I want to make cooking, and the kitchen, more pleasant, less stressful
May 16, 2016 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Am moving into a household w/ a Mom and 2 kids (18-22 yrs). The kitchen was a mess; I have scrubbed the walls, painted, added new lighting, rearranged drawers, added a radio and some color. After 20 years of scrambling to get food on the table, Mom is reluctant to spend much time in the room; cooking or socializing.

I want to re-new the space. I offer to cook (though I am not very good, need some basic lessons) and only ask for company....sit, talk, drink some wine, maybe cut onions.
So I need (can't renovate much) ideas on re-upping this space, changing some psyches, and proof in the pudding--some healthy cooking ideas!
posted by ebesan to Human Relations (37 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Are you in a relationship with this person? A friend? Just a roommate?

It's nice that you want to cook for them, but is that what they want?

These are questions I would need to know the answer to before giving advice on this question.
posted by bearette at 1:40 PM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have a couch in my kitchen, which makes it desirable for people to keep me company. Anything similar (table, bar) will help.

I'd also suggest getting some cookbooks that walk you through the learning process (e.g. Julia Child's The Way to Cook) and working through it. Having a process to follow makes learning more formulaic, but you can also measure your process. You'll be demonstrating to Mom how to start simply and evolve complexity.
posted by Capri at 1:42 PM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is vague beyond vague. What does the family actually enjoy eating?

If the kitchen has been a source of stress for Mom for two decades, I don't think I'd push too hard for company while chopping onions. Do your thing, school yourself on making good versions of foods they like, and hang back and be patient.

I am a low-income only parent and the idea of being food insecure brings panic to my heart. If I had ever had a real struggle to feed my child, I can see how the kitchen would be a locus of major anxiety. Follow the lead and requests and wishes of Mom on this, please...

(Is there any outdoor space? Are you any good at BBQing? Maybe a grill and a picnic table might be a nice thing to invest in?)
posted by kmennie at 1:43 PM on May 16, 2016

YES, I forgot, we are getting married. And she likes the help.
posted by ebesan at 1:46 PM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

What do people do instead of hanging out in the kitchen? Are there ways to bring that into the kitchen space? If she wants to lounge and drink a glass of wine or cup of tea, then yes, give her that. Or maybe she wants beer and a piece of cheese, or a cookie. Pay attention to what what her current evening routine is, and see what would make the kitchen friendlier to that. A comfier chair and a phone charger for chatting while reading Facebook, or a laptop with a tv or movie going on, may not sound "social" but could get warm bodies in there with you at least, and then it's your job to make conversation more interesting than media.
posted by aimedwander at 1:50 PM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

money is not a real issue; and the kids are getting interested in healthy food, Indian food. but eat like most teenagers...
posted by ebesan at 1:50 PM on May 16, 2016

First of all, the drudgery of cooking is in the prep. If you've got a crew of hungry people to feed, having someone who's new to the kitchen trying to do a recipe in there will just stress people out.


Buy pre washed and chopped ingredients. For example, Kroger offers chopped onions, peppers, mirpoix and Cajun mirpoix by the bag for .88 a piece. It's VERY cost effective and a total time saver.

I like Dorot garlic. One cube equals a clove of garlic. I get mine at Trader Joes, if you're in the UK, try Tesco. They're frozen.

To have a nice meal, it needn't be a production. I throw together dinner more often than not.

Roasting things on a cookie sheet lined with tin foil is a neat trick. You can cube veggies, and do thin cuts of meat. Drizzle with olive oil, season and roast for about 20 minutes. Dinner is served!

Omelets are quick and easy. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

A slow cooker allows dinner to be ready when you get home. Get a cookbook that with recipes that sound yummy. Get the liners to make clean up a breeze.

One night can be soup and sandwich night. We used to do a big submarine sandwich with chips in the summer, or grilled cheese and tomato in the winter.

Pasta is very fast and easy and most folks like it. It's also pretty cheap and filling.

You'll discover stuff you like and you'll get a repertoire, with new things tested on the weekends, when you have time to fuss with it all.

