Parents Who Cook: Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

Amanda and Addie
Amanda and Addie, photographed by Sarah Shatz.

Parents Who Cook is a Q&A series in which I ask my guests about cooking with little ones underfoot. If you think of people you’d like to see interviewed as part of this series — especially fathers! — your suggestions are welcome.

I have long admired Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs for founding the Food52 website, and developing it with such savvy over the past three years. Originally created as a way to crowd-source a cookbook, it is now a remarkably rich website with lots of smart features, and a vibrant community of cooks.

The first Food52 cookbook came out last year, and the second volume, also crowd-sourced and edited with great care, has just been released.

Amanda and Merrill are both mothers, and I am delighted to welcome them as my first guests on the Parents Who Cook series.

Can you tell us a few words about your kids? Ages, names, temperaments?

M: Our daughter Clara is almost eleven months old. She has seven teeth and is determined to start walking. We think she’s learned her first word (hi), although it could just be a random sound she’s making. Clara is a really good-tempered baby and very social, but on the rare occasion that she’s unhappy or tired, she lets us know it!

A: We have twins, Walker and Addie, and they’re six. They’re losing their baby teeth, which they’re very excited about. Walker is methodical, competitive, and snuggly. Addie is social, a daydreamer, and willing to be amused.

Clara, photographed by James Ransom.

Did having children change the way you cook?

M: Yes. It forced me to get more organized in the kitchen. Before Clara was born, I was much more spontaneous about making dinner; it didn’t matter if the fridge was accidentally empty, since we could always order in. Now I plan most of our meals in advance and shop and cook a lot ahead over the weekend, to make sure Clara has plenty of food for the week. A side benefit of this is that since she’s eating mostly what we eat, we do too!

A: Similar to Merrill, I feel compelled to keep our kitchen stocked with good food, so I’ll cook more often and shop more regularly — and responsibly! My husband and I also do most of our cooking on the weekend. We go to the greenmarket on Saturday and do a bunch of cooking on Sunday, so there’s a good supply for the week.

Over time, have you developed staple dishes or strategies that make it possible to prepare a meal and keep the kids happy at the same time?

A: Our strategy is very simple: serve our kids what we eat. We’ve done this since they could eat solid food. Kids’ understanding of food is what their parents expose them to, so if you want them to eat a great variety, you have to feed them great variety and serve it with confidence, and insistence.

M: We started giving Clara solid food at six months, and I decided to write a column on Food52 about our adventures feeding her. I try to give each article a takeaway if I can: for example, don’t stress out too much about all of the “dos and don’ts” you hear from other people, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try giving your baby “weird” foods like whole grains.

The method used in this broccoli recipe is great for all sorts of vegetables — low and slow cooking, with a lot of olive oil and garlic. You get rich, velvety veggies every time. Really appealing to kids and adults.

Have you found ways to involve your children in the cooking process? Can you tell us when that started, how you approached it, what works and what doesn’t?

M: Clara already loves to watch me cooking. She sits across from me at the counter while I stir things on the stove and watches intently. I think she likes the noises and the smells. Plus, I usually give her a wooden spoon to play with, which never hurts.

A: Like Merrill said, having kids hang out with you while you cook is the very best introduction to cooking. Since our kids are older than Clara, the second phase for them was sitting on the counter or standing on a stool. I’d have them gather ingredients, help me measure, stir, and pour. And now they do it without the stool! I’m just starting to let them add ingredients to a hot pan, and to stir at the stove, but I can’t lie — it’s stressful, because I know how dangerous cooking can be, and I don’t want them to have a negative experience that will scare them away from the kitchen.

As someone who’s passionate about food, can you talk about the joys and challenges of feeding your kids, and hopefully teaching them to be happy, adventurous eaters?

M: My mother always encouraged us to join her in the kitchen as she cooked, and I mostly credit that for my passion for food. The kitchen was always a great place to be, and to learn, and to taste. I think if you involve your kids in the process of cooking and tasting new things on a day-to-day basis, they can’t help but find joy in it.

A: I think it’s also important for your kids to see that you enjoy cooking and eating — they take their cues from you! We cook with Walker and Addie, and sit down to dinner with the table set and candles lit (mostly on the weekends, but as much as possible!), and we talk about the food, what it is, and what’s interesting about it.

Inspired and hungry for more? Read on for more Parents Who Cook.

  • Roseanne from Pittsburgh, PA, USA

    This is a wonderful post, Clotilde. My husband and I are always remarking how few people (single or married with children) cook for themselves. We are avid home cooks and rarely eat out. Our girls are ages nine and six and have helped in the kitchen since they could stand on their own. I love to hear about others who share in this tradition.

  • This new series of interviews is such a great idea. I love it. As a new parent, I would really like to introduce my nine-month-old son to cooking and eating healthily as soon as possible. I’d love for him to feel as passionately about food as my husband and I do. So I have him observe me cook whenever possible. I’ve offered him diverse and sometimes exotic foods from the very beginning and he’s taken to them well. The way children learn to eat very early on stays with them for life so the first few years are crucial. But more than trying to teach them table manners and force them to eat certain foods that doctors or others say are good for them, I think it’s important to be relaxed, loving and to just enjoy the whole process. Kids feel it, whether you’re laid-back about it or stressed and intense, and they adopt the same attitude.
    Looking forward to the next interview, Clotilde. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • Heather

    Love this idea (and love Amanda and Merrill)!

    I nominate Peter Barrett of

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Heather! I’ll definitely take a look at Peter’s blog.

  • As a parent of 2, I’m thrilled about this new series. It’s a fabulous idea, Clotilde !

    I’d love to hear what JM Hirsch, a father and the author of Lunch Box Blues,
    has to say on the subject.

  • notesontea

    Great new series. I like the “cook forever” vegetable recipe.

  • Love this series idea! And love Amanda and Merrill. Looking forward to the next.

  • LOL it looks to me like the baby sure is enjoying the meal that they made.

  • I’m thrilled to have found your blog!! A little late on the scene I know, but I just received an email from my aunt who also shares a love for cooking like myself and she didn’t hesitate to share with me your awesome site! I have two daughters, ages four and two, and cooking with them and for them is a passion of mine. A passion because I love it but also because of my oldest daughters situation. Cali was diagnosed with autism two years ago, so our efforts to keep our eating as clean as possible is a top priority. Your site is perfect because it offers me a plethera of recipe ideas that are clean but not devoid of deliciousness and flavor. Thank you for starting this Parents Who Cook Series. I am excited to start following and reading all the stories! Going to be fun!

    • Thanks, Chelsea, that means a lot to me.

  • niche

    I don’t have kids but this is still a great post. It has me thinking about what I can do in 2013 to improve how I plan and eat meals.

  • Oh my goodness, what a wonderful and delightful idea for a series — and lovely first guests. Can’t wait to see who else shows up.

    We’re vegetable farmers, and we also raise hogs and laying hens. Between all that good food right out the back door, and our love of home and kitchen, and also being pretty broke, we cook at home all the time. We assumed that because we farm and because we cook, our kid would certainly eat anything. And hoo boy, just 3 years in, what a humbling and wonderful journey it’s been. I’m pretty sure we do all the right things, and he’s still picky as all get out, and I’m pretty sure we have to keep doing all those things … and also continue to make a great effort to chill out and trust that most things work themselves out in time.

  • Here is what my own mother did to help us develop adventurous appetites (and farther down in this comment I list kitchen tools my children loved using):

    I grew up in a home where food was an exciting adventure. “It’s a sign of intelligence to try new food!” Mom often said, so we opened up our mouths for years to prove our I.Q.’s were not sub-par. My mother has always been a bargain hunter to boot, so opening the cupboards to find a snack wasn’t always thrilling for us children, especially when labels for less common childhood fare like ‘mock turtle soup’, or ‘foie gras’ met the eye. They had been purchased for pennies at gourmet food overstock stores—a boon we didn’t seem to appreciate in the Wonder Bread era of the 70’s. [excerpt from my essay about why I love cooking]

    I LOVED cooking and cleaning with my three children in the kitchen (now grown up). Here is a list I compiled for my cookbook [I’ve been working on it for 13 years, so until I find a way to publish it, I’m adding some of the recipes to my simple famtab blog]:


    Our children loved helping with most of these tools in the kitchen because they were fun and gave an immediate sense of accomplishment. They were popular with the children in Auntie Karey and Auntie Lisa’s houses too:

    Their own apron—I still remember (and have) my tiny apron Nana made for us girls.

