How I Learned What Not to Do in the Kitchen from My Mother-in-Law

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(Image credit: Trinette Reed/Stocksy)

Raise your hand if there’s someone in your family who runs their kitchen with an iron oven mitt. You know the type — they have to do everything themselves and will run off anyone who tries to help, and in the process they run themselves ragged. How enjoyable is that for everyone they’re cooking for? Not very, I can tell you.

I have a wonderful, kind, generous mother-in-law who raised her son to be the amazing partner he is to me, so I feel guilty even complaining about what, really, is her trying to prepare a meal for the people she loves. But I gotta say – the whole “keep out of the kitchen” thing sucks an awful lot of the joy out of what could and should come from a family meal.

Mindy, we’ll call her, will start early in the day, or even the night before a big gathering. From the moment preparations begin, we all know to stay far, far out of the way. Their 1970s ranch floor plan, though, means we can’t be all that far away, so it’s hard to miss the clanging and ruckus from the one-woman storm as we huddle in the living room and try to pretend we don’t feel the anxiety level rising. Occasionally a dog will venture in — having not caught on yet to the difference in Mindy who gives them cheese and treats every time we’re not looking and Mindy who will allow no trespassers — and then quickly slink out, just like we will if we make the unfortunate move into her path.

By the time the meal is ready we’re all fairly petrified and she’s too tired to join us so we guiltily try to tuck into the spread before sprinting to the kitchen to clean up before she can rally herself to go back in. It’s about as awesome as it sounds.

The thing is, we don’t care what she makes or whether it’s perfect or there are enough cups or some of us are on folding chairs. We just want to gather around the table and talk and laugh and eat whatever’s in front of us. We’re grateful for the food and each other, whether it’s Chinese takeout or her legendary zucchini Parmesan. She’s set in her ways, though, and we’re resigned to that never changing. What can change, however, is the vibe back at our own home.

I get the pressure Mindy feels to put out a great meal, and it is all too easy to succumb to the stress. But years of anxiety-ridden meals have left me determined to never let my own guests feel this way, so I have three ground rules inspired by what I don’t want people to feel in my kitchen.

1. The kitchen door is open.

We can close off our kitchen if we want, but when we’re cooking and company is here, we leave the doors open. We built a wonderful big zinc-topped island for gathering, so gathering is what we do. If that means there’s an audience as we’re rushing around, so be it. We have music and drinks, so the more the merrier.

2. Nothing is any trouble.

If there’s a special diet or a picky family member or whatever the case may be, I want them to feel welcome. I remember many meals when I was a vegetarian when I didn’t feel that way, so I’m extra vigilant here. And I’m happy to jump up and down from the table to grab things people need, with the goal that they feel cared for and not a burden.

3. Help is welcome.

If someone wants to lend a hand, by all means. If that means a 70-something fellow stands right in the way peeling potatoes, no worries. When my parents visited for the weekend recently with their good friends, they all congregated in the kitchen as we made my mom’s birthday dinner. My dad’s buddy wanted to help, so he grabbed the bowl of potatoes and got busy. While I wanted to shoo him off, instead I thanked him — and he was an old hand at it, peeling a pile in no time!

What have you learned not to do in the kitchen from your MIL?