On Comfort Food

Twelve years into this whole parenting thing, I know a few things for sure: The baby will need your attention at the exact moment the garlic in the pan goes from golden to blackened; bribery is a necessary evil; and—perhaps most relevant for the phase I’m in right now—mashed potatoes are crucial for surviving the middle-school years. I’m not talking about the kids’ survival here. I’m talking about my own.

Let me back up a bit. In the spring of 1983, I was probably the happiest 12-year-old who ever lived. I had the starring role of Adelaide in my elementary school’s production of Guys and Dolls; I was on the travel soccer team; I never lacked for lunchroom companions. I had my own CB windbreaker, which wasn’t a hand-me-down from my sister (a first), and I even had a requited crush (another first) on a kid named Mike, who was cool enough to pull off a shell necklace.

By the fall it was all gone. My small grade of 100 kids matriculated to the much larger middle school, where my lunchroom companions found new lunchroom companions, who were interested in makeup (I was not); snapped each other’s bras at gym (I was years away from wearing one); and made fun of me when I asked them to “play.” (“We say ‘hang out’ now, Jenny.”) Even when I said it the right way, though…

This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for September’s Real Simple. Head over to their site for the continuation.

PS: First Time Here?

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Marianne A.

Great story. Totally relatable, funny and heartwarming. I am sooooo making mashed potatoes for my high school aged daughter’s tonight.


I’m here because I read this Real Simple essay in the magazine. It was the advice I needed right now very badly if you know what I mean. How have I never heard of you all these years? Great blog!


Love this because I can totally relate. I have one going into 7th grade and all of this girl drama scares me. Your mom’s advice was totally spot on.

PS – I received my copy of Dinner: the playbook on Tuesday. I brought it to work today to share with my co-workers.


ooooh….you said “microwave”!!

thankful to have a boy (and he’s just 7). he was not a mashed potato lover until his dad repeatedly told him it was HIS favorite dish as a kid. now, he’ll eat it (good thing since it’s in pretty regular rotation).


Beautifully written, Jenny! Been there and done that 4x – and that is the best (but hardest!) approach as a mother. Thanks for making me remember those days.


I still recall the first day of middle school as the worst day of my life, almost 20 years later. Thank goodness for moms who can cook!


I have read every blog entry you’ve ever written, and I have your books, and this piece is best thing ever. I cried and cried at your mom’s words, and I am so very glad to have just one thing under my control. Thanks for your writing. And for the recipe!


Jenny you nailed it on this one. Make roasted chicken, mash potatoes and cooked,buttery carrots for dinner the first night of school. The kids will need it for re-entry…and so will I!!!


So nice Brandi and everyone else, I’m glad it was resonant. For better or worse, there are gonna be lots of mashed potatoes in our futures.


This was lovely. As a mom of a first-grader, I worry already about the dumb things kids do to each other and what I can and can’t do to prevent them. Thanks (to you and your mom) for showing me that parents have a way to make it better. In our house, homemade mac & cheese is the comfort food of choice.

Jennifer R

One of my favorites so far(and I have a lot of your posts I like!). I need to remember this even for my nine year old who has emotional swings from school that I just want to take away.


So sweet! My little girl is only 1 (erh…ALREADY 1!), but definitely something I’ll tuck away in the mental files. Just thinking about watching her suffer through middle school makes me queazy…

P.S. That recipe calls for a microwave! 😛


as a mother about to take her youngest of 2 off to his freshman year of college this really resonates. Sending them off into the world is scary, and you are right about making home a comfortable place. Reminds me of the mother of 5 boys who when adversity approached said “want a milkshake?” . Mashed potatoes work the same way. Thanks for sharing.

A Life From Scratch

Jenny, you nailed it for me. This is exactly why I love to cook. For me, it may not fix problems but it sure does help.

If someone’s love one passes – I make a very specific light yet healthy ‘keep on going’ soup. If L looks sad when he gets off the bus I pop a tray of cookies in the oven. If my husband has been traveling and eating airport food for 4 days it’s all about the cheesy, chicken, veggie pot pie when he returns. Life’s moments, for me, are played out by the recipes you make.

Amy P

My kid doesn’t like mashed potatoes yet (she’s three), but if she could read I think you’d have her convinced.


Jenny- best post ever!!! The other day I “needed” mashed potatoes and meatloaf in a big way. My 4 and 5 year-old would not touch the potatoes but ate the rest of the meal. My mom made mashed potatoes weekly and I too find huge comfort in them. The next day my kids will eat re-purposed ham and cheese potato croquettes. We all win that way!


I love this, Jenny! Your mom’s advice is so lovely, and I firmly believe that mashed potatoes have healing powers 🙂 I can’t believe that I’ve never warmed my cream or melted my butter for potatoes, though (I’ve always just added them in cold)…what was I thinking?! And though my daughters are too young for middle school drama, we are LOVING Taylor Swift’s new song Shake It Off, and I’ve decided it will be our new go-to dance party tune when life gets us down 🙂 xoxo


Love this, Jenny! And I’d be lying if I said your peice didn’t bring back some rough memories of the 7th grade cafeteria–yikes!


Yes, once you develop a repertoire of comfort food, you’ve cracked it. For us, it could be roast chicken with mashed potatoes and greens, steak and salad, belly pork with rice and steamed broccoli, grilled fish with roasted veg, pasta with meat sauce, or confited duck legs with mash and a green salad. Simple to make, and the kids love it.