    Apple “rotisserie” type peeler—before pushing the apple on the prongs, make sure that the child centers the core on the prongs by looking through the metal ring and centering the blossom end in the middle of the “bullseye”. We have the R&M Industries 5920 Apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer.

    Oat flaker—for making fresh rolled oats from oat groats. Pour in the groats to the hopper, a child turns the handle and out come rolled oats! We got one of these when our children were grown, but it still brings out the little child in everyone who tries it. Ours is the Eschenfelder ® brand.

    Apple wedge cutter—nice for cutting an apple in to slices before they are old enough to use a sharp knife.

    Egg slicer—it can also slice mushrooms and strawberries (watch out for flying red juice—use the other hand to cover the berry when you push down the top).

    Egg beater—Good for learning fine-motor skills. It’s kind of hard at first for a child to hold the beater upright while turning the crank.

    Moulinex handmill—We don’t actually have one of these. But I always wanted one and I think children would love using this.

    Larger sized foodmill—Ditto. Never had. Children would like.

    • What wonderful notes and suggestions, Gwendolyn, thank you!

  • I love this post Clotilde. It has brought back so many happy memories of when my children were little (they are in their twenties now). My husband and I talked about it at breakfast and he said he might even send a few thoughts your way.

    I hope it’s okay for me to share a non-food related comment, although it did take place in the kitchen.

    One thing I did as a mother that my children still get a LOT of joy (underscore a LOT of joy) from was to write a record of kid’s quotes. It’s my compiled list of the funny, heart-warming, surprising things they said (or did) when they were little; their first words; their first sentences; the date they lost a tooth; when they first learned to pump their legs on a swing and swing by themselves, the names they give their toys and the “conversations” they have with their toys, etc.

    The simplest way to keep track of all of those cute things your kids say or do? Tape a piece of paper on the kitchen wall. Draw a line down the middle to create two columns. In the top left corner write the child(ren’s) name and age at the time. Make sure to write their age on each page). (Maybe a devoted list on your smart phone will work, but I like handwriting by hand anyway).

    Write down the things they said or did that made you laugh or melted your heart, things they did that frustrated you, or surprised you as a parent. Don’t assume you will remember the cute thing they said the next day. You won’t. Write it down the day it happened. I kept it simple out of necessity. Simple is good with young children. I didn’t write down long journal entries, or every sweet thing. I did what I could. I simply wrote down quick snippets. Some were longer, but rarely.

    When both sides of that paper you’ve taped to the kitchen wall are full, put it in a file folder (or safer still, scan it and save it in a file on your computer, but keep the originals).

    When they are grown, print all the pages up, get them bound into a book and give as a gift to your children and their grandparents. I PROMISE you, it will be something they will read time and again together, or with friends, or people they are dating. When my grown children read it, I often hear them laughing together in hysterics. It is a treasure.

    We didn’t do everything right as a mother and father, but that’s okay. We were good enough. We focused on spending quality time together, eating meals together and talking around the table, doing a LOT of listening to our children, kneeling every night together for family prayer (after taking turns sharing “best, worst and weirdest” where each person shares their best, worst, and weirdest experience of the day–it creates a time to laugh or sympathize together as a family). When the kids were teenagers and had friends over to our house, we had their friends join us (at our bedtime, the parents bedtime :) for best, worst and weirdest, and family prayer. Their friends still talk about that as a very happy memory.

    Once you’re a parent, the word posterity becomes a new, applicable part of your vocabulary. What an honor to have a little progeny running around; a little seed to grow.

    Such joy to be a parent. Exasperating at times, but such joy.

    • Thank you for this heartwarming comment, Gwendolyn. I love the kitchen list.

      My mother kept a journal for each of us girls, in which she wrote about milestones, first words, funny habits, heart-melting quotes, and so on. We derive A LOT of joy from them too, so I started one for my son also. I jot down quick notes every now and then on my phone, and when I have a little more time, so far every month or so, I write a longer entry in the journal.

      It’s already quite lovely to re-read entries from when he was born eight months ago, so I can only imagine what it will be like when he’s eighteen or thirty-five. :)

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