Good luck and enjoy!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:53 PM on May 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

Nice tablecloth? Flowers? Comfortable chairs are a biggie -- we changed our dining room chairs (found great used chairs at $15 each) and suddenly it was way, way more pleasant to sit at the table.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:54 PM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Why not ask her what she wants, or what feels stressful about cooking?

Here's what I love about my kitchen:

1. A place for everything, and everything mostly in its place. There are enough drawers and cupboards, and it doesn't feel like all the kitchen tools/supplies/cutlery/etc. are bursting out everywhere in a disorganized mess. If I'm at the stove, I can easily grab a wooden spoon, the olive oil, a pot-holder, etc.

2. I have the tools for the job. I have a proper chef's knife and good cutting boards for prepping vegetables. I have a skillet for eggs and a big pot for pasta. As long as we keep up with the dishes there is always a bowl and a fork and the right glass for whatever I feel like drinking.

3. It's easy to clean. I don't have to worry a lot about making a mess and then The Kitchen Is A Huge Mess, because loading the dishwasher, putting things away, and wiping down the counters makes the kitchen clean. There is always a clean kitchen towel, sponges, soap, etc.

4. My apartment has an open kitchen with a bar, so one or two people can be cooking while others can still socialize with us. The kitchen is also open to where the TV is, so we can put something on and cook or clean without having to drudge away in silence.

I have no idea whether any of these things are in your capacity to do. Some of them might involve a large outlay of money for supplies and utensils. Others depend on the layout of your apartment. But helping her have the right stuff, know where it is, clean up afterwards, and have a way to feel less isolated in there are all a good start.
posted by Sara C. at 1:57 PM on May 16, 2016

Grab a new small appliance - I'd vote strongly for an Instant Pot - and try some new recipes that neither of you have made before. It's a different way of cooking, adds in some fun, and it's definitely something usable by everyone involved should they feel the urge. Bonus is that it takes less time to cook most items, so you can BOTH get out of the room sooner if you want!
posted by VioletU at 1:57 PM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Are the things in the kitchen in the places where she wants them to be? I have a hard time working in kitchen where someone else has chosen the layout of where things are put away, because I have Strong Feelings about where things should go.

Also, if you want people to help you in the kitchen, 1) serve appetizers in the kitchen, and 2) don't cook when their TV show is on in the other room.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:04 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you asked her to just keep you company? Do you truly mean that? (I mean, you're not trying to lure her into the kitchen with the promise of wine and light convo and then switching it up and asking her to assemble the casserole, are you?)

Aside from asking her what she wants, you might just have to take over all cooking and give it time. You'll get to be a better cook through practice and the stress of the space will fade for her as she gets a break from the scramble of trying to put together meals. This will only work if you also clean up after yourself. (Or rope the grown kids into helping with clean up!)

My perspective: aside from cooking and meal planning itself being stressful sometimes, it can also be stressful to watch someone else cook in "your" kitchen or try to follow one of "your" recipes. Not all couples cook well together, though that can be a real joy if you learn to do it together. Maybe she needs a good long break to reset her emotional response to that room and those tasks.
posted by purple_bird at 2:05 PM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Playing nice music while you cook really makes it a pleasant experience, and people will feel comfortable joining you in the kitchen.
posted by LauraJ at 2:12 PM on May 16, 2016

Civilized cocktail hour is another way to lure people into the kitchen. Beverages and light nibblies are laid out on the counter, so people can swing in to nosh while watching you make coq au vin or whatever it is you're putting together.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:17 PM on May 16, 2016

This is such a nice question. :) my two cents:

1) it sounds like you took the lead with the kitchen rehab. Although nice, it may have made her aware of how "not good enough" it was before. Maybe there are other decisions to make where you can involve her directly, even if it's in the future ("I know we don't have the money now, but I was thinking it would be good to redo the floor in here. I'll save up! Do you want tile, bamboo, etc?"). That way she begins to associate the changes as "our kitchen" vs "his kitchen" or "my old kitchen."

