5 Tips to Help Your Au Pair Prepare Healthy Meals for Kids

by cv harquail on September 29, 2010

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, 201009291806.jpg 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!

See Also:
Food secrets from the West Coast: Calif Mom shares all!
Feeding my kids too much fast food… Now what?


Taking a Computer Lunch September 29, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Most of my APs have had no clue about nutrition. I had to study it in secondary school – it was part of “health,” and my own parents made sure that every meal contained a protein, a starch, a hot vegetable, a salad and for the kids – milk. I often cook vegan meals that combine everything into one dish – although I often make a garden salad as well, because I continue to love it.

In the past 9 1/2 years I’ve only had two APs who could cook and did so routinely for pleasure. Two other APs could cook, but they always needed a recipe. They cooked to treat our family to dishes from their country. One AP grew up with a cook and never mastered anything beyond the microwave. We asked our current AP if she enjoyed cooking and she said she did, but we haven’t seen it at all. (Quite frankly, I haven’t seen any evidence that she enjoys nutritious food at all either.)

Because of my dietary allergies and preferences, I cook 4-5 days a week and my son usually eats what I prepare (he is allowed to opt-out one night a week, and usually chooses the tofu night). I prepare some foods for The Camel, who literally can’t chew and swallow everything I eat, but I also purchase some low-sodium and low-fat frozen dinners to make the au pair’s life easier, too. (The Camel eats lunch absurdly early and needs to eat earlier than DH returns home.) If I catch the AP eating the frozen dinners (rather expensive), I tell her that I’ll stop buying them – there are plenty of left-overs in the fridge. We cook around my son’s dietary preferences (no cheese, no eggs). He’s actually pretty flexible for the kid – pasta puttanesca and ratatouille are in his top 3 meals.

Here’s my irony. My son actually has better eating habits than my AP. I’m not skinny and neither is DH. It turns out that our current AP equals us (which makes me sad – she’s so young). She started out eating healthy, and has slowly been requesting unhealthy food that we wouldn’t buy for the children or ourselves — Coke and sugary cereals, and makes allusions to having eaten other junk while everyone was out for the day (she has the house to herself for 6 1/2 hours from morning to afternoon). Like the kids, she has a shelf in the pantry for her food, and my son is jealous of the junk. She takes very small portions of healthy food at mealtimes, which I’m sure leaves her hungry for more. I’d rather she ate me out of house and home with nutritious food than consume a bag of potato chips by herself. (In fact, I now have more leftovers than usual because she doesn’t eat them at all and my DH has been away most of the month caring for his sick father.)

If my AP can’t decide for herself what’s healthy, then I can’t expect her to decide for my kids. So we talk about it a lot (after 9 1/2 years we’ve come to expect that even the slenderest of APs doesn’t care a hoot about nutrition). We talk about The Camel’s needs for a vegetable to keep her bowels regular, and my son’s need to choose fresh fruit over a slice of bread after 4 pm (when dinner is 2 hours away). We show how to use the equipment in our house, and how to prepare The Camel’s favorite cheese omelets or warm up leftovers in the microwave.

I understand that part of the AP reluctance is the difference between metric and non-metric systems, but I think it goes deeper than that. I don’t think many are expected to cook in their own homes. (I started preparing food in 4th grade – in part because it was a Girl Scout badge, but also because my own family expected that I pitch in. I have started working with my son on preparing food – and he actually is very creative in the kitchen – he made wonderful catfish sandwiches with a mint sauce that I couldn’t believe came out of a 9-year-old’s head). My goal for him is that he will be able to cook nutritious food for himself by the time he enters high school.

I think it comes down to a need to model the behavior you want – so if your goal is that the AP will prepare healthy food for your kids, slot her to do it with you on several occasions – or give her a menu to prepare. I’ve had some friends have success in having their AP’s cook their native foods for their kids. Involve her in the menu planning for the week, so she sees the need to make a variety of foods. My son loved my Chinese AP’s cooking – she made a seaweed soup just for him. If your AP thinks your kids’ dietary preferences are limited, maybe it’s really hers!

