Young Athletes in the Kitchen

By Shannon Doleac

Can encouraging your young athletes to join you in the kitchen and sit down with you at the table set them up for better nutrition now and throughout their life? 

As a little girl, I remember “hanging around” the kitchen while my mom cooked, “helping” when I wanted to, but mostly keeping an eye on her, watching the techniques she used to make some of my favorite dishes. Nothing fancy or complex, just tasty dishes made with fresh ingredients and a little love. 


Today, I’m in the kitchen A LOT! Granted, it’s a big part of my job, but it’s also a place I feel comfortable, creative and competent. In fact, I never remember feeling intimidated by cooking, quite possibly because my mom was always calm, cool and collected, and I figured that if she could do it, so could I. 

As gymnastics became my passion and commitment early in life, it left little time for actual cooking. My routine was packed: school (7:30am – 2:30pm), training (3pm – 9pm), homework (in the car on the 30-minute drive home), family dinner (10pm!), more homework, and sleep. Rinse and repeat, day after day. 

While I was chipping away at something I loved, my mom was chipping away at putting real-food meals together, and my parents were chipping away at the commitment to eat as a family, no matter what time it was!! Sitting down to appreciate a home cooked meal with my mom and dad was important. It placed a value on nourishing food and family connection; a couple basics of life.

When it was time to head west as a freshman in college, I felt ready and excited for the independence and responsibility. I jumped head first into preparing my own meals — I had no other choice! We didn’t have a cafeteria on campus, nor an athlete training table. What we did have was a TINY dorm room with an itty-bitty refrigerator and wire storage cubes on either side, all sandwiched right between two twin sized beds. Thankfully, my innate sense of “kitchen” competence and my “I can do this” attitude came to the rescue.

Thank goodness Instagram wasn’t a “thing” yet because we certainly didn’t have had any gourmet creations to post from the little galley kitchen of Van Cott Hall (I don’t even think the oven or stove top were safe to use), but we did the best we could and never resorted to Top Ramen or dialing for Dominoes. After two years in the dorms, I moved into an off-campus duplex with a full-sized kitchen, shared with a couple of my teammates. From there my own meals and recipe ideas were born. The combination of my upbringing, my interest in nutrition, and the space to work inspired me to get cooking.

I would love for my kids to have this very same competence in the very same space when it’s time for them to head off on their own. They’ve already developed more kitchen skills than I had at their age, but I feel like I have to work for this a bit harder in today’s world as cooking at home is becoming a lost art. It’s EASY to resort to more convenient, time-saving options (and with understandable lure, we live hectic lives), but I believe this shift from the kitchen to grab-n-go meals or restaurant style eating is a key factor in our society’s declining health – physically, mentally and emotionally.

I wish I had the secret sauce for guaranteeing that my kids, AND your kids, will leave the house with a love for quality ingredients, cooking from scratch and sharing meals with their own friends and family. In the meantime, I draw on my own experiences, my intuition and my observations.


Here are some of the things we do in our home in an effort to give our boys the roots to grow from:

  • We make the kitchen an inviting place. It’s the “hub” of our home, probably like it’s the “hub” of your home. We gather in the kitchen, we share stories in the kitchen, and we enjoy real food in the kitchen.

  • We encourage everyone to pitch in and help when, and with what, they can. Whether it’s emptying the dishwasher, feeding the pets, slicing and dicing, packing a lunch, setting the table, or doing the dishes. We emphasize that it takes a team.

  • We ask if the kids want to help. “Do you want to help chop these veggies? I can show you how to cut this avocado.” This shows them that we are confident in their ability. (Of course, we always oversee knife skills and the use of sharp or hot equipment, and there are general safety rules in the kitchen).

  • When the boys initiate an interest in cooking, we involve them! (Full discloser: this can take extra effort and sometimes I have to dig deep to find that extra to give, but letting too many lost opportunities slip away may mean they stop asking. A calm breath and a quick self-reminder of how these little moments contribute to the life they take with them usually gives me the little charge I need.)

  • We encourage creativity – leaving cookbooks around and welcoming their suggestions for meal planning.

  • We sit down and eat TOGETHER, the majority of the time. Occasionally, there’s a meeting or a basketball game being coached that we just can’t work around. But most days we are all there to say what we are grateful for and bring a meal to the table together.

My comfort and competence have simply come from the time I’ve put in and the priority I’ve placed on providing my family with healthful meals. It’s also come from modeling my mother!


What is one thing you can do this week to encourage yourself or your children to spend more time in the kitchen? We would love to hear from you!


“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” - Gretchen Rubin