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Newsletter: June 2023

Preparing Teens for Dinner Independence

“This is a great thing to cook when you want to make something special for friends.”
“Boxed rice mixes like this were a lifesaver for me when I was learning to cook.”
“Now you know how to grill a piece of meat. What kinds of things could you do with that to make a whole meal?”

These are things I’ve found myself saying more and more frequently lately. As my two kids have reached their teens – both will be in high school this fall, to my everlasting surprise – I’m mindful of the fact that Independence Day is coming fast. And I don’t mean the 4th of July.

I had a lot of cooking skills when I first moved out on my own. I was frequently pulled into weeknight dinner prep, or helping with the many big summer barbecues my parents hosted, so I knew my way around a potato peeler long before we learned about them in 7th grade Home Ec. By the time I was in high school and my sister had left for college, Mom and Dad spent many evenings out with friends, leaving me in charge of figuring out a meal for myself.

“There’s some chicken in the fridge, and I bought some interesting-looking spice mixes last week,” Mom would call over her shoulder on the way out the door. When I got hungry enough, I’d raid the ingredients and try to hack a decent attempt at fajitas or stir-fry. Most of the time, it worked out okay. And those experiments gave me a stable foundation to work from when I needed to cook in the college dorm kitchen, then my first apartment. Being able to pull together a reasonable meal without a detailed recipe made it easier, and more economical, to feed myself on the fly.

I keep flashing back to those days now that I can see them coming for my own kids. And I can’t help but wonder if I’ve done enough to provide them with their own basic kitchen skills. They can do some cooking, but could they hack a meal from chicken and mysterious pantry items? If they needed to take over dinner duty on a random night, or suddenly decided they were going to become vegetarians and wanted to cook their own meals, would they be able to do it with minimal help and guidance? We might still have some work to do.

If you’re also thinking about how to prepare your own teens and young adults for dinner independence, here are some tips to build their skills:

  • Let them explore with boxes and bags. Sure, eventually, we want them to be able to cook from fresh ingredients – but if they’re new to cooking, they can build confidence with simple boxed and frozen items that offer easy-to-follow instructions. Gradually, you can show them how to add rotisserie chicken and vegetables to packaged rice or noodle dishes, or how to expand their skills by making frozen potstickers into a quick soup or stir-fry.
  • Get the simple stuff mastered. Make sure they can cook eggs, pasta, rice, and potatoes in at least one or two ways, and show them the proper way to prep basic vegetables, like how to chop an onion or how to seed and slice bell peppers. They’ll be able to make lots of different things with just a few kitchen skills.
  • Think in basic building blocks, not whole recipes. Teach them how to cook a skillet of ground beef or turkey and season it for different uses – tacos, spaghetti sauce, sloppy Joes. Or roast a chicken together and talk about the ways to use the meat, like serving it alongside rice and vegetables one night, adding it to fajitas another night, and mixing it into a pasta dish or a big salad on another.
  • But do help them learn a few favorites. When I recently had to leave town for a few nights, I seized the opportunity to put the kids in charge of dinner by setting them up with a nightly meal plan that included some easy-to-make favorites of theirs. I stocked the fridge with the ingredients, left recipes, and crossed my fingers – and now my youngest son can’t resist reminding me constantly that he thinks his stuffed peppers turned out better than mine.
  • And don’t forget about shopping and budgeting. One of the trickiest parts of starting out in your own kitchen is figuring out how to manage a food budget. Involving your teen in shopping with you is a good first step, so you can talk through the choices you make and how you compare prices to keep things affordable. Then you can gradually add more independence in the process – just sending them to the store to pick up a few items for you will help build their awareness of the cost of basics like bread, milk, and eggs. Eventually, you can ask them to plan a few days’ worth of meals and do all the shopping for those items on their own. See if they can stick to a pre-approved budget, and review the costs together afterward to talk about what went well and what could be improved next time.

It’s bittersweet to think about the day when kids will leave the nest, but knowing they’ll be able to make some decent meals for themselves in those first days of independence can at least take one worry off our minds. And building those skills while they’re still at home has some benefits for the here and now, too. I couldn’t help but smile a few nights ago when my 16-year-old, looking to pack his lunch for the morning, peeked into the fridge, frowned a bit, then turned to his younger brother and asked “Want me to make us some chicken burgers and you can cut up some vegetables for us to pack?” 20 minutes later, lunches were done, and I never had to get off the couch. I guess there’s some newfound freedom for the parents, too!


Photo: Downshiftology by Lisa Bryan

This collection of Quick Cook recipes is a great place to start building confidence in the kitchen!

Quick Cook Recipes


Our Grocery Scavenger Hunt for Teens can help build budgeting, meal planning, and decision-making skills at the store.

Grocery Scavenger Hunt: Teen Edition


While you’re spending time together building dinner independence skills, our big list of Conversation Starters for Teens might come in handy!