Mommy Mia September 29, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Kudos to you and your son, TACL! (My 9 year old just finished her GS Cooking badge!) We’re really going to miss our current AP when she leaves, as she’s the only one who likes to cook (all have said this on their app., but it wasn’t really true) and regularly volunteers to make family dinners (with the kids!) AND they’re usually very healthy! (Remind me to thank her mother again next time I have the chance!) Granted, her choices are not always my favorites, but we have a “rule” in our home that everyone tries everything (no rude comments about the food’s appearance or flavor, either) once. Thanks for this posting, cv, I’m going to have my husbanc check out those websites for when it’s his turn to cook (his meals tend to be heavy on starches (I’m sorry, but spaghetti, mashed potatoes and corn do not a balanced, healthy meal make!) and I’m sure even I can learn some new combos to try. As one of those who doesn’t really love cooking (just baking), I can empathize with the reluctant au pairs.

MTR September 29, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Ah, this brings back some memories.

My first AP could cook. She made her native soups for my kids (those just happened to be my native soups too, so my kids were accustomed to them).

My second AP was a nightmare when it came to food (just like everything else). She only cooked rice. She also could not manage to feed my kids foods that I have prepared. There were times when I had two kinds of protein, several cooked vegetable meals, fresh vegetable salads, and fresh fruit in the refrigerator, just to find my children at the dinner table with half plate of plain pasta and half plate of plain rice. AP’s excuse was that children did not like what I have prepared.
My current AP claimed that she knows how to cook and she does know how to cook simple things; which is more than fine with me. However, she does not like to cook and only does so when I specifically ask and leave all ingredients out (i.e. like CV posted – chicken already marinated, etc). However, should I leave her to her own devises, they would be eating eggs and bread for lunch and dinner. I have coached my AP to always include fresh veggies with the dinner meal (note to self: need to remind her to include veggies into lunch boxes), and she is good about getting fruit to my kids.
Ideally, I would love to get the chore of feeding my kids off onto the next AP, however I have decided that there are other skills that are more important to me in the next AP. I am reading and rereading the Contrast Effect post like mantra in preparation for the next AP search.

Calif Mom October 3, 2010 at 10:26 am

Ah, yes, the old “the kids asked for pasta” excuse!

With one AP, I put a mini whiteboard on the fridge and wrote “Today’s Menu Options” on it, then listed out the leftovers that were inside. The subtextual message: you’re not making pasta again, it’s bean night. (or whatever the leftover protein was).

The other very important distinction, that I have to hammer home with EVERYONE, myself included: the kids aren’t in charge of what gets made for dinner. I find myself asking “what sounds good for dinner?” when I’m tired and uninspired, but it rarely leads to a good solution.

That’s where having a plan is helpful, because the plan itself becomes a neutral authority. (Though I have fallen very far back in the dust behind the weekly meal plan wagon, it’s something we’re running to catch up with.) I found that having some ideas for the week is better than “it’s Wednesday so it’s burrito night” approach for us. Travel schedules also affect our dinners.

Short of having an actual meal plan, cooking HUGE batches of proteins on the weekend really makes dinners (and packing lunches) easier during the week. Make triple what you need for dinner. one third becomes lunches or a second dinner, and another third gets popped into the freezer for later rotation.

I have a huge pot of beans soaking right now (soaked beans are easy, and taste so much better than canned! If you family doesn’t like canned beans, don’t give up on the entire category of “beans” until you have tried dried ones.). (And the pressure cooker is my best friend, I can’t say this often enough.)

I have a new favorite cookbook. I don’t know why it took me so long to find it, but when it comes to cooking for families, Mark Bittman’s classic How to Cook Everything is my new go-to. [cv note: I love this one! And the companion How to Cook Everything Vegetarian!] The recipes are generally super simple, mostly fast, and I often find myself agreeing with him completely when it comes to shortcuts to take (or avoid) and he finds the essential points. His casual, flexible approach and many charts help you figure out how to make what you have on hand in the fridge and pantry come together for a tasty meal, no matter how little you think you actually have. Example: pasta with olive oil, garlic, and bread crumbs. Seriously. (Okay, it has zero fiber, unless garlic gives you some fiber!, and it’s not a protein, but actually you’d be surprised at how much protein is found in wheat.)

The other option is to get okay with the AP always giving the kids pasta. Seriously. A previous AP of ours could cook pasta with garlic chicken and garlicky peas. That’s not a bad meal! And it got my kids hooked on peas. Sometimes, kids really don’t want variety, and may instead get benefit from need the comfort and consistency of a familiar meal.

