Spending time in the kitchen soothes our jangled nerves in anxious times

Serena Pollack (top row, center box) who says she has become a more competent cook during the pandemic, having a Zoom seder with family.

Families everywhere are continuing to pivot culinarily as we hit the tenth month of the current predicament. Between work and school at home, with three meals and several snacks a day to be created in our kitchens, we are all seriously COVID-Over-It.

But in the midst of these upside-down times, some shining spots are emerging. Families who have never had time to create food traditions are suddenly embracing everything from traditional Shabbat dinners to Taco Tuesdays. Kids are getting in on the cooking game, whether helping care for the new family pet, making sourdough starter, getting into baking, or learning to make their own basic meals and snacks.

Food has always been more than just physical sustenance, and now we are all relying on its power to soothe our jangled nerves and comfort our weary hearts as we are fueling our bodies. And every household is handling it differently.  

Local parenting coach Dana Hirt is mostly just home with her 23-year-old daughter Kalie. Hirt does most of the cooking, but Kalie is a great help with meal planning, ordering grocery delivery, table setting and clean-up. During the week they are often joined by Hirt's boyfriend and sometimes his 90-year-old father. She is grateful that no one has any particular dietary restrictions but admits that preferences aren't always aligned. 

"As a parent coach I have to remind parents that cooking for a family should not make anyone a short order cook," Hirt offers to any parent feeling overwhelmed. "Rather, make sure to provide enough choices on the table to satisfy everyone, and encourage children to try new things."

Local food writer and cookbook author Emily Paster is doing nearly all the dinnertime cooking for herself, her husband, their 17-year-old daughter, and 13-year-old son. The teenagers are fairly self-sufficient when it comes to breakfast and lunch, needing only a little assistance here and there. But despite doing takeout on average once a week, her husband helping with an occasional meal on the grill, and being a culinary professional, even Emily admits to having some kitchen burnout.

"I love to cook, and it is my job, but even I am tired of cooking so many meals every day for everyone. I miss restaurants. I am tired of the endless piles of dishes," Paster said. "I miss being able to run to the store for one or two ingredients without giving it a thought. I miss hosting people for large gatherings."  Holidays are particularly difficult for those who love to host. "Passover for four was very odd and it was hard to convince my kids that it was any different than regular dinner!" she said. 

On the flipside, Milwaukee resident Serena Pollack is single and living alone. She occasionally takes on doing some cooking for her local aunts and uncles who are in their 70s, which she enjoys as a way to stay connected. She is finding that working from home and cooking all her meals has made her both a more competent and creative cook. 

"I have time to try new recipes and things I never would have had time for before," Pollack said. "I'm building new skills in the kitchen, which feels really good, since once you have them, you have them forever.  I'm also really enjoying menu planning with family for our social bubble; it feels great to be able to talk about what we are going to eat together and then be able to cook those dishes for everyone."

However you and yours are cooking and eating right now, the most important thing seems to be that it is a time for being gentle with yourself and each other. To remember that while meals are a chore to be dealt with, they are also an opportunity. 

Hirt sums it up perfectly. "The best thing about cooking at home during this pandemic is the best thing about cooking at home in general," she said. "Cooking together is a wonderful way for a family to stay connected. The pandemic just reinforced our family's kitchen connection!" 

Stacey Ballis is the author of 10 culinary novels and one cookbook, and does freelance articles and recipe development for outlets including ExtraCrispy.com and TheTakeout.com. You can find out more about her at staceyballis.com.


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