2) Is there space for a stool at the countertop, so that she can sit with you and a notebook/laptop/mail and do busywork while you do the cooking?
posted by samthemander at 2:23 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

After 20 years of scrambling to get food on the table, Mom is reluctant to spend much time in the room; cooking or socializing

Given this, I don't know that you can change this by making the physical space more enticing. After about 15 years cooking for the family, my mother "retired" as personal chef for the family, and that is one of the best examples she ever set for me, frankly. Just because she's the mom doesn't mean she belongs in the kitchen, especially after she's put in a full career.

We took turns cooking for the family, or took care of our own dinner. She cooked if/when she felt like it. Everyone learned and nobody starved. So if the pressure is completely off of her, it might be a less fraught space.
posted by kapers at 2:28 PM on May 16, 2016 [12 favorites]

Things that would make it fun to hang out in the kitchen for me (if for some reason I'm not cooking):

1. Lots of USB plugs (easy to switch out regular outlets for the kind that have usb ports) So I can browse the internet and bring up youtube videos of otters for everyone's enjoyment.

2. comfy seating (window seat would be great) to relax with a book or a glass of wine.

Though she managed to feed two children to adulthood (they are 18 and 22, correct?) so she may just have decided she has had enough of the kitchen. Some people just hate cooking, especially if it is historically fraught for them.
posted by Julnyes at 2:49 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Congratulations, you have a nice kitchen to learn to cook in! I think time is the only thing that will help your partner. Bonding with the kids is probably the easier route to having cooking companionship.
posted by teremala at 2:56 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some people just don't like to
a) cook/be in the kitchen and it seems as if she's spent enough time in there in the last 20 years
b) don't like to hang out
c) or watch other people cook in their space.

So it may be that your ideal outcome here will never become reality. In my family my mother had always cooked all meals. After she passed our father started to cook. And he enjoyed it and was really a lot better at it than my mother had been. She only ever became the family chef because that was the expected division of labour and she hated it. So don't discount the possibility that your future wife has never and will never enjoy being in the kitchen, even if she doesn't have to cook. Even my auntie, who does not hate cooking, announced a few years ago that after 40 years of Christmas dinners she was done with 'doing' Christmas and could we please take it in turns....as her house is the biggest Christmas is still at her house but she sits down in front of her piano with mulled wine and the chocolates and other people do all the work.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:10 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Great that you're making the space more pleasant.
For some folks the hardest part of cooking is creating a menu day in, day out.
So you might talk on the weekend with her about the weeks list of dinner menus. Who knows, maybe she'll get enthused to help you out.
posted by artdrectr at 3:16 PM on May 16, 2016

So, if you are luring her, be direct with her -- I want you to hang out and chat with me when I cook, because I love talking to you, and I will be doing ALL the cooking, you'll just be hanging out -- and make her space very inviting. A comfortable chair for her, a nice plant, pleasant music, a guaranteed glass of wine/cup of tea at her elbow. If you have an animal she loves, put its bed near where she will be sitting.
posted by bearwife at 3:18 PM on May 16, 2016 [7 favorites]

Seconding the couch - for more than a decade, I had a Swedish daybed in my kitchen, and it completely changed the atmosphere there. For friends and family, the kitchen became a favorite place at all hours (really). It was a bit hard to enforce good table manners, since one was partially stuck when one sat in it, and it stood in the way of a counter, but it made the kitchen a room everyone loved. We never had a TV, but the music was on, and dancing was encouraged.

Guests including visiting "children" would sleep there, and something about the whole situation meant that no-one felt obligated to do anything but hang out, enjoy. Some people would jump right into the daybed and do nothing the whole evening, others would offer their help right away when they arrived but still sit at the table chopping or whatever.

There was always a nice tablecloth on the table, and candles. And always snacks before dinner - easy snacks like crisps or maybe garlic bread or tortilla chips and guacamole or salsa. Or just veggies and a yogurt dipping sauce. And drinks with or without alcohol.