My beloved first pediatrician (as well as Ellyn Satter, RD who wrote the sometimes stodgy but sound Child of Mine, the child’s nutrition bible) made a big point to us of being sure to evaluate nutrition over the course of a week, not any particular day.

Found a study last week that showed for some children it takes 10 exposures to a new food before it feels familiar enough to decide whether you like it or not. My humble opinion is that most parents give up at the first grimace, decide “Mikey doesn’t like it” and never put it on the kid’s plate again. Of course that kid is going to have a limited palate, probably until they move away and start exploring new things again in their 20’s. Sad!

I’m a huge believer in there being food, not adult food and kid food. We rarely order off the kid’s menu at restaurants, and never make separate things at home.

The goal here is to make it easy for the AP to be successful, and easy for the hosts to
administer the food program, if you will. For most APs, you have to give them direction, or it’s just not fair and you cannot expect them to be successful. They know that feeding the kids is an emotionally packed task for them, so they get nervous about screwing it up.

There’s a subscription website that a lot of moms I know use, called the six o’clock scramble http://www.thescramble.com. The beauty of it is that you can plan the week’s meals, and it automatically generates a shopping list that you can modify, print out, and take with you to the store. Very handy. My boss loves it.

Besides my pressure cooker, freezing a meal’s worth of what we call “crowd pleasers” is super helpful.

Aupairgal September 30, 2010 at 12:11 am

I actually love to cook and can cook quite well. But when I became an Aupair I had to really readjust my cooking because I was primarily cooking for young children 5 days a week. What I considered a specialty meal they usually didn’t like. The health issue was never a problem for me because I am a bit of a health nut as was my host mom. I always tried to be creative but at the same time make something the boys would eat. I will say the best thing my host mom did was sometimes just give me ideas of what to cook or good food combinations for the next day because after 7 months I just ran out of ideas and would sometimes get stumped on what the heck I could cook. She also gave me the recipes of the boys favorite and simplest recipes. Also, I perfected the art of hiding vegetables in dishes, which I will apply when I have my own children. :)

Taking a Computer Lunch September 30, 2010 at 6:57 am

The trick I did with my son was when he was two he had to eat two slices of red bell pepper (which he already loved), two spoonfuls of shredded or cooked carrots, two spoonfuls of peas, or two broccoli pieces because he was 2. And so it went up every year, until now, he spoons great heapings of salad and veggies for himself because he’s used to eating them. Fruit was never a problem for him – he loves it. The Camel, too, despite her limitations in chewing and swallowing, has always preferred veggies to fruit (as I do – unless it’s perfectly ripe, fruit tastes bitter to me).

calif mom October 3, 2010 at 10:58 am

You can also play food “games”. Did you know that if you cover your eyes, and with lots of practice, you can taste the difference between a red, orange and yellow pepper? I learned that one from a mom friend. The kids loved watching their mom guess which color she was eating, and they turned tables, of course.

I have to say, that “hiding” vegetables trend (adding pureed broccoli in choc cake, etc) feels dishonest to me. I fear it will lead to kids feeling manipulated and having very confused palates. I’d rather honestly present the foods on a plate, calling them what they are, and occasionally with the message that “people have to eat food with all different colors in order to be healthy and grow right”. Sometimes you can make a game of naming which animals would LOVE to eat the same thing that the kid is staring at on their plate. (if you can’t think of a specific creature for a given food item, pick “doggie”. Dogs put the ‘omni’ in omnivore!)

IMHO, inspiring ingestion by talking about “growing right” and calling nutritious foods “grow foods” is not unkindly manipulative. Growing is such a huge motivator for the preschool and early elementary set. I know my kids want to be taller than I am so badly! :-) And since dad is super tall, I can guarantee success on that one! *Especially* if they eat colorful foods.

As for the veggie/fruit diad, it really doesn’t matter which they pick. Some folks say fruit pack more nutrients per serving than veggies. Some people just like one category more than the other, and as long as they are eating plants, it works for me.

THere’s no single approach that works for everyone, but I do think we have to give our APs enough training and equipment to be able to handle this.

As for APs eating badly, oh boy. That’s so difficult! And it’s why food is one of the first topics in my host letter. We love food–some people buy season tix to the game, we plan our Sundays for the farmer’s market, cooking and canning. It’s a hobby that we can justify because it means our family eats food that we feel good about.

I had an AP say “but you can just buy a loaf of bread at the store! My mom never baked bread in her life!” Well, okay, but I find it relaxing. (And we do buy bread, but I am baking it more often now.) My kids love punching down the dough–how cool is that?!–and are still amazed to see the dough rising above the rim of the mixing bowl just sitting there on the counter for an hour.

I absolutely hate going to a crowded grocery store on the weekend or adding half an hour to my trip home after work because we ran out. You really can make great bread at home in “5 mins a day” (Google Bittman’s no-knead bread recipe for an introduction in the NYT). And the similar bread that we get at the farmer’s market is 5 bucks a loaf; we are saving a lot of money just on bread. I don’t have to worry that there is hidden milk products in it that will make family members sick. We use local grains, it tastes so much better than the squishy bagged bread, I like doing it, the kids love to eat whole grains when it tastes so good, and it’s something I can actually accomplish and finish in a few hours. We’ve got a loaf in the freezer for when we run out or the dog steals it off the counter because someone let him wander into the kitchen.

I don’t expect my AP to start baking bread, but maybe when she’s older and joins the rat race, she’ll understand. After all, they have all loved eating it, too. Even the girls who “only eat white bread”.

MommyMia October 4, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Kudos to you, Calif mom – you sound like you’re raising a great family of healthy eaters, discerning palates and eco-friendly consumers! I’m picturing the dog running off with the yummy homemade bread – you’ve even got it trained to eat well! I’m going to check out that no-knead bread recipe, although I have an elderly bread machine that still works and the kids love to watch it knead and rise, too.

APUSA July 26, 2011 at 6:34 pm

I agree that while it might not be the most “honest” thing I believe that some times it’s the only way you can get a child to get all the vitamins and stuff they need.
Aupairgal: what kinds of tricks do you use? Did you find them on a certain website or in a book? if so, which one(s)?

OnceAnAuPair September 30, 2010 at 2:16 am

I think it’s a really great idea if you spend some time teaching your au pair some easy things to cook that your kids like and are healthy and to also always have a refrigerator stocked with healthy foods too.
The first family I worked for claimed to be a “healthy” family. They only had tomatoes, pasta, rice, canned mushrooms, pesto sauce, tomato sauce, chicken nuggets and hamburger patties. I was stuck making the same things over and over again and the parents complained that I didn’t make healthy enough foods.
I worked for two other families, which were amazing with foods. The first one showed me how to make some things the girls liked and always had a well stocked kitchen. The next was a vegan family (like me) and I did the shopping for them, so no complaints.
The last family was Italian, and though they had a fairly well stocked kitchen, they only liked Italian food, but never taught me any recipes. I suggested making things that I liked from my childhood (they were an omnivore family), such as burritos and vegetable curries and the mother replied with “is that even good?”. So once again, we had pasta and rice :(

My 2 cents September 30, 2010 at 3:58 pm

What a great column.

I have to admit that in our relationship, I’m a lot of the problem. I just can’t seem to think enough ahead or find the time to figure out what the kids should have (and what I need to shop for ahead of time), and then tell all that to our APs. Thus, the kids eat the usual crap each and every evening and most lunches. I come away every other evening swearing I’ll do better and get my act together. Never does. There’s always a bigger priority.

Is anyone else an apparent too busy to bother mother?? I’m wracked with guilt. Of course, it doesn’t help that my kids are young and still in those years where they won’t eat steak, or pork, or any number of other entree type things adult diners eat. Does this change?? Please tell me it does (and when).

aria September 30, 2010 at 5:44 pm

My old HM made it easy and did something along the lines of what CV suggests- repetition, repetition, repetition. Except she took it a step further and had me feed the boys vegetable soup every night. :/ But my charges ate steak, pork, and plenty of other “adult dishes” without a problem. There was no difference between “adult food” and “kid food.”

