Chill, Mom. I Got Dinner

Yes, that beautiful sight is exactly what you think it is: My twelve-year-old is making dinner. For the family. A stack of pan-fried gray sole with a green salad and ginger-miso dressing to be exact. What you don’t see, out of frame, are her parents, having some chips and salsa at the kitchen table, catching up on the day’s events, and doing their best not to tell their twelve-year-old to turn up the heat or turn down the heat, or salt the bread crumbs, or use a fork and not your fingers to put the fish in the (omg very hot) pan, or maybe set up your dredging station next the stovetop instead of a half mile away.

Like all major milestones in life, the genesis of this particular one began at the hair salon.

My mom has been trying to get me to see her colorist for years now and so finally, a few weeks ago, I conceded. Her name was Gisele and having only met her for about two hours, I can say with confidence that she’s my friend for life. As well as learning that the look for prom this year is the low, loose bun, I learned that she adds breaded chicken cutlets to her baked ziti, that she came to the US from Lebanon 44 years ago, that she’d had many jobs in her life (realtor, executive assistant) but hair had always been her true passion. You can learn a lot about someone when they are inches from your ears for two straight hours.

When Gisele found out that I wrote about food for a living, she was amazed. “How wonderful!” she said. And then,”Your kids must be excellent cooks!”

I thought she was heading in the direction parents normally head which is: “How wonderful! Your kids must be excellent eaters.”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “They can make a few dishes.” In my mind, though, I had a hard time coming up with something that involved a technique more complicated than spreading hummus on pita. “But they eat pretty much anything.”

And that was that. Until the very next morning when my newly highlighted self went to the coffee shop and ran into Phoebe’s friend, Lauren, and her mom.

“I love your cookbook,” Lauren said. “I cook from it all the time!”

Here again, I thought she was heading in the direction kids normally head, which is: “I love your cookbook! My parents cook from it all the time.”

I thanked her, and inside, I realized, the universe was telling me something: It was time that my kids start cooking more. Not just a batch of muffins or a peanut butter sandwich — but a meal. After decades of being kitchen mates and sous chefs and salad makers, and little self-sufficient bakers, my kids (especially my 12-year-old) were 100% capable of cooking dinner from start to finish. There were only two reasons why they weren’t already: Me and Andy.  It wasn’t their issue. It was ours. We needed to hand over the reins.

That Wednesday, I picked up some gray sole at the farmer’s market on my way home from work. It was a quiet weeknight — no sports, light homework — so I plunked the fish down on the counter and told Phoebe she was cooking dinner. She had flanked Andy and me at least two dozen times in her life as we dredged filets in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs for our stand-by fish dinner. She was ready to take the lead here.

Her response was only: “What should I make on the side?”

As usual, she was way more game than I had anticipated, and jumped right in, even stealing moments in between fish flips to read from her well-worn volume of Ender’s Game. The bigger challenge was on my end, as I attempted to resist the urge to give her any counsel. When Andy came home a few minutes later, I convinced him to do the same. Harder still was figuring out what exactly to do with ourselves while Phoebe was running the show. If it was between 6:30 and 7:30 PM and I didn’t have to be in front of a stove — well then what was I supposed to be doing? Crocheting? Gardening? It quickly became clear I need a hobby that doesn’t involve the kitchen or my MacBook Pro (and I better figure out what it is before my children leave for college).

Phoebe picked her side dish. We had some greens from Trader Joe’s, which she tossed with sliced cucumbers, crumbled feta, grape tomatoes, and some bottled miso-ginger dressing that I usually use for carrot dipping after school. Forty-five minutes and a massive pile of dirty pots later (who cares? I sure don’t!) we were sitting down to dinner.

PS: Feel free to suggest any other dinner ideas that are easy enough for a 12-year-old. I could totally get used to this.

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Whoa. My mind is spinning with possibilities right now, and school gets out in just a few days, which is such perfect timing!



Ha! my inner kitchen-control-freak-without-a-hobby doesn’t even let my husband cook a full meal. Must work on this before my son gets to 12.


My son makes tacos and chili. He’s 14, and I’m going to teach him how to use the gas grill this summer!

Kirsten D

My son 14 who also has Autism loves to cook, I am slowly learning to let go in the kitchen. I’m calling it life skills training this summer. He loves to grill, and when he comes home from camp he will be cooking one meal a night for us. We may have tacos every week but who cares it’s a night off for me!


This is so great. I loved it when my mom let me cook when I was a kid. I’m 34 now, married but no kids (yet), and I firmly believe that I’m as good a cook as I am now (pretty darn good) because my mom handed over the reins from time to time. It’s funny, when I was in my mid-20s, an old high school friend asked me how I learned to cook, and I said, somewhat confused at the question, “My mom taught me…” because of course she did. Where else would I have learned? So, take faith that, by fighting your instinct to control, you’re currently helping your daughters to become kick-ass adults, who know how to bread and fry a piece of fish, which will impress all of their friends in college and beyond. And then they’ll say, “Phoebe, how did you learn to cook?” and she’ll say, “My parents taught me…” because of course you did.


What a timely post! My older daughter (10) has just started cooking meals on her own, and it is really thanks to my mom encouraging her to do it on her own (I hover too much). She has made pancakes, pasta with tomato basil sauce, and paninis. It is fantastic to see her develop this independence, but really hard to bite my tongue and not intervene! 🙂

P.S. Your website is an absolute gem. I love it!


Here are a few suggestions that I think a 12 year old can handle:
spaghetti carbonara – the sauce comes together off of the stovetop – so easy
grilled chicken – really any meat marinated and done on the indoor grill
Sounds like she’s got the side dishes covered!


garlic bread, pesto w pasta or as a marinade for grilled chicken, orzo, quinoa salad, smittens one pot farro and tomatoes, wraps, meatballs, burgers, hummus. enjoy!


Great post!

My son is 5 and knows how to make vegan pesto in the Vitamix (supervised of course) but he really does know how to take charge, measure things out and get it all in there.

When I was about 12 (just before I became a vegetarian) I invented a nice tarragon and white wine chicken recipe which I served to my parents with wild rice and water chestnuts.

Suzanne Martin

Incredible timing….driving home last night with my 12 year old and asked her “So, what are you going to make us for dinner?” No response from the back seat. This is sign that I need to move on this idea.


My daughter’s eleven, and her favorite supper is one that, pleasingly, is also dead easy to make, even for her.

Skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs get seasoned with whatever (Maura likes garlic, thyme, and sumac) and put onto a cookie tray. Put them in a cold oven, turn it to 400, and ignore them for an hour. When they’re cooked, the skin’s crispy.

Once the oven’s heated, you can add whatever veggies you’d like to another tray–potatoes can go in as soon as the oven’s hot, or asparagus can be added for the last fifteen minutes, or whatever. Throw together a salad and cut some bread and supper’s done.


That is so amazing. I bet she felt so proud of herself at the end. Congrats! Job well done, mom & dad.

Sammi @Sammi Sunshine

You are such good mom! I was fortunate enough that my parents let me play in the kitchen also. My dad, however, didn’t leave us alone and would lecture us after dinner if we did something he didn’t agree with. It made making dinner for my family a tough job, but I’ve always loved cooking.


OMG, this gives me so much hope. Our boys are 3.5, twenty months, and six weeks, and dinner is never, EVER a relaxing, sit-down affair. The idea of one of them cooking dinner one day (rather than smearing it in their hair) almost brings tears to my eyes.


Dude. Anything that Sarah Carey makes on the “Everyday Food” channel on YouTube. Those recipes use basic techniques and very often minimal ingredient lists. 90% of the recipes are healthful too.


My sister has 3 kids old enough to cook meals & a packed schedule. So she instituted a day of the week to cook. They choose their meal, & let her know the ingredients needed. She shops for it all & 3 days a week they cover meals. They LOVE that they can have exactly what they want that day, & also portion control :). They’re all growing & love doubling mom’s normal meat portion, etc…:)


Love this! I started cooking some family meals at the age of 12 and it was one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about cooking/healthy eating today. I started cooking family meals as a tween (early 1990s) out of necessity. My Dad was the chef in our family and he would often travel for work. My mother if left to her own devices in the kitchen would feed us fried pork chops, a microwaved potato and frozen vegetables for supper. I wasn’t going for that so I took over cooking when he was away. My 3 year old is already able to make a few easy dishes on his own (fruit salad, garden salad) and helps with things like scrambled eggs. Hope he will be cooking me supper in 10 years!


How about a roast chicken? Not too hard to prep, and then you just put it in the oven and forget about it.

Plus kids can learn how to stretch the carcass and leftover meat into soup stock, chicken soup, tacos, fajitas, pasta with chicken, etc.


My big kids (11 and 8) have cooked dinner with help a few times, but recently did it unsupervised (chili and cornbread) and did a great job. My aunt suggested that we create their own recipe box (or binder or whatever). I think we’re going to try that this summer and hand over the spatula at least once a week. This morning the 8-yr-old baked cupcakes from scratch by herself, so I know we’ll have dessert covered!


I think its such an important life skill to have, good on you for ‘letting go’! My parents had the rule of kids cooking once we were 10. Easy mince recipes (chilli, tacos, spaghetti bolognaise, shepherds pie etc) plus stirfries were a mainstay of the teen repertoire. Plus, once we were a bit older, we got more adventurous than our parents and started making indian, middle eastern and greek food.


My kids took over the dessert side of things first: cookies, cakes, puddings, etc. Omelets were a good easy meal that my youngest liked to make when she started cooking. Also, she liked Indian food so enjoyed making various curries. She also liked to invent side dishes if she was at the grocery store with me. Roasted brussels sprouts with small red potatoes is still one of her favorites.

I still haven’t found a good hobby for the dinner hour though!

Liz K

What a capable looking chef!
I honestly can’t remember not knowing how to cook. I suppose my Mom taught me but she says she doesn’t remember doing so. I could always season by smell and reading a recipe was not a problem. If I didn’t know what something was, Larousse Gastronomique was right there in the bookcase. I started really cooking at about age 11 (full meals with fussy recipes snipped from Victoria magazine) and never gave it a thought. My mother tends to stick to tried and true recipes as she doesn’t really like to cook and, being anosmic to most things most of the time, she can’t tell if a recipe is right or not so I probably started cooking for variety.
I am fully adult and have no kids yet but I certainly plan on kitchen helpers at a pretty early age. I would think the hardest thing would be keeping out of the way. My future children may need to employ duct tape to keep me from “helping”.

jenn in GA

when i was in high school, i was dating a guy i wanted to impress, so i asked my grandma come over and make my favorite dishes of hers for me to serve!

i didn’t stand beside her and learn how to make them though, and that pains me to this day, because those dishes died with her! neither she nor my mom were the kind of women to welcome others into their domains.

my son, now home from his freshman year in college, has brought several posts from to me and asked if i could make them. i told him we could make them together, and it has been so fun!

keep doing this and they’ll thank you. you’ll figure out a hobby at some point…perhaps you can start with just deep breathing and relaxing. 🙂


For a hobby, I suggest knitting! It’s great for sitting near, but not in the kitchen and freeing you to have a conversation as well.
I think I’ll start having each of my kids (9&10) cook a meal each week this summer. Such a good habit to get into!


so cool, love the read this and looking forward for my future cooks in the kitchen…..:)


so cool, love to read this and looking forward for my future cooks in the kitchen…..:)


My mom had a hard time giving up her kitchen to me when I was younger and wanted to cook or bake. I ended up learning how to cook more in college and law school. I’ve picked up her bad tendency of wanting total control of my kitchen but every so often I”ll get together with my 12 year old sister and let her pick out a recipe.

At first we would go through my own stash of recipes and I’d do a lot of the work while she sneaked chocolate chips. Now though she’s pulling up her own recipes online or in cookbooks and doing everything but the heavy lifting herself. It’s so awesome being able to share these moments with her that I don’t even mind the fact that I’m not the one stress baking in my kitchen 🙂

Lynn BB

My son cooked dinner often between the ages of 12-14. I increased his allowance for it but on days I was working, it was wonderful to come home and have dinner started. Unfortunately, he outgrew it a couple of years ago.

I wanted him to cook more than my daughters because my husband does nothing in the kitchen. Break the cycle! I figure eventually my girls will have to learn how to cook no matter what and they have started at college.