We had a lot of rice with curries and similar stew-type food made in the wok very quickly for everyday foods. And on weekends time-consuming but easy to make things like lasagna or a tagine with cous cous. And we also had the simple protein, starch, vegs: grilled chicken thighs, fried potatoes, a salad; fried pork chops, boiled potatoes, creamed spinach; steak, baked potato, grilled tomatoes (maybe wedge of iceberg). It looks boring on paper, but is delicious. Set a table with buns, salad, tomatoes, condiments and burgers w/wo cheese, and let everyone create their own combo.

I've always strived to make our home, and not least the kitchen, the favorite place to hang out for my daughters' friends. That way it was also a favorite place for them. As a parent, happy kids are a source of joy and pride. Maybe it is the kids and their friends you need to engage, before their mum? I remember when I was teen, there was a home where we could try out cooking and get advice about how to make our favorite dishes. That was where we always were, even those of us who didn't cook or care for food - it was just so friendly and warm. I tried to reproduce that by helping my kids make their own delicious snacks when friends were over, from pancakes to pizzas to popcorn. On a practical level, I still always have cupboard staples so I can extend a meal from 4 to 10 people. If I only had one chicken, I might start with a simple pasta, Italian style, and then serve the chicken roasted with a dish of greens from my freezer, sautéed with olive oil and garlic, and then fruit for dessert (or someone runs to the corner store for an ice-cream..)

Regardless of what food you prefer, what you need is good routines: start with the mise en place and tidy up as you go. It is that simple 80 % of the time, and if you are a starter, wait a bit with the Thomas Keller Ratatouille.. What is important is that you need to look like it is effortless and you are in control: that is what makes everyone relax. The difficult thing about sharing kitchen chores is when you are not yourself really aware of what you are doing.
However, I agree with those above who say you shouldn't expect help of any kind from someone who has been an unhappy cook for that many years. My people began to want to cook when they realized they wanted homemade food even if I was away for a conference. For many years they never lifted a finger in the kitchen (and I harbor no bad feelings, basically I cook for myself, though I am really happy to share). Now they contribute because they want to learn.

Still, I have several family members and friends who will never enjoy cooking and maybe not even eating. One has to accept that. In the kitchen with the day-bed, those people still felt accepted, and social.

For inspiration, Hughs Three Good Things are healthy and simple. They come as a book, too.

Today my couch has migrated to our summerhouse, and we have a different life-style. But I still strive to make everyone feel comfortable by doing things I can handle, so that I don't seem stressed. I may be a little late with dinner, but there will be snacks, and everyone knows there will be food and drinks and a relaxed, unworried atmosphere. Today I can handle more complex situations than 20 years ago, and my family are much more inclined and able to help, but the basic concept is the same. Make a comfortable space, and be in control, so everyone can relax.

(btw - at first, I lived in an apartment where the day-bed and dinner table was necessarily in a separate room from the kitchen - I made sure there was visual communication and I went to and fro all the time - prepping some things at the dinner table. If I hadn't found a place with a big kitchen, I would have taken down walls to create that space).
posted by mumimor at 3:23 PM on May 16, 2016 [14 favorites]

How large is the kitchen? If it's large enough where she can have a spot to sit down, do her own after-work downtime thing but still be in social contact with the active cook but not in the way this might work. Nthing the suggestions above to have the adult beverage of her choice available on tap. But honestly, if I were in your fiancee's position the thing that would make the biggest difference is just being respectfully asked to keep future partner company in the kitchen while they cook, with minimal expectations to be marshaled up for onion-chopping or to keep a steady flow of conversation if I just really want to unwind with some facebooking or whatever. Perhaps ask whether she'd be interested in a joint cooking project maybe once a week--something that she'd enjoy but that maybe seemed too much effort for one person in the past.

The 18-yo in particular is probably in Peak Parental Disengagement right now. Don't expect a whole lot there. And for everyone involved, don't try to overtly or covertly steer anyone's diets in a "healthy" direction unless they explicitly ask for that.
posted by drlith at 3:24 PM on May 16, 2016

If you want company, see if someone else can keep you company in the kitchen. Maybe one of the kids would be willing to hang out while you cook, or you could invite a friend over.
posted by yohko at 3:37 PM on May 16, 2016

I'd ask her. A sofa in the kitchen would totally stress me out, for example, just the idea of crumbs and sticky bits festering around it even if I know they are washable.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2016

For us, a pub-height table was the perfect single addition. We've had it for years now, and there's just something about sitting at the higher height that facilitates conversation and makes it much easier to interact.
posted by raisingsand at 4:13 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ask all three of them, at different times, to make a trip to the grocery store and then give you a lesson on cooking their favorite dish. If it is a positive experience then they may hang out with you again from time to time. Trying to force a tired mom and teenagers to do anything is like bathing a cat. It's just not worth it. If you are going to be in there for awhile, put out appetizers that they can grab and snack on as they pass through. At least when they come back for another bite (dozens of times, kids are awful with interrupting) you will have a little interaction.
posted by myselfasme at 4:17 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't have much sympathy with "tired". What happens on the night when everyone is tired? You go hungry?

Work on division of responsibility. One person cooks, one person sets the table, one person gets the beverages, one person does the dishes. Each person in the house should have a dish the he or she can make, even if only Mac and cheese out of a box.

Have an experimental or new recipe night once a week to add new option for the menu planner.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:46 PM on May 16, 2016

Make a perfect kitchen-nook to sit in:
Put a loveseat in the kitchen, little table beside it, little lamp or christmas lights on/near the table.
Maybe flowers sometimes.
Tweak the lighting so you can see while cooking but it's pleasant and dim where the loveseat is- make sure no light is in the eyes of the person on the loveseat.
Get some music going in there.
Sit in the loveseat and look around. See if anything feels discordant, or needs a little ornamentation. Fix that, if so.

As for the cooking:
Use cookbooks and blogs to find recipes. Pioneer Woman is great because her step-by-step photos make it really easy to follow her recipes. And everything I've ever cooked from Smitten Kitchen has been delicious.
You sound like a very nice fiance; wishing you happiness!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:50 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

The radio was a great addition. Podcasts can also be great in the kitchen.

I also think this is almost exactly what Blue Apron was made for. Very yummy, healthy meals that are fun to cook as a group, that also teach you how to be much better as a home chef. I can't rave enough about it.

I found Blue Apron to be extra special awesome when I bought a bunch of prep bowls and extra cutting boards and knives, so that more than one person can prep at once.

It's also fun for me to do something like a crossword with my boyfriend or a friend while I cook. They sit at the table and call out the clues.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:39 PM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Stir fry is your friend
posted by Jacqueline at 9:38 PM on May 16, 2016

This question! So much love!

some ideas:

- big jars with fresh (wild)flowers or tree branches (cherry, lilac anything!) sort of like dis.
ooh, actually, anything in jars. Almonds, walnuts, dried apricots - like healthy snacky things, I heard that when you leave things out for the naked eye ball to see, you're more likely to eat them. Or some such thing.

- linen kitchen towels

- Love being where things smell GOOD: so, fresh herbs, basil, thyme, mint..
Also, baking bread (corn bread OMG), granola, biscuits, brownies etc. etc. will lure any unbeliever into a kitchen to come investigate

- seconding a couch! used to have one in ours, and it basically became our living room. That. Was a freaking great kitchen.

- some quick and dirty food ideas:

• pasta salads made with fresh ravioli with toasted seeds/nuts
• tricolore salad: fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella & balsamic vinegar (best salad in the world, IMO)
• falafel with rice, hummus, tahini, greek yoghurt and an israeli salad (fresh diced tomatoes and cucumber)
• lentil soups! easy and so yummy!!
• fajitas: chopped up tomatoes, bell pepper, onions & a good taco spice mix, fry up some chicken and you're good to go
• oven baked salmon (lemon, salt, pepper)
this black bean soup is the best thing ever
• yummy 3 thing pasta: dice up a bunch of chili peppers, roast em in a mix of butter & oil > set aside, fry up some garlic > dice up a bunch of fresh parsley and mix this all with some spaghetti. season with salt and pepper. Soo good, not a crazy amount of heat.

aand breakfast:
• ayurvedic porridge (roast cinnamon, cardamom, ginger ..maybe some almonds etc. smells divine!!) and throw it in there! you can add cocoa nibs or chopped up fruit, its all yummy
• fruit salad with yoghurt
• corn flapjacks?
posted by speakeasy at 3:19 AM on May 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

While your intention to create a new kitchen is coming from a good place, you may have inadvertently insulted her by calling it a mess and redoing it. I'd be hurt as f*ck if my partner moved in and called any part of my house a mess and redid it without my asking. Are you sure she's okay with this?

Also, I'm a single mom and and have kids around the same age as hers. I don't want to cook for my kids any more and they're most definitely old enough to cook for themselves and nobody starves or orders pizza nightly. For now, I think your bigger issue is to find out if you offended her with this renovation and I'd back off on asking her to hang out in the kitchen with you. She will when she feels like it, she doesn't feel like it now, and that's okay.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:23 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Reading the responses here has been fascinating. I wouldn't have guessed that this sweet, straightforward question would be such a minefield. It's very clear that everybody has strong emotional associations with kitchens!

Personally, as the parent who does most of the cooking in my family, I find it to be a very relaxing activity when I'm not pressed for time, and a very stressful activity when I only have 30 minutes to cook everything from scratch and everybody is coming at me with different demands. Since you'll be doing the cooking rather than your wife, she won't be feeling the stress directly -- but if you're stressed, she'll pick up on it, and it will make it less fun for her to hang out with you. So, especially in the early days, I encourage you to leave yourself plenty of time; to choose simple recipes; to read them carefully in advance so that you know how long they'll take and what ingredients you'll need; and to do as much advance prep as possible.

Depending on your schedule, you might look for slow-cooker recipes (which can sometimes be put in the slow cooker before you leave for work in the morning) or recipes where you can do the prep work the night before, when there's no time pressure. One great recipe: Jim Lahey's No-Work Bread. (And, as Speakeasy pointed out, the smell of fresh-baked bread makes the kitchen feel warm and welcoming.)

The only thing that smells better than bread baking is chocolate chip cookies. The New York Times has an amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe that involves making the dough in advance and letting it rest in your fridge until you're ready to bake it. (Obvious this won't help you in terms of healthy cooking, but as an occasional indulgence, it's well worth it.)

Also, check out Mark Bitman's How To Cook Everything app, which will let you search by keywords including "Fast" and "Make Ahead."

You mentioned you brought in a radio, which is a great idea. You might also consider a set of speakers with WiFI or Bluetooth built in, and perhaps a subscription to a music streaming service, so that your wife can choose what to listen to. (If the radio was a big investment and you don't want to swap it out, you might still be able to get a wifi streaming device you can plug into it.) Depending on her tastes, this might be music, or audio books, or podcasts, or comedy albums, or whatever. In addition to the pleasure you'll both get from the act of listening, you can have fun conversations about what to listen to next.
posted by yankeefog at 5:29 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think since you're still in the process of moving in and renovating, there should be baby steps. Get used to eating together as a family first, then pick some meals you all enjoy. Start some new traditions, like Sunday dinner, or Friday pizza night. Above all, make the kitchen comfy and cozy and sociable. Leave room for folks to hang out, charge their phones, show each other funny videos or recipes, etc. Then maybe the joint cooking will happen organically!
posted by jhope71 at 9:25 AM on May 17, 2016

responding to yes I said yes I will Yes -
You are presuming a LOT.
It WAS a mess--cause she has 2 kids, teaches all day, takes care of her parents, and STILL has to cook dinner every night. Little time to do much more. But I did not tell her that. WE picked paint, the light, the art on the wall.....I shop, I am making dinner and I wash the dishes. And so now she enjoys sitting there w/ a glass of wine and chatting, thank you. We are collaborators on this.
posted by ebesan at 7:36 PM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

ebesan, you are a gem. Creating a warm and lovely kitchen out of a room that was a source of stress is a beautiful gift of love.
posted by Capri at 9:39 PM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

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