You can tuna piano . . .

Here's a Handy Tip for those of you trapped at home with your children: Teach 'em to cook.

Kids love all the measuring and pouring and stirring and sampling involved in food preparation. Most of all, they love the big messes that result. I believe they consider them to be works of art. That's the only explanation for why they want to keep the messes spread around the kitchen until the milk has curdled and spoons are adhered to the countertops. They think of it as a permanent installation. "Mixed media."

You might believe that teaching children to cook isn't worth the mess. But look at it this way -- you've saved a step. If you prepare all their meals, you still have to clean up the messes you make, plus you must do all the cooking. Better that they handle at least part of the process.

I've been busy writing a new book, so my two sons have been on the following diet: Make it yourself or starve.

We stocked the kitchen with simple foods they can prepare in the toaster or microwave. Occasionally, I even let them boil water for something more exotic, like ramen noodles. I figure this is good preparation for dorm life.

Our boys long ago mastered the breakfast routine -- milk, cereal, bowls, spoons. Eat it up and leave a big mess. But now they're doing lunches, too. Before long, I'll sic them on dinner and then I can skip cooking altogether. Of course, we'll all be living on ramen noodles, but every solution has its trade-offs.

Sometimes, the boys wish to try something new, to test their wings, and that's when I do what any right-thinking dad would do: I tell them to ask their mother. She's a lot more tolerant of their experiments into, say, the molecular structure of butterscotch pudding. Plus, she's a much better chef than me. If they need someone to oversee their culinary adventures, it should be someone who really knows her way around the kitchen. Someone who knows where we keep the measuring cups.

That wouldn't be me. I don't measure when I cook. I eyeball everything. I don't want to get too technical here, but I use estimations such as "pinch" and "some" and "glop." I've got a good feel for the same old dishes I whip up every week and I rarely try anything new. The only recipes I ever use are the ones printed on the box of whatever it is I'm cooking. I consider a meal a success if I manage not to dump into boiling water the foil cheese packet that comes in a box of macaroni-and-cheese.

Years ago, when I was a bachelor, I got a yen for a tuna hot dish my mother used to make. It's the kind where tuna, peas and carrots are mixed up in a white sauce with biscuits on top. Yum.

My mom was 900 miles away and I didn't think the dish would ship well, so I called her up and she gave me the recipe over the phone. It seemed simple: three tablespoons of butter, three tablespoons of flour, a third of a cup of milk. Stir all that into a sauce, add the other ingredients and, before you know it, you're ready for a church potluck.

I purchased the ingredients and set out to make the casserole. One problem: I lost the recipe. So I worked from memory, making only one mistake. Instead of three tablespoons of flour, I put in three CUPS of flour. The result seemed a little gummy, but I slapped it in the oven, hoping for the best. When it came out, I could see I had a problem. The texture was less like a pot pie and more like bread pudding.

I'd made a tuna cake.

Since then, I've been a little flinchy when it comes to recipes. Better to fry up some burgers and call that good.

But I encourage my boys' experiments in the kitchen. Maybe they'll learn from their mistakes and become great chefs one day. Maybe they'll master measuring and recipes and high-altitude baking.

I can always show them how to make a tuna cake.

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