By Brenna O’Dea
Ah, that lovely feeling. It puts your mind and heart at ease. All of your stresses and worries melt away like butter on toast. The feeling you get when finally, “everything is in it’s place,” or “mise en place” as they say. The carrots are peeled, the garlic is pressed, the onions are chopped with only a few tears shed, and you are ready to COOK (and more importantly, EAT). Okay…maybe you don’t get quite as excited about a pristinely prepped kitchen station as I do…but a lil’ organization never hurt nobody. Remember that book all about the magical mystical powers of “tidying up”? Yeah, it’s still true.
This Mindful Monday is all about mise en place, and how cooking, really cooking, with your little ones can bring everyone in the kitchen a sense of calm and accomplishment. So often when we are preparing food, whether it is a four course dinner for the entire extended family, or an after school snack for your only child, we just want to get it done, and get out of the kitchen. Now, for some people, plenty of people, cooking is just not something they enjoy. It stresses them out more than it soothes them, and they would much rather bond with their family and friends in a different way. THIS IS OKAY. In fact, this is more than okay. If cooking is just the bane of your existence, don’t force it. If the thought of spending even ten minutes chopping veggies makes your head spin and stomach growl uncontrollably, chill, it’s all good. We cannot all love basking in the glory of a slow roasted chicken, or the moment when we finally see stiff peaks in homemade whipped cream. Maybe you find it boring, maybe your roommate or family member is on par with the one and only Ina Garten (I know, but I just have to mention her every chance I get). If you have become the designated eater and dishwasher in your household, and you avoid the cooking process at all costs, don’t mess with equilibrium. Food is better when shared with loved ones, so if you are happy on the receiving end, good for you.
I say this however, with one condition in mind. I urge you to at least TRY cooking, even if it is just for one meal, before you decide it’s not for you. I’m talking about thirty year olds and three year olds here. Parents, don’t wait until your kids are “old enough” to get involved in the kitchen. You wanna know when they are old enough to start cooking? When they are old enough to start eating! Okay, you may want to wait until they can at least stand up on their own…but even a two year old can plop down on the kitchen floor and help you mix the blueberries into the morning pancake batter. It can be as simple as ripping up basil leaves in preparation for pasta night. THEY CAN DO IT. And mise en place is the place to start.
The first steps in a recipe are often the easiest and the best ones to delegate to your mini sous chefs. From washing, to chopping, to peeling, to pressing, there is sure to be SOMETHING your five year old, ten year old, and fifteen year old, can all do. Not only can they do it, they can ENJOY it! Make mise en place exciting. You don’t have to call them into the kitchen with, “Come help me get organized!” That might not go over so well. Instead, invite them to “cooking club,” or the “baking bunch.” Whatever you want to call it to make it sound like they are part of something awesome, because really, it is awesome. They will get to feel like a grown up for a little while. They can learn a new skill and have a new story to share with their friends at school the next day. “That’s cool that you got to a new level in Candy Crush, Sally, but I got a sweet new toy called a garlic press! I got to put these magical white stones into this thing that looks like a shark’s mouth, then I made the mouth chomp down really hard and all this goo came out! Then later we ate that goo for dinner and it tasted really good!” Imagination is seriously a powerful thing.
Mise en place can begin even earlier, when it’s time to gather your ingredients. Call all your critters in to the kitchen and send them each on a special mission. Go and grab the butter out of the fridge…then you get your next assignment…finding the sugar buried deep in the pantry that hasn’t been organized since the 90s!! If you make it sound like something new and exciting, they might just buy it and trade in the iPad for the peeler, even if just for one night a week. Not only can this be a fun way to get your little ones excited about healthy cooking and eating, it can help you stay organized and efficient when making your next meal. If you have six six-year-olds at your feet eager to dive in, literally, to the tomato sauce simmering on the stove, you are sure to pay attention. Texting while driving is the worst, but texting while cooking isn’t ideal either. Staying organized and mindful about what is happening in your kitchen, can contribute to calm in every other room of the house. When you slow down your movements, your mind slows down too, in a good way. Chop each carrot with intention and focus, sharpen those knives extra carefully and your brain might sharpen as well.
So gather a group of your tiniest taste testers, and lead the way! One can wash the apples, one can dry. Someone can peel the potatoes, someone else can cut them. Don’t mistake mise en place for a time to stress out and rush through. Sure, there are some nights when you just need to get dinner on the table and you need to do it fast. On these nights, feel free to fly solo and stick to your routine. But when you have some time to spare, and maybe your wrist is getting a bit sore from all that whisking, ask for some help from your smallest sous chefs. They probably have a little (or a lot) more energy than you by the time 5pm rolls around. Channel that energy into something better than flipping through the channels. Chances are, they will get bored of their favorite television program halfway through, but halfway through dinner prep, the fun has only just begun…