals changed. This introduced our kids to new foods, some of which they really liked and they found new favorites of their own.
There was one memorable night where Matt was making simple BLTs for dinner, which I knew the kids would only eat in a disassembled state – picking and choosing only the individual ingredients they liked. Matt didn’t remember this idiosyncrasy, and made 4 pre-assembled sandwiches with (among other things) avocado already smeared on the (gulp) already toasted bread. You can’t undo toasting! I was sure we were going to be tossing out toast in exchange for plain bread on one sandwich, and desperately trying to scrape avocado off of another. But I followed the “support him in every effort rule” and said nothing. And shockingly, the kids didn’t say anything either. They looked at the sandwiches (with lettuce! Which is GREEN! On every sandwich!) shrugged, and ate them. And they discovered that BLTs are good precisely because those ingredients work well together, not just because a few of the ingredients (i.e. bacon) are good alone. And lo and behold, their palates improved just a little bit that night.
This was not the first and won’t be the last time that Matt’s cooking has helped us all eat better. He buys fruits I wouldn’t choose (I hate cutting mangoes and grapefruit, but he’s willing to do it). He fixes asparagus way more often than I do because it’s not my favorite, but it turns out both kids really like it. He expands our repertoire and it’s great.
More Walking In the Other’s Shoes
The benefits of experiencing the other spouse’s perspective never gets old. I really, really love the feeling of walking in the door on Thursdays and finding dinner laid out on the table ready to eat. And Matt takes a large amount of satisfaction in knowing that he can serve up that dinner all on his own.
We also learn from trading off dishes duty. At our house, whoever doesn’t cook has to do dishes. So the more Matt cooks, the more I have to do dishes. I don’t like cooking, but I don’t like doing dishes either! Neither does Matt, so it’s only fair that each of us has to take our turn at this less fun task. And I remind myself that even though he dislikes this task he has to do it even more often than I do (since I cook more) and I appreciate that he never complains! I also appreciate that he tries to clean dishes as he goes so he doesn’t leave me with a disaster of a kitchen at the end of the meal. Clearly he does dishes more often than I do, because he’s more considerate about that than I am.
Dinner is important. That time you spend sharing food and having conversations as a family is important. Sharing the work of preparing healthy food that benefits the whole family is also incredibly important. If you’re not already doing this, I highly recommend setting up your family to try this one night/week. Maybe you’ll discover hidden benefits too!