Shawn Johnson & Andrew East On Cooking With Toddlers: “The Kids Are Massive Liabilities”
The parents of two are in the throes of pure toddler chaos and approach weeknight dinners like a team sport.
Across America and around the world, parents struggle to get kids to eat their vegetables. And despite some of our best efforts — bribery, trickery, threats, pleading, and whimsically imaginative games of “here comes the airplane” — even the most dedicated among us can fail spectacularly. But somehow Shawn Johnson East and Andrew East stumbled into a veggie-laden jackpot with their children Drew, 3 and Jett, 18 months.
“Our kids actually love broccoli. We have it with almost every meal,” Shawn tells me by Zoom.
“We don’t even like broccoli!” Andrew chimes in. “I don’t know where that came from.”
But after talking with the pair, it’s not a complete mystery. The Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics and former NFL long snapper put a lot of thought into fostering a good relationship with food for their kids — one where they don’t overthink every morsel that goes into their bodies, while still ensuring proper nutrition. It’s all about balance.
“I've had a lot of eating disorders,” Shawn says, “I've worked with a lot of psychologists, nutritionists, I studied nutrition and really, food is supposed to be fun!”
That sense of fun extends to cooking. “It's just a special time to learn, to laugh,” Andrew agrees, somewhat wistfully, “and there's always stories linked to each food you’re learning to make.”
The couple — whose adorable family exploits can be found on their popular YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok channels — talked to Romper about their passion for cooking… and how it’s more recently become a team sport.
You’ve both been athletes pretty much your whole lives: I have to imagine all those practices affected family meal times — from when you ate to what you ate — when you were younger.
SJE: I always had training until 8 p.m., but my parents always waited to eat and dinner would always be ready by the time I got home. We had this big island and my mom would stand and eat in true mom fashion behind the island, and me and my dad would sit next to each other. It was really special.
AE: I'm the middle of five, so dinner was always chaotic, but my parents definitely prioritized us eating together as a group. The two words that come to mind though, the two dishes would be “casseroles” and “sub-sandwiches.” I feel like we were eating that all the time.
Nowadays, what does a typical weeknight dinner look like at your house?
SJE: I think we've passed on that tradition. I mean, it's very true to our family style, but we have dinner every single night, not at 8 or 8:30, but at 5:30 because we have toddlers.
AE: That was something we grew into though. When Shawn and I didn't have kids, it would just be, “Oh, we're going out with so-and-so friend,” or we'd cook together, but then we had kids and for the first little bit it was just “eat when you can.” It wasn't organized. Then we realized how special it is to have one meal of the day that you can block off time and no one's expecting you to pick up calls or whatever. We've tried to be really disciplined in making that good family time.
Do you still cook together?
SJE: Someone is always on kid duty and someone's on dinner duty.
AE: We'll tap each other in and out.
SJE: The kids are massive liabilities these days.
AE: I would say we probably eat out or order in more than we did growing up. But now that Drew's 3 we've appreciated the fact that it's good for her to see us cooking and interacting with each other.
Did anyone teach you how to cook or is it something that you picked up over time?
SJE: Both. I always cooked with my mom. I would sit there and watch her cook and she would always include me. After I moved out of the house I found I had a passion for it.
AE: We've had a lot of people teach us, I feel like. I’ve thought about this quite a lot.
SJE: I feel like we're around a lot of foodies. Dude, I miss cooking.
AE: I want to do it right now…
Listen, I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old and let me tell you: as toddler parents you two are working so hard right now. But it will get easier, I promise, and you have a lot of fun times ahead of you.
SJE: Thank you, Jamie. Thank you.
AE: Wow. She's so encouraging.
Now, when you do get to cook these days, are you recipe people or are you like, “I let the spirits guide me and I'll know when it's enough garlic,” kind of people?
SJE: No, I love math. Two plus two equals four. I follow recipes. Letting the spirit guide me never ends well, ever.
AE: My dad was definitely a “spirit guide me” cook. He would make pancakes with us in the morning and they were disgusting. It would be like “Did you put cilantro in there? Dad! No!”
You said that you like Drew and Jett being able to watch you guys cook and set that example, but has it stirred anything in them? No pun intended.
SJE: Yes. 1,000%. Jett, really wants to be hands-on and help, but I'm a little too much of a control freak and he's way too chaotic that I'm like, “Just go into the playroom.”
AE: We're trying to change our expectations from like, “Oh, this is leisurely and fun and we can be tidy and cute,” to, “All right, the kids are going to be grabbing stuff off the counter, so let's just try to have them help us cook this thing.”
SJE: Drew always wants to help. If I turn my back for a second, she's got a butcher knife trying to cut something.
If you can think of a favorite meal you have had or even a favorite type of meal, what is it? Who are you with? Was it maybe a really special date night or a vacation dinner? What comes to mind?
SJE: I moved to Nashville for him when we were dating, and that night he surprised me with at-home sushi making. He had researched and learned all the ingredients and learned how to do it and