Getting my almost-7-year-old to set the table is mostly an exercise in exhaustion. He doesn’t want to set out the napkins. His brother should do it. Apparently, he’s willing to help by tossing four forks haphazardly across the table. And that’s that.
After this, again and again, I was beaten down, ready to give up. And then, last Sunday, it dawned on me: My kid doesn’t want to help at mealtime; he wants to be in charge. So I delegated dinner to him. All of it—from the planning to the plating, napkin-setting included. And… It was a raging success.
So that you, too, might try this tiny-guest-cheffing approach with your own kids, I offer the following steps how of this kid-boss dinner went down.
1. I encouraged him to take requests. I did this because
1) I wanted him to realize that even though he was in charge, it was important that he consider the wants and needs of our crew; and
2) as a health-focused eater, and kind of control freak, I wanted an opportunity to improve the nutritional profile of our dinner without presenting as a micromanager.
I suggested that J serve broccoli as a side to his selected dish of homemade macaroni and cheese. Little bro requested bacon. Luckily for all of us, he agreed to both.
2. I asked him to write out a menu. The purpose was to keep him engaged and excited while I wrote out a real shopping list for the rest of the week. The bonus was that the menu—featuring “bacon” (with an accompanying illustration), “mack n cheese,” and “strobraries”—is a sweet keepsake of this special supper.
3. I took him food shopping. This wasn’t a new thing. I’m a big fan of grocery shopping with my boys (preferably one at a time): it presents an opportunity to talk about new-to-them foods, health and budget considerations, and the difference between a drip and espresso coffee grind. On this day, it also offered a chance for J to revise his menu based on what looked fresh and delicious—something good chefs do. In the end, he decided he wanted to serve raspberries instead of “strobraries.” With whipped cream and chocolate. He also picked out a bunch of pretty (and inexpensive) flowers for the table.
4. I resisted the urge to take over. During the many steps of prep, I acted as my son’s sous chef (and boiling water/hot oil handler). He measured, shredded, chopped and sprinkled—all quite nicely, I might add. He even delegated some stirring to his brother, who happily accepted the task.
5. I suggested he make the table feel super special. This basically was a giant ploy to get him to set the table (the original pain point, as you may recall). The purple-and-yellow bouquet, procured at Trader Joe’s for a mere $3.99, helped. He picked out matching placemats, deftly folded napkins and laid out forks straighter than ever before. And actually seemed excited about it.
6. I handed him dishes. And proudly watched as he proudly plated his creations.
J’s next dinner is scheduled for Sunday. For the past few days, he’s been dreaming up delicious dishes and eagerly perusing cookbooks (including two of our family favorites, Dinner: The Playbook: A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal and Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week).
He hasn’t set a menu yet, but there’s been lots of talk of nachos and Pineapple Upside-Down Cake. Chef’s choice. We’ll take it.