Early on in my career on Top Chef, I felt I had to better educate myself on restaurants and their food. I went excitedly to as many restaurants as possible, and when I traveled, I tried my best to canvass each city’s dining scene. I was privileged to be able to get a reservation at some of the world’s best fine-dining establishments, and so I reveled in this new power, to eat where I wanted, whenever I wanted.
But I eventually discovered that all this restauranting about took a toll on my body and spirit. I didn’t feel as healthy as I once did. And in the last several years, I have become a mother and have felt the tug between a social life and being home with my child, which I imagine most parents feel.
Our society is one of affluence and abundance, and so vast commerce and a whole culture has grown around dining out. We would rather Instagram a dish we’ve had at a popular eatery than be proud of a simple roast chicken made at home. It feels like we have lost our connection to the pleasures of a home cooked meal.
Cooking together and breaking bread at home bonds us. The most precious moments I have spent with my own daughter have always been in the kitchen, cooking and telling stories. I will always cherish baking Christmas cookies for us to decorate together for Santa, so that she would have something homemade to accompany her letter placed by the fireplace with milk. I remember one afternoon telling my daughter about a savory salad with pomegranate that I loved growing up in India. She ran to the fridge with glee on her then three-year-old face, and said she would create her own recipe of cottage cheese, pomegranate seeds and crackers as a snack for us. It was so touching to see her take something precious from my childhood and make it her own.
Most of my own bonding with family has always been around food and cooking. I remember making dozens of little potato patties called tikis with my aunt Banu when I was younger. Spending time with her, learning to roll them in breadcrumbs at her side, remains one of the most enduring memories of my childhood. Often the making of the meal was more fun and brought us closer than the actual party.
That’s because cooking together is about more than the meal you make. Passing down recipes from generation to generation and teaching younger family members how to cook is a way of passing down much more. Cooking teaches values and valuable skills like efficiency and independence. And for many like myself, it represents critical bonding time where stories about relatives are shared, secrets are revealed and family lore is passed to the next generation.
Not a good cook? Take a class with your family. Or go to the bookstore on a weekend and pick up an easy cookbook. Make the recipes that most appeal to your family together as a relaxed Sunday activity that lets you all learn together. If you don’t have time, pick simple dishes that have components you can get frozen to save time like frozen rice or peas or canned white beans to make things easier.
There are so many ways to cook together, and so many reasons to do so. Don’t miss out on some of the best chances to make memories with your loved ones.
Padma Lakshmi is an author, actress and host on Top Chef. Her book The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World, is available now. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.