Toddler cooks

The toddler sous chef helps make dinner on a winter evening. 

I like to cook. It gives me something to do with my hands after a long, sedentary workday of typing at a desk. I’ve only recently come to realize that I’m not very good at it.

Starting from a young age, I loved working in the kitchen. My mom is an excellent baker. She always has a Tupperware full of cookies or bars at the ready. In my younger days, I’d work by her side mixing and scooping – and taste-testing, of course. It’s a pastime I’ve carried on with my own girls. We’ll slay any weekend boredom by mixing up a pan of brownies. Even the 2 year old knows mixers are for licking.

The tried and true “busy day brownies,” as our well-used recipe card calls them, always turn out great. It’s hard to mess up something with so much sugar and chocolate.

My attempts at dinner, however, have been another story. It could possibly be that whatever cooking skills I had have atrophied. My husband does most of the cooking lately while I chase the toddler. He knows his way around the kitchen, having worked a string of jobs as a short-order cook during and after high school. And he’s way more creative than I am. He’ll throw together whatever’s in the cupboard and turn it into something pretty tasty.

My stomach and I are grateful that he takes up the ladle. Mostly, I’m just glad I don’t have to make a decision about what to cook each night. Meal planning is not my favorite task. I’m so indecisive that it’s usually a good idea for me to look up a menu online before we sit down at a restaurant. “What’s for dinner?” is a question that can spark some major anxieties.

All that said, I reiterate that I do enjoy cooking. When I don’t have a toddler sous chef to manage, I like to page through my recipe books or whip up a favorite entree. I sometimes get ambitious and try a whole spread of new recipes from a magazine. But my subscriptions have run out lately, and I haven’t done that it in a while.

I recently subscribed to another email newsletter. The New York Times morning briefing comes to my inbox, and I’ve committed reading it first thing in the morning as a way to feed my brain with current events of the world before swiping over to Facebook – much like eating my oatmeal before pouring a bowl of donut marshmallow candy cereal.

The news briefing always highlights one recipe from New York Times Cooking. The other day, the feature caught my eye and inspired me to get cooking. It helped that we happened to have all the ingredients on hand.

It was a barley dish, made risotto style, topped with crispy mushrooms and onions. In my experience risottos are challenging. It’s supposed to result in a creamy rice or grain by slowly adding broth until it’s well cooked. But I’m usually going on hour two of adding liquid and I’ve still got a crunch to my rice.

This recipe promised a cook time of less than a half hour, and I wanted to trust it. But there we were, approaching the toddler’s bedtime and the barley was still crunchy.

To make a long, frustrating story short, I salvaged enough grain to make a chewy base for my dish. I topped it with onions and mushrooms that were nowhere near crunchy, and the smoke alarm went off twice. I’m calling fake news on the quick-cook risotto recipe.

It will be a while before I attempt another risotto, but I’m not closing the door on the kitchen, and thankfully my family hasn’t altogether given up on my cooking. Maybe they can tell that it’s made with love – a deep and true burning love.

Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor