The “good enough” home cook: in praise of imperfection

As I write this, I am caring for a sick four-year-old. She is wearing an old paint-spattered t-shirt of her father’s as a nightgown, and it hangs off of her clammy, feverish body as she lies tangled in blankets on the couch. Her older sister is studying sound on the computer, and the list of things she must do today — already, before the age of 10, so many must-dos! — is long: practice the piano, attend soccer practice, finish her homework, complete a reading log, clean the guinea pig cage, pick up her closet.

The dog, bless him, has gotten yet another case of “happy tail” — where he wags his tail so hard he opens up a longstanding wound on the tip of his tail. With every wag, blood smears everywhere; there is blood on the walls, blood on the refrigerator, blood on the doorways, blood on the furniture. When he really gets going, blood splatters onto the ceiling.

And me? I’m on deadline with several projects, with ringing phones, with arranging babysitters, with the busy busy busy. Always the busy.

My kid: she's learned how to crack an egg or two. Thanks to (highly imperfect) me serving eggs for dinner a little too often.

I wanted to publish a recipe today — I’ve got a few in mind, some that have become delicious “go-to” recipes in this house, meals that appeal to everyone here, including world’s-pickiest Charlotte. I wanted to have them ready, to be able to say, with conviction and enthusiasm: This. This is the perfect weeknight recipe.

But it’s not that kind of day, the kind that allows for the creation of the perfect recipe. Most of my days, I confess, are not that way.

Most of my cooking takes place after the work day, after school and activities. The phone rings, the dog barks, the children are ravenous and dangerously close to melting into puddles on the kitchen floor. The dog bleeds everywhere, or he knocks over a garbage can, and when I yell his name in a deep, low alpha-dog voice, he promptly pees on the floor — yet another puddle that must be mopped up.

It is a narrow window, this time I have for cooking, with my children wedged between Weary and Whiny. There is no room for perfection in this place. Real human beings, I have learned, who cook real food, for real families, rarely look as glamorous as those who appear television. They doesn’t even look like characters on most reality shows.

On days like today, days when a sweaty four-year old cries and coughs her way through a fever, when a nine-year-old becomes frustrated by long division, when I’m dealing with walls so smeared with dog blood it looks like I have massacred a small city smack-dab in my dining room…well, on these nights, I have started embracing the theory, named by Yours Truly, of the “Good Enough Home Cook.”

You know that theory of the “Good Enough Mother?” The one that has brought deep reassurance to loving-but-flawed Mamas everywhere for over a half-century? Simplifying matters considerably, the Good Enough Mother theory (proposed by D.W. Winnicott) suggests that an ordinary mother — not a perfect one — is what a child needs most. That some level of (ordinary) failing is a necessary part of parenting; it’s this failure that teaches the child about the limits of his own power and the reality of an imperfect world. An ordinary, highly-imperfect mother is not just sufficient, in other words. She is necessary.

I believe in the Good Enough Parent. I also, it must be said, believe in the Good Enough Home Cook. I believe in perfectly ordinary meals.

The food we set down on the table for our families need not look like the food seen on the pages of magazines, or on the teevee, or like the carefully-staged professional photos that line the pages of most best-selling celebrity cookbooks. In fact, attempting to do that is nothing short of a set-up. Because for most families, in most circumstances, real life doesn’t look like that. Almost ever.

When Beth and I wrote our book, it was important to us that we include a two-page spread on “Faster Than Drive-Thru Dinners” — food that’s not fancy, but that can be prepared, using real ingredients, in a flash. Some of these are no more difficult or time consuming than plain old scrambled eggs with a side of greens. Other recipes — for a simple frittata, for slow cooker oatmeal, for a simple salad with cantaloupe and a three-ingredient dressing — take little more time. I assure you: in our house, we’re whipping up these kinds of simple, fast meals more frequently than any other.

Dear Reader? I confess I have even been known to serve beans to my children straight from the can.

But allowing myself to do those things, giving myself that space to be imperfect, means we’re eating at home more often. And I have learned by now that cooking is something people learn not by watching television, or by flipping through a magazine, but rather by doing.

But check it out: the kid can make shirred eggs with collard greens for the family. And that's something.

My older daughter, I can see already, has learned some things from my doing. At age nine, she can make a mean dish of scrambled eggs, and she does — often. She can make oatmeal, she makes a great mixed bean salad with balsamic dressing. She can stir, sautee, make rice, prepare a simple dressing, and whip up a marshmallow-free, protein-packed version of rice krispie treats. She knows to be careful with meats, she has seen the effects of burning butter first-hand, and — yes, she’s even learned a little bit about knife safety. She’s not ready for the Iron Chef competition, but she likewise probably won’t ever star in that show about the world’s worst chefs.

What if I had insisted, in an “I can do it all!” Type-A sort of way that frankly I couldn’t muster even if I tried, that every meal had to be not just decent, but excellent? There’s not a doubt in my mind: we’d eat at home less often, I’d shoo the kids out of the kitchen more often, and we would all learn less. A lot less.

So here’s to imperfection, here’s to ordinary, un-gourmet meals made from the simplest of ingredients, and here’s to being happily “good enough.” Sometimes, I believe, good enough — the kind of good enough that simply keeps on keepin’ on, day upon day — is exactly what our kids need most.

This entry was posted in By Ali, Everybody has a story, In the kitchen, Mad skillz. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The “good enough” home cook: in praise of imperfection

  1. Lori says:

    Can I tell you how much I LOVE this post??!? As a veteran of years of Good Enough Cooking, Parenting, and [Really Not Quite Good Enough, but they survived anyway] Housekeeping, I say Yes!!! It’s about time somebody said this. You just made legions of exhausted parents feel fantastic. I’m sending the post to my exhausted and more-than-good-enough-kids-who-have-kids, and it will make their day. Thank you!

  2. Kirsten says:

    This needs to be stressed more often, in my opinion. So many of us run after perfection, which is untenable. So yes, here’s to good enough. The kids ate, mostly healthy food, they learned something and there was no yelling involved. Pretty darn good! I hope Charlotte feels better soon!

  3. BethBader says:

    We have “scrambled egg night” or other such quick meals at least once a week! And lots of leftovers, too. And, it’s perfectly great that way. Or imperfectly great. Thanks, Ali!

  4. Lisa Fine says:

    I often think about how, when I have kids one day, I will serve them healthy meals, even though there’s certainly not always enough time to make food from scratch, or time to be really creative in the kitchen.

    Found your blog today through Berkshire Grown, and added you to my reader. So glad to find another food blogger in the Berkshires. :)

  5. ken albala says:

    Wow, does this sounds like my house some nights. Maniacal dog tail wagging included but no blood yet. Two wining picky boys to boot. I think you are right on target. Just Throw them in the Kitchen. You want something in particular, go for it. Fantastic post, by the way! Ken

  6. Dog Mom says:

    Hi! Love your blog! I’m a bit late to the party, but I read your post about doggie’s long-standing wound on his tail. If it’s not healing and keeps getting reopened, that bit of the tail may need to come off. This happened to my mother’s dog, and at the time the vet was removing the last few inches of his tail, it had just become malignant. Caught just in time. Just a thought. :)

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