Family Dinner

A collage of Bunmi Laditan, a shopping list, jelly beans and a plastic plate

Bunmi Laditan Hopes There’s No Cooking in Heaven

The author of Honest Toddler likes cooking — really, she does. Just not cooking for kids.

by Debbie Koenig
Family Dinner

“Candy isn’t a bribe,” Bunmi Laditan says as she offers some to quiet her youngest for the length of this interview. “It’s a ‘thank you’ in advance.”

That kind of thinking has earned Laditan a large and devoted following, first for her hilarious, knowing takes on parenting on the Twitter account Honest Toddler, and more recently as a bestselling author. With three children at home — a teen, a tween, and an 8-year-old — she’s up to her eyeballs in the challenges we’re all facing these days. In her upcoming book, Help Me, God, I’m a Parent, Laditan collects the prayers she offers for her family, at once funny and poignant.

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 afraid of chia seeds.

In the introduction to Help Me, God, I’m a Parent, you mention that you often find yourself praying while making dinner or washing the dishes. Can you tell me a little about that?

Dinnertime is when I’m at my lowest energy. The whole day has passed, we’ve worked, taken care of the kids, broken up fights. The kids are also coming down — not winding down, coming down. When they’re at school, they’re on their best behavior, so now they’re falling apart at home. It’s their safe space. And then we need to make a meal. It feels like harassment.

Heaven has to be a no-cooking zone, no-dishes zone, no-laundry zone. I feel very strongly on this piece of theology. It’s got to be like an all-inclusive resort situation.

A few of the prayers in the book touch on feeding your family. My favorite is the one about not having to make dinner in heaven: “It’s almost 7, and I haven’t made dinner yet. I haven’t even thought of dinner. It’d be real nice to be able to say something like, ‘Let there be chicken strips,’ and have a meal appear.”

It couldn’t be heaven if we have to make dinner. Heaven has to be a no-cooking zone, no-dishes zone, no-laundry zone. I feel very strongly on this piece of theology. It’s got to be like an all-inclusive resort situation.

What was food like in your home when you were growing up?

My parents are from Nigeria, so we ate a lot of savory stews that went with rice or pounded yams, meals with beans like moin moin or dried fish, which I love. I love all the traditional foods, which I tasted from the umbilical cord. At the same time, when I got older and started going to friends’ homes for dinner and they’re having lasagna — I was just so curious about what they were eating. I felt self-conscious when they came to my house for dinner. A lot of Nigerian food is eaten with your hands, which seems primitive to Westerners. My parents were presenting dried fish and eating it with their hands.

Did you ever ask if they could try serving something more familiar when a friend came over?

Oh, no! Nigerian kids, we don’t even ask to change things. Now, when my kids don’t like dinner, I’m just like, “Have a bowl of cereal.” But my immigrant parents weren’t taking requests.

Did you learn to cook from your parents?

My dad cooked a lot more than my mom. He loves cooking. But I didn’t cook alongside them — I was on dish duty. I got interested in cooking in middle school, when I started reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. That Christmas with their first cookie made from refined flour and sugar… they were so excited! The way they treasured food. I remember getting a cookie and pretending that I, too, was having the rare white sugar cookie, taking small bites, savoring them. I got The Little House Cookbook from the library and tried different recipes. I started baking bread in high school, just having fun with it.

I think there’s 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 on Chopped with no hair and makeup, while holding a child and someone needs help with quadrilaterals.

Tell us the basic logistics of your meal planning.

I meal soft-brainstorm in the store. I meal-wish. I’ll just get some ground beef, maybe we’ll have hamburgers. I want to be one of those moms who meal-plans. I respect them so much, I admire them, but for whatever reason I just can’t. Every night is like in high school, when a teacher says, “Pop quiz!” I don’t make complicated dinners. Mostly I go for meat, starch, vegetable, or breakfast-for-dinner — that’s always a big hit.

After two years of chaos, I feel parents should be easy on themselves. A lot of us are parenting from a place of mental and emotional poverty. We’re healing, we’re tired, and our kids are, too. So now I’ve categorized green grapes as a vegetable. They’re a side dish, and that’s OK.

What would your kids eat if they were fully in charge?

My oldest would eat pasta, al dente. I didn’t grow up eating pasta, still don’t, but her dad’s family loves Italian food. She got a taste of that from his side, and it wrecked her for my haphazard style. She asks for it cooked a little less, so now I’m stressed out — it’s like physics. So, she would have very good pasta, not from me. My second-born is easier, adventurous, grateful for everything I do. She’s my hype man. When she doesn’t like something, she’ll just sit there, rip it up, but she won’t hurt my feelings. She’d have sushi, Mexican, Chinese — she likes to try new things. And my baby, he would eat chicken nuggets and Honey Nut Cheerios for every meal.

Cooking for kids is like being on Chopped with no hair and makeup, while holding a child and someone needs help with quadrilaterals.

What’s your attitude toward leftovers?

I hate wasting food, but I really hate leftovers, the pressure involved. I grew up so poor. I find myself saving small parts of meals in Tupperware and my oldest goes, “We know you grew up broke, but you don’t have to save that.” But I can’t throw away a half-slice of pizza. On Thursday nights, I’ll have a leftover potluck-smorgasbord-type thing. It works, combining things left from over the week, things from the freezer. Definitely not what you’d Instagram, but it’s one night I don’t have to cook.

How often do you do takeout, and what usually prompts that?

For me it’s a stress thing, a form of self-care. It’s never like, “Ooooh, you know what sounds fun?” It’s more, “I can’t do this and our children need to eat, so I’m ordering.”

Do you have picky eaters? How do you handle it?

Each is, in their own little ways. For my oldest, it’s textures, like if the meat is too stringy. Sophisticated palate, though. She was meant to be born into higher society than where she landed and that’s rough for her. The second, she doesn’t like meat, but she’ll eat other things. She’s a classic second-born — she’ll eat pretty much anything from Hot Pockets to chia seeds. I saw chia seeds on my counter and thought we had an infestation — what kind of animal leaves this behind? Then I looked in the bag and realized what it was. The youngest, we’re probably the most similar. We like the sure things, the things we’ve had before. But when I make other things, I’ll say, “You need vegetables to live,” and he’ll say, “OK, how many bites?” It’s like negotiating an NBA contract.

Basically, there’s a different strategy with every kid.

What’s one food you buy for your kids but can’t help eating yourself?

Dessert cereals, the super-sugary ones, like Froot Loops. They’re so good. I wasn’t allowed to have that as a kid. Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I say it’s a treat, it’s not for breakfast, but I find myself grabbing handfuls like I’m 8 years old and there’s no one to tell me to stop.

Your partner and the kids are away for the weekend, and you get to cook whatever you want for dinner, just for you. What would it be?

Uber Eats. I wouldn’t be cooking. Maybe one day I’ll find cooking relaxing again, but I would definitely be Uber Eats-ing something like sushi or Vietnamese food. Or if it’s just me and I’m hungry and don’t want to spend money, I’ll open a can of tuna, mix it with mayo and mustard, and have with crackers and fruit. But I’ll never cook something for myself. I save my willingness to be in front of the stove for when I have to.

In Family Dinner, Romper chats with notable people we like, to find out how their family does dinner. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo Credit: Bunmi Laditan, SOPA, LauriPatterson/Getty Images