Taking a Computer Lunch September 30, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I started menu planning when I went on Weight Watchers 8 years ago (I’m not a success story, but one thing that has stuck is thinking about how I eat, so my meals don’t come from a frozen box or a delivery truck very often). I’ll admit it’s a juggle, and often a struggle, but I decided that for my own health, I had to make sure there were no allergens in what I consumed. Most nights my AP feeds The Camel her dinner, while I prepare food for the rest of the family (including the AP) – but I also work from 6:30 am to 3:00 pm, so I may achieve this. If it’s not possible for you to cook, do what you can do, and don’t kill yourself over the rest (however, if you can’t get the kids where you want them to be nutritionally, don’t expect your AP to do it for you).

Kids will eat a variety of foods, but you have to expose them and see what works for you. Don’t kill yourself. Try preparing a new vegetable or side dish and serving a heaping tablespoon of it with the usual “crap,” so that 80% of the meal is familiar. You’ll win them over time.

I’m at the point now where my 10-year-old gets to pick a meal every week, and while he’d love it if it were lamb chops, steak or pork chops. I don’t cook meat, so he knows to ask his father (who’s a gourmand himself and a fantastic cook) to prepare those foods. I enjoy cooking, but I now have a repertoire of easy and not-so-easy meals, and I do try to mix it up. Your local library should have a cookbook section, so you need not invest money in getting started.

The other thing to do, when you have a winner, is to freeze portions and mark them. Just tonight, I froze portions of potato leek soup for those nights when I prepare tofu and my son just won’t eat it. We buy fresh fish and chop it up and freeze it in ziplock bags, so the AP may prepare one portion for The Camel. There’s a lot you can do to simplify cooking for everyone in the household.

My 2 cents October 1, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Thanks TACL. I really, really like the idea of preparing something new and only serving a tablespoon at a time to the kids. This may actually work for us since I can certainly use the dessert portion of dinner lure them my way.

Thanks for the pep talk.

Taking a Computer Lunch October 2, 2010 at 10:01 pm

My cookbooks are full of notations about who likes what, and went a recipe is a dog that no one likes. I have notations about 6 years worth of APs, too. I know exactly what to prepare when someone comes back for a visit :-). The Camel has a pretty limited diet – she’s willing to put just about anything into her mouth, but if she isn’t capable of chewing or swallowing it – back it comes (that’s why we call her The Camel). Thanks to my last AP (one of her saving graces is that she cooked for The Camel and inspired us to do the same), we now cook her favorite meals and freeze them in small portions perfect for a quick reheat.

Calif Mom October 3, 2010 at 11:07 am

Absolutely! You have to write in your cookbooks. Mine have a forest of sticky notes poking out of the pages.

At one point I photocopied the most-used recipes and put them in page protectors in a binder. That worked well, and I could see doing this with the target audience of APs. If they had their own binder, they might feel less intimidated.

One of the great ironic difficulties for us is that because we love to cook and our kids eat real food, our APs get pretty intimidated.

I have a hunch that’s why many APs just stick to the basics like pasta. I also think, like one poster mentioned, that it’s VERY hard to follow a recipe while tracking what the kids are up to if you aren’t used to doing that. I can’t really do it well any more, myself! Thank goodness my kids are both old enough to help in the kitchen now.

I have a mom friend who has her son in charge of one meal per week (he’s in 9th grade)! Yes, cooked. Look out, kids! I’m putting you in charge of side dishes soon! :-)

Taking a Computer Lunch October 3, 2010 at 5:35 pm

When DH and I first started living together, we split the cooking. The joke was that when it was my turn, we either ate pasta, his leftovers or we went out. Eventually, since he was investing less time into completing his dissertation than I, he took over the cooking. And then, when we were both working full-time and in a fresh round of grad school classes, we ate from boxes. Fast forward, to juggling working and kids, and I have become the cook (because my job permits me to be more flexible with the timing of my schedule than his).

People cook pasta because it requires no previous thought – you can make dinner in 15-30 minutes. I’ll vouch for that. Really cooking, takes time & preparation (although tonight I still didn’t have dill for the spinach pie The Camel loves because DH didn’t see it on the shopping list). We asked all of our candidates what foods they liked to cook and all of them answered pasta. I can’t judge them – I would have answered exactly the same at their age.

cv harquail October 4, 2010 at 11:30 am

Some people call these required tastes of new food the “No, Thank You Helping”. In our family, we call them “Adventure Bites”.
Also, I remind kids that it takes 13 times of trying something before your mouth can distinguish between “I don’t like it” and “it tastes weird to me.” I read that somewhere…. ;-) cv

Calif Mom October 4, 2010 at 8:45 pm

I’m so stealing “Adventure Bites”! love it!

