“Candy is not a bribe,” says Bunmi Laditan while offering her something to calm her youngest for the duration of this interview. “It’s a ‘thank you’ in advance.”
That kind of thinking has garnered Laditan a large and devoted following, initially for her hilarious, knowing take on parenthood on the Twitter account Honest Toddler, and more recently as a best-selling author. With three children at home – a teenager, a tween and an 8-year-old – she is no stranger to the challenges we all face these days. In her upcoming book Help me God I’m a parentLaditan collects the prayers she says for her family, funny and poignant at the same time.
Laditan chatted with Romper about the difference between cooking as a hobby and cooking for kids, how Laura Ingalls Wilder inspired her to get into the kitchen and why she’s scared of chia seeds.
In the introduction to Help me God I’m a parent, mention that you often pray while preparing dinner or doing the dishes. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
I’m at my weakest at dinner time. The whole day passed, we worked, took care of the children, ended quarrels. The children come down too – don’t come down, come down. When they’re at school, they’re on their best behavior, and now they’re falling apart at home. It’s their safe space. And then we have to prepare a meal. It feels like harassment.
Heaven must be a zone with no cooking, no dishes, no laundry. I feel very strongly about this piece of theology. It has to be like an all inclusive resort situation.
Some of the prayers in the book concern feeding your family. My favorite is that you don’t have to make dinner in heaven: “It’s almost 7 and I haven’t made dinner yet. I haven’t even thought about dinner yet. It would be really nice to be able to say something like, ‘Let there be chicken strips’ and make a meal appear.”
It can’t be heaven when we have to make dinner. Heaven must be a zone with no cooking, no dishes, no laundry. I feel very strongly about this piece of theology. It has to be like an all inclusive resort situation.
What was your home food like growing up?
My parents are from Nigeria so we ate a lot of hearty stews served with rice or mashed yams, meals with beans like moin moin or dried fish which I love. I love all the traditional foods I’ve tasted from the umbilical cord. At the same time as I got older and started going to friends’ houses for dinner and they ate lasagna, I was just so curious about what they were eating. I felt unsafe when they came to my house for dinner. Much Nigerian food is eaten with the hands, which seems primitive to westerners. My parents presented dried fish and ate it with their hands.
Have you ever asked if they could try to serve something more familiar when a friend comes over?
Oh no! Nigerian children, we are not even asking to change things. Now, when my kids don’t like dinner, I just say, “Eat a bowl of cereal.” But my immigrant parents didn’t take requests.
Did you learn to cook from your parents?
My father cooked a lot more than my mother. He loves to cook. But I didn’t cook with them – I did the washing up. I got interested in cooking in middle school when I started reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. This Christmas with their first cookie made with refined flour and sugar…they were so excited! The way they valued food. I remember getting a cookie and pretending I had the rare white sugar cookie too, taking small bites and enjoying them. I have The little home cookbook from the library and tried different recipes. I started baking bread in high school because I just loved it.
I think there is a big difference between cooking and cooking for kids. The former is relaxing, but at 6:30 on a Wednesday when everyone in the house is in some sort of crisis, it’s different. It’s like being switched on Chopped with no hair and makeup while holding a child and someone needs help with squares.
Let us know the basic logistics of your meal planning.
I eat soft brainstorming at the store. I wish food. I’ll just have ground beef, maybe we’ll have hamburgers. I want to be one of those moms who makes meal plans. I respect her so much, I admire her, but for some reason I just can’t. Every night is like high school when a teacher says, “Pop Quiz!” I don’t make complicated dinners. Most of the time I have meat, starch, vegetables or breakfast for dinner – it always goes down well.
After two years of chaos, I think parents should take it easy. Many of us are educating from places of spiritual and emotional poverty. We heal, we are tired and so are our children. So now I’ve categorized green grapes as a vegetable. They’re a side dish, and that’s okay.
What would your kids eat if they were in full charge?
My oldest would eat pasta al dente. I didn’t grow up eating pasta, still don’t, but her father’s family loves Italian food. That cost her on his part, and it ruined her because of my haphazard style. She’s asking for it to be cooked a little less, so now I’m stressed — it’s like physics. So she would have very good noodles, not mine. My second born is simpler, more adventurous and grateful for everything I do. She’s my hype man. If she doesn’t like something, she just sits there and rips it up, but she won’t hurt my feelings. She would have sushi, mexican, chinese – she likes to try new things. And my baby, he ate chicken nuggets and honey nut cheerios with every meal.
Cooking for kids is like being on Chopped with no hair and makeup while holding a child and someone needs help with squares.
What’s your take on leftovers?
I hate wasting food, but I really hate leftovers, the pressure that comes with it. I grew up so poor. I make a mental note of storing small portions of meals in Tupperware, and my eldest says, “We know you grew up broke, but you don’t have to keep that.” But I can’t throw away half a slice of pizza. Thursday night I have a leftover potluck smorgasbord thing. It works, combines things left over over the week, things from the freezer. Definitely not what you would see on Instagram, but it’s a night I don’t have to cook.
How often do you eat takeout and what usually prompts you to do so?
For me it’s a stress thing, a form of self-care. It’s never, “Ooooh, you know what sounds funny?” It’s more, “I can’t do this and our kids have to eat, so I order.”
Do you have picky eaters? How do you deal with that?
Everyone is in their own way. On my oldest, it’s textures, like when the meat is too fibrous. Demanding palate. She should be born into a higher society than where she ended up, and that’s hard on her. Second, she doesn’t like meat, but she eats other things. She’s a classic second born – she eats pretty much everything from hot pockets to chia seeds. I saw chia seeds on my counter and thought we had an infestation – what kind of animal is that leaving behind? Then I looked in the bag and realized what it was. The youngest, we’re probably the most alike. We like the safe things, the things we had before. But when I’m doing other things, I’m like, “You need veggies to live,” and he’s like, “Okay, how many bites?” It’s like negotiating an NBA contract.
Basically every child has a different strategy.
What’s one food you buy for your kids but can’t help but eat yourself?
Dessert cereals that are super sugary, like Froot Loops. You are so good. I wasn’t allowed to have that as a child. Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I say it’s a treat, it’s not for breakfast but I catch myself grabbing handfuls like I’m 8 years old and there’s no one to tell me to stop .
Your partner and kids are away for the weekend and you can cook whatever you want for dinner, just for you. What would it be?
Uber eats. I wouldn’t cook. Maybe one day I’ll find cooking relaxing again, but I would definitely eat Uber Eats, like sushi or Vietnamese food. Or if only I’m hungry and don’t want to spend money, I’ll open a can of tuna, mix it with mayonnaise and mustard and eat it with crackers and fruit. But I will never cook anything for myself. I save my willingness to stand in front of the stove if I have to.
In Family Dinner, Romper chats with notable people we like to find out how their family cooks dinner. This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Credit: Bunmi Laditan, SOPA, LauriPatterson/Getty Images