My 10 1/2 year old made your pretzel chicken last week– start to finish, with her mother watching and biting her tongue! She totally loved the experience, and was ecstatic about the shift from sous to executive. The only drawback was the dish pile as high as Mt. Everest. Still, a GREAT experience. We’re implementing a 1x/month plan for her to be the dinner boss. Thanks Jenny!


I started cooking around 12 – I mastered beef bolognese, on toast, and then pasta and the. I stretched the skill to cottage pie


These are such great ideas and stories. Thanks everyone! I will keep you posted on her progress.


Very Cool! You brought back wonderful memories for me watching my son learning to cook on his own back in the day. Now he is 24 and is a very good cook, and truly enjoys it. When we get to be together (military and 11 hours away from home) we are always sharing time in the kitchen cooking up good stuff! Thanks for the smiles 🙂


Your turkey chili is my go-to and easy enough for anyone. The most complex part is cooking the turkey and trying not to have it burn on the Le Creuset.

Uncle Earl

What can you do while Phoebe is cooking? Drink wine!! Or, better, Gin and tonics!! Gigi/Grampa had taught Doug how to make the perfect Manhattan and serve it by the time he was six years old!! It’s a life skill! And, a gateway cocktail.

The pride you feel at seeing Phoebe (and soon Abby) cook is the same pride your Mother and Father felt when you started to cook. And, that pride is IMMENSE.

BTW, Ruth had me sous chef at the MixMaster for Angel Food Cake at three years old. She would make them en masse to take to church, shut-ins, other people and to Gwendolyn, who had polio and was Mom’s Best Friend. It was torture watching the cake cool in the pan upside down atop the coke bottle. But, I got to lick the bowl!!


Love this! My goal for the summer is to teach my 8 & 9 year old boys to cook. I figure, it covers reading, math, it teaches them how healthy food is made, gives them an appreciation for the meals that they eat, and its something that we can do together. Any advise on some kid friendly knives or some good recipes?


It’s great that you’re encouraging your daughter to get involved in the kitchen and learn how to cook from an early age! It will make her life so much easier when she goes off on her own. My mom has always been territorial in the kitchen and afraid to let me use knives, so I didn’t learn how to cook until the age of 21 when I lived on my own (without a dining plan) for the first time. I actually just made dinner for my parents for the first time last week after my dad convinced my mom to hand over control of the kitchen for a night. I made a tomato and caramelized onion pizza with a balsamic strawberry feta salad, and they loved it! Pizza is a great first dish to make, especially when you start with storebought pizza dough. Happy cooking!


dinnertime hobby?? no no, wine is what you need. i suggest leaving the kitchen entirely and doing something totally mindless! i am home with two little ones and am dreaming of the day when my kids will eat what i cook, nevermind cook for me. your book and recipes get me through some of the toughest food days!


I was about 12 and my younger brother 10 when my mom bought a “Betty Crocker for kids” cookbook. It had recipes for all courses. We were each required to plan, help shop for and prepare 1 meal per week. My folks suffered through some things like “grape fizz” – yes there were beverages 🙂 !

We were both capable readers as well as direction followers as well as having been observers of both parent and grandparents in the kitchen. I don’t remember there being a lot of supervision but I’m sure we were able to ask questions.

My brother and I are both accomplished and adventurous cooks …we are now 59 and 57. I don’t think either of us is intimidated by a recipe because…we can read and follow directions.

I advise a similar plan, i.e. let children plan and prepare. And I agree with nicki…wine and out of the kitchen 🙂 – available for questions but not on top of. On days when parents cook – at least some…and the kids are in the kitchen – some light instruction in technique can happen also as in talking about how and why you do whatever.


There were three kids in our household and when I was 12, my parents were tired of cooking. They each divided the cooking duties pretty evenly. We each had one dinner per week that we chose the meal and then prepared. My youngest brother was 6 when this started and we had several meals of hot dogs, sometimes with macaroni and cheese. We can all cook well now as adults and I am so glad we did this when younger. By 14, I was throwing dinner parties for friends that were several courses. It amazes me how many people I know that survive on take-out or prepare a meal by mixing ready-made items together because they were never taught.