Should be working October 1, 2010 at 4:28 am

Both of our APs radically overestimated their own cooking skills. Even frozen pizzas came out looking terrible. Our kids are picky and like frozen pizza cooked to a medium-brown color–not just cheese melted. APs just couldn’t get this, they always either just barely melted the cheese or burnt the pizza. And neither followed the instructions that say to let the pizza stand for 5 min, which meant that in cutting the pizza they made a sloppy, stringy mess.

They also both considered ‘cooking’ to include things like adding a package of soup mix to water to make soup. “If there is a next AP” (famous last words) I will add a lot of questions about what and how they cook, just so I know not to get my hopes up.

Cooking is not very important to us, since my husband is a food snob and won’t let anyone else make dinner, but when we do need an AP to cook I want simple things to be done properly.

momto2 October 1, 2010 at 7:02 am

We’ve only had one AP who could REALLY cook, like, WOW kinda food. It was nice to have the extra help, but since we enjoy cooking, AP culinary skills are not a must-have. When we do run into a late work night situation, the AP’s could put together a simple plate of breads, cold cuts, cheese and veggies which the kids would eat without issue. We’ve also found that on weeks with activities and major homework projects, the crock-pot is our best friend. We can toss proteins, veggies and a starch in it with some broth and we have soup or stew, and we’ve done beans or a roast in it as well.

One thing we did realize with regard to food with our most recent AP was that we needed to train what it meant to have a “balanced meal” and what are appropriate portion sizes for average American kids. Our AP was from a country where everyone is six feet tall (or taller)–including the women, so of course her idea of what was an appropriate portion size for growing kids was a bit skewed. We pulled out measuring cups and trained on what was appropriate for our kids, but the AP seemed to have her own ideas. We also lost the AP on the concept of balance. What we tried to teach is that the kids needed to eat a portion of grain, protein, fruit/veggie and milk at every meal before they ask for anything else. The AP heard, if they ask for anything else, they need to eat an additional helping of everything to maintain the balance of food in their bodies. When we came home the kids were upset every day because their bellies hurt from overeating, and they wouldn’t eat dinner. We were afraid that our kids were going to develop really screwed up eating disorders, so we ended up throwing in the towel with this AP. We know now to really focus on food/nutrition/portion sizes heavily during training with all future AP’s.

Former Au Pair October 1, 2010 at 9:48 am

I had 3 host families…

In the first one, I had to make lunch for the 1.5 y/o girl, but the instruction was to serve her with dried fruit and veggie chips, so… I was not making anything. And I felt sorry for the girl. Was kinda sad seeing her eating only that.

In the second one, I didn’t have to cook for the kid (9 m/o), but I did for me, since HM only cooked for her after the first month and everything in that house was coming from a box: EVERYTHING, except a couple (really only a couple) of chicken breasts and steaks she used to bought every 15 days. The rest: only canned and boxed, a nightmare for me, since I have a major in Gastronomy.

In the third one, I had to cook for the 3 kids (6 and 12 y/o twins), but most of the time the only thing I could find that they were allowed to eat was frozen veggies and microwavable meat or pre-seasoned grounded beef. Some miracles were made with that, kids used to love my food. But HF didn’t help. They ate in a different time from the kids and they VERY often asked fast food delivery and kids were upset because they used to find leftovers on the fridge and they really wanted that too, making MY work harder.

So… If you want your Au Pair to cook, please, give her good stuff (food) and environment.

JJ Host Mom October 1, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Some interview questions that might be useful to suss out nutrition/cooking skills:

– What kind of things does a meal have to include in order for it to be nutritious?
*Note that, from an American, esp. a Californian, I’d expect the answer to be: protein, fruit/veggie, and starch, but other cultures have different viewpoints on nutrition. A French person, for example, will probably say that a healthy meal should contain dairy – either yogurt or cheese, and that potatoes are a perfectly acceptable vegetable day in and day out.

– What are three dishes you’ve cooked for (kids the same age as yours)?

– Who cooks in your household?

– What did you have for dinner last night?

