by cv harquail

Many parents struggle with teaching their au pairs to prepare healthy meals for their children.  It doesn’t seem like it should be too difficult to fix a meal comprised of a protein, vegetable/fruit and starch, 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.  Here are some tips from other host moms.

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.