I’m inspired to get my almost 10-year-old more confident in the kitchen. I’m also reminded of the first meal I made, with my best friend Emily for her dad while her mom was out of town for work. It was beef consommé, from a can, that we neglected to mix with water:)


I’m inspired to get my almost 10-year-old more confident in the kitchen. I’m also reminded of the first meal I made, with my best friend Emily, for her dad while her mom was out of town for work. It was beef consommé, from a can, that we neglected to mix with water:)


I think my favorite part of this post (which I love by the way) is that she was reading while that’s comfortable in the kitchen!


My 11 year old daughter can scramble herself some eggs and make mac n cheese from a box. She’s also made brownies from a mix. Plus we try to coax her into helping us make dinner (DH and I love to cook together). But it had never occurred to us to get her to make dinner until reading this.

So yesterday I said offhand “so, you going to cook dinner Friday?”

At first she made a face and rolled her eyes and then she said “Are you being serious?” I nodded, “sure, why not?”

Suddenly I had a very enthusiastic chef on my hands. “I’ll make pasta with a lemon butter sauce!”

“What about a veggie?”

“Edamame — in a salad so Papa can pick them out.”

I’ll have to make sure we have the ingredients on hand, but this should be AWESOME.


My 13-year-old makes waffles and pizza from scratch. He’s oddly bashful about it, but I’m ridiculously excited that he can come home from school and make pizza dough so it’s ready to go when we get home from work.


My twelve-year-old makes mac and cheese from scratch, and a terrific garlicky tomato sauce. Best of all, she loves to be at the stove, so oftentimes I will chop and hand her the ingredients as she goes. The nine-year-old is in charge of omelets.


This is great! About four years ago (when our kids were 14, 12 and 11), we had the kids work together to cook a meal of their choice (tacos!) then we gradually upgraded to each of them separately cooking the entire meal, including the grocery shopping for the meal. Now we do that regularly, primarily in the summer when the schedules aren’t ridiculous. Of course the chef doesn’t do the clean-up — the other two must do that. They also have to make something that they have never made before — so it widens their repertoire (even though our daughter does make a great chicken parmesan). It’s great that they not only know how to take care of themselves, but the oldest one has had dinner parties with friends and can impress a girlfriend and her family with his homecooked meal. Best thing we ever did!


I came looking because I am reading your book on my Kindle. I found this post interesting. By twelve I did had been cooking all of my family’s meals for four years. It never occurred to me to not have my sons in the kitchen learning and helping.

I will say that her choice for the “dredging station” makes more sense to me. Less of the breading is lost (and burnt) in the oil if you dredge items and then let them rest a few minutes before putting in the oil.

Thanks for sharing your adventures. What I have read has given me some chuckles.


This year I started a new trend for our family–each kid makes dinner once a week. My two were 9 and 10 when we started and it worked out pretty well. I admit having to help especially the 9 year old quite a bit but as they gained confidence I was able to let go more and more. The best part for me is that they have to decide what to make–2 nights a week of someone else answering the What’s For Dinner question? Sign me up!
Like many things in our family, as the year got busy–around holidays etc–this family rule finds itself neglected, but your post has inspired me to reinstate it in all its glory, esp as we are now in the lazy summer months!


I cooked at home with little supervision beginning around 3rd grade… of course at that age, way more supervision than the totally hands off when I got to 12. So stuff I learned first: pizza dough/pizza, even from scratch; any cassarole style dish that you eat; spaghetti and meat sauce (work towards those amazing meatballs of yours- at 12 I bet she can do it). As an adult I’m so glad I don’t have to learn to cook like some friends. That’s such a strange concept to me!


My parents worked long hours and liked to eat when they got home, so I was in charge of getting food on the table. Usually that meant rice and lentils, warming up a side veg my Mom had made, setting the table, and doing the dishes when we were finished. So their solution of what to do: commute home. A 12 year old I know is far advanced of my skills at that age, making fresh chapati. Pancakes, waffles, omelets are easier than the knife skills for salad. twice baked potatoes, baked shells, nachos. smoothie, blender soups, homemade hummus. grilled cheese, pizza bagel, anything on the foreman grill.