We split cooking with our au pair. Each of us cooks two nights a week. Our current au pair has had fun finding new recipes to cook, but I’m thinking of teaching our next au pair a couple of staple recipes and giving him more of a planned menu every week. We get a CSA vegetable box every week. The au pair gets first dibs on the more normal vegetables (carrots, broccoli) and I cook the weirder ones. We also buy meat direct from the farm and generally have a quarter cow, half a pig, and a lamb in the downstairs freezer (cut up into chops etc) as well as a couple of packs of chicken thighs from Costco. And we’re stocked up on rice, pasta, etc, as well as cheese and yogurt and milk in the fridge. So there’s always more than enough raw ingredients. We actually rarely buy junk food, and have a specific clause in the family handbook that we won’t buy it.

And still, both my au pairs so far have basically stopped eating dinner after a couple of months. I have no idea how they survive. It drives me crazy. It’s one of the reasons we’re getting a male au pair next time around.

My kids are 2 years old. They eat what we eat at dinner, and eat leftovers for lunch. They don’t always like it, but they generally eat something at least. There’s always plenty of fruit around so they can have a piece of fruit after dinner.

used to be an AP October 1, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Maybe the reason why they stopped eating dinner is a cultural one. In some countries the main meal of the day is lunch, not dinner and they gave eating dinner a shot and decided it was not for them. It used to be that way in my family until I was about 16 and my brother and I would never be home from school before 3 or 4. Until then, my mom prepared a huge lunch (she only worked part-time back then) and if ther were any left overs, my dad would get them for dinner, but if there weren’t he’d just have to eat a sandwich (which he already had for breakfast and lunch) or get some junk food. We always had sandwiches for dinner, and sometimes a salad. Even now, my parents eat a mix of lunch/dinner at 4:15 while I never eat lunch and always have dinner around six (I don’t live with my parents anymore).

JJ Host Mom October 2, 2010 at 12:16 am

Ah, thanks, you have a good point. I did see them eating balanced lunches when I was around.

AG October 2, 2010 at 5:04 am

Thank you for all the good tips! I’ll definitely make it a point to train my au pair and keep the interview questions for the next au pair.

By the way, JJ host mom, which farm in California do you buy your meat from? I’d love to find out! :-)

JJ Host Mom October 2, 2010 at 6:40 pm

We get the beef from Morris Grassfed, and I’d highly recommend them. I’d rather not divulge my contact for pork and lamb because it’s a tiny farm, and if I share my contacts on a public blog they may not have any left for me! But if you start calling local CSAs, they should be able to hook you up with local ranchers.

Lily October 2, 2010 at 8:34 am

I’m sorry, but all the mothers here are expecting too much from the APs. They’re not servants. The phrase – “She has a lot of time during the day, while we parents are at work and the kids are at school” – bothers me a lot. Au pairs are supposed to watch your children for the time being and keep them safe – the ones you neglect from working long hours – and do the best they can to keep them happy. They are NOT nannies or house slaves. Do you think they spend every waking moment thinking about how to best please you and your children? They have lives, too – do you think they actually want to take care of your spoiled children? They came to a different country to teach and learn. Sometimes, I think the mothers here are so demanding and obviously, a bit cheap. Why hire an unqualified young girl/boy to do the job of an experienced nanny or a language tutor?

Dorsi October 2, 2010 at 3:29 pm

While ignoring your judgmental tone, (really, who comes to this website to talk about how HF ‘neglect” their children?), I would like to comment on the question of whether APs should be expected to spend their daytime hours. If APs sign up for a job which requires 45 hours of week of childcare and spend 25 hours a week in direct child contact, it is not the least bit unreasonable to expect them to spend 2-3 hours/day engaged in indirect care for the children (within the limits of the program) — that means doing laundry, planning meals, grocery shopping, preparing crafts, etc. I want them to spend 45 hours a week thinking about how to make my children happy — not every moment. They have 123 additional hours each week to sleep, spend their stipends on frivolous things, complain on their blogs, and think about how to make themselves happy.

cv harquail October 4, 2010 at 11:25 am

Hi Lily,
Please note that in the US, “preparing meals for children” is part and parcel of the basic responsibilities of an au pair.
Also, we do not consider ‘working for pay outside the home’ to be a form of neglect.
I have edited your comment to remove some accusatory language.

Calif Mom October 12, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Really? That’s the redacted version? hmmm…. :-)

Lily, you’d be hard-pressed to call my kids spoiled if you met them in person. Really. And we do have a “house slave” who comes to clean once a week–including the au pair’s room.

I *don’t* expect my au pairs to be able to actually cook. Serving a balanced meal is different from cooking, and not beyond reasonable expectations. An AP who actually cooks a hot meal is a wonderful bonus when available, just like when I make my second car available for the au pair’s exclusive use for a week, when available. She’s happy, and tells me so daily.

momto2 October 2, 2010 at 10:26 am

Lily- I do not speak for all host moms, just as I am sure you do not speak for all au pairs with your sentiments. Perhaps you have had a bad experience that has made you sound a bit jaded? I do not think that anybody here advocates for indentured servitude.

Some families require an AP to cook as part of his/her duties, which is not slavery. This is not unlike other jobs where someone might be asked during an interview if they have particular skills, perhaps like– can you type, or do you have accounting or bookkeeping skills? If I was applying to be an accountant, I would expect that these skills would be required. If I were applying to be a child care provider, I would think it reasonable that I could have to prepare meals, as well as to safely and responsibly care for kids. If I told my employer during an interview that I could do something that I really couldn’t do, or had no desire to do, I would expect that he/she would be upset, and I know that this deception could cost me my job.

Mom23 October 5, 2010 at 9:23 am

My husband created a chart for our au pairs that has a bunch of columns. The au pair can choose one item from each column to serve the kids at each meal. For the most part, I try to buy semi prepared items — marinated meat that just needs to be stirfried or broiled, fresh pasta that just needs to be boiled for a few minutes and then have some sauce dumped onto it. Costco carries a lot of such items.

I try to plan a week of dinners and give it to our au pair at the start of the week. I have loved it when I have au pairs who took the initiative to shop and cook things that they liked.

azmom October 12, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Having to steal a few of these ideas. I like the one that mom23’s husband came up with because chips for lunch, even with my picky 2 year old, is not acceptable when we have fruit gallore that she will also eat :)

Our “handbook” indicates healthy food choices as a small section with what we allow 2 year old to eat. Her reason was that she saw that we gave her chips (once), and so it was okay… she did chips the day before (she said she was teaching sharing since they were APs chips) as well for a snack at the park when they also had almonds, etc. :)

Busy Mom October 14, 2010 at 6:45 am

We expect our au pair to make dinner for the kids 2 to 4 times a week depending on my work schedule. We make this very clear in our family letter and in our interviews by asking a number of food related questions including favorite veggie, favorite fruit, what do you typically eat for breakfast? (I just added JJ Host Mom’s questions to our interview guide because they add another dimension.) As a result, we’ve ended up with APs who are willing to cook and have anywhere from solid basic skills (can follow a recipe) to culinary training. Nutrition and serving a well-balanced meal is a different matter and they are pretty much clueless. We discuss it a bunch of times and I have a page in the handbook of suggestions and vegetable possibilities. All 3 APs have been carbaholics, so I them that they can only serve the white variety (of either pasta or rice) once a week and that a white potato does not count as a veggie. I also ask them to measure rice & white pasta for the kids and provide a list of portion sizes.

azmom October 14, 2010 at 12:31 pm

If only I’d found this before I matched (well rematched before the first even arrived)! I would have asked things about their food. I asked if they are comfortable cooking, but found later that 1) she doesn’t like any fruit at all 2) she doesn’t eat vegetables unless it is in a meat/rice dish 3) coke and chips are her daily snacks. If we continue next year or end up in rematch I have more questions on my horizon than the recommended ones from the agencies and the few extras we had (ie, comfortable with me breastfeeding, changing diapers)

Horrified Au Pair July 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Hi I know that you guys don’t really like au pairs to comment but I just HAD to say something about the post from “Lily”.
As an au pair and just as a person, I was absolutly horrified by what she said. Saying that you, as host parents, are cheap and neglect your childern and calling your kids spoiled is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE. There is no way that this girl is a parent or an au pair so she has NO RIGHT to judge us.
It is not unreasonable for a HF to expect an au pair to feed their kids. And true that an au pair does have a life but it is also true that, at least for the time she is with the family, she has comitted that life to these childern.

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