Sometimes, I get really envious of host families whose au pairs know how to cook.
I mean really know how to cook– au pairs who will suggest meals, create something new out of a chicken breast, and clip a recipe from People Magazine.
We have never had an au pair who is an accomplished cook, and only a few who have been competent cooks. So, I’ve found myself teaching au pairs many of the basics and managing the overall food plan for our family.
Once your kids age out of mashed peas, PB&J, and Annie’s Mac’n Cheese, your au pair has to prepare real meals for them– meals with a protein, two veggies, and maybe a fruit course. You want the food to be nutritious, reasonably varied, easy to prepare, and attractive to the kids. Not such a tall order, right?
But we forget how much technical knowledge, how much cultural knowledge and how much personal knowledge goes into cooking a good kids’ meal.
And, we forget that cooking and especially coordinating the many components of a meal, all while minding kids, can also be challenging.
When host parents ask for advice about au pairs and cooking, here is what we on the blog have recommended so far:
1. Identify the foods your kids will & should eat.
We made lists of the foods (and preparations) that our kids like. We’ve got a chart on the fridge with a column of protein entrees (chicken preparations, some pasta dishes, bean chili, and a few beef-based things) a column of vegetable preparations (broccoli, broccoli, broccoli), and some starches (soba, brown rice, Uncle Ben’s, kamut spirals). We have a separate column for the ‘fruit course’ (our version of dessert) that suggests fruit sliced, diced and even microwaved.
2. Teach your au pair how to prepare each of these basic dishes, in the most simple ways.
We have cooking sessions that address how to saute a chicken breast, brown ground beef (and pour off fat), slice and steam broccoli, etc.
3. Create guaranteed crowd-pleaser, complete, “meals”.
Establish a set of full meals– a protein, 2 veggies, and extras — that can be learned and remembered by any cook. In the short term, this strategy helps an au pair build a repertoire. In the mid-term, this strategy teaches your au pair the idea of what kinds of combinations create a “meal”.
4. Make a weekly plan, with one of these meals each day, for your au pair to follow.
Create a weekly menu. Really. Write it down, shop for it, and post it on the fridge. Write it on the calendar.
5. Celebrate the concept of repetition.
My girlfriend Alma writes a unique food blog called Take Back the Kitchen, where she shares recipes and tips for women who are not really that competent in the kitchen and who want to get better at preparing happy healthy meals.
Alma has a system for her 4 kids where she has a set meal for each of 6 days of the week– one day is chicken, one day is pasta, one day is “breakfast for dinner” and so on. Alma set this up when her kids were little and had some food sensitivities. When she first told me about it, I wondered whether this much repetition would be boring, but Alma’s kids really liked it. Her system sure made it easy for whichever parent or au pair was shopping or cooking. As the kids have gotten older Alma’s added more variety in how things are prepared, but in general no one minds that there is a pattern of meals that are repeated over and over.
Similarly, my friend Adelaide and her sisters put together a binder of “15 Meals Every Wilcox Kid Likes” . Each page has an entree, veggies, recipes, and — wait for it — a preparation ‘count down’! Yes, if you are unsure how long you should wait, after putting the meatloaf in the oven, until you start steaming the green beans, those Wilcox sisters are there to help.
We grown ups think we dislike repetition, but I’ll bet you that there are 8 meals that you and your family love, and that are repeated over and over. Better to have 8 healthy, enjoyable meals over and over than the drama of “what the heck’s for dinner this time?”
In most cases, you must be the Executive Chef to your au pair’s Line Cook.
Unfortunately, if your au pair is not cook already, you will probably need to do all the meal planning for him or her. That means, you have to be the one to choose the marinade for the chicken, declare that it’s green beans and not broccoli for Tuesday night, and communicate the plan to him or her. You have to be the one to balance the assortment of foods over the course of the week, and make sure that the food is purchased.
If your au pair is a motivated learner, s/he may learn enough about cooking to pick up some of these big picture tasks as the year goes on.
A thought for Aligning Objectives with Your Au Pair
It may also help to share with your au pair your own orientation towards food. Some people think of food as “energy for a day of fun”, others think of it as a kind of self-expression, and others think of food as a way to share love.
If you have an “approach” or an orientation towards the meals you and your family create, sharing this with you au pair might help to get him or her in a similar frame of mind. I’ve found it helpful to think about and talk about meals in our family as something more than getting food on the table. When I do this, and when I’ve shared this with our au pairs, it has helped to lift us above some of the everyday burden of cooking, and see cooking and the meals we create as a way to share values and to share purpose.
Here’s a request from AG, who has tried some of these suggestions with her au pair, but needs some more advice….
I was hoping to get some advice on my au pair’s cooking. She has been with us since April and, although she is not perfect, I have to say that we feel blessed. She loves loves loves our kids and makes them her priority; she is patient, attentive, flexible, and safety conscious. My one pet peeve is that she does not know how to cook. OK, she does know how to cook pasta and how to prepare sandwich and cut fruit, but she does not know how to put together nutritious meals for our kids.
Even though I gave her a binder with recipes to follow and even though we spoke to her about alternating and varying the meals, she still cooks pasta, then rice, pasta, then rice, and so on. I think that on the one hand, she does not enjoy cooking that much, and on the other hand, she tries to make what is easy and fast (and according to her, what the kids like…)
I don’t expect my au pair to be an executive chef, but I would like her to take more initiative in preparing more variety and more elaborate meals.
Part of the reason I have an au pair is for me not to have to come back home and see the kids eating pasta for the 100th time. They typically eat earlier than we (the parents) do, so our pair must prepare their meals before we come home. She has a lot of time during the day, while we parents are at work and the kids are at school, to think about what to serve them that would be nutritious and tasty!
What is reasonable for AG to expect from her au pair? What should AG be ready to provide for her au pair, to meet her goal of nutritious and tasty meals?
I stole the photo of Shrimp and Corn Salad from Take Back the Kitchen, where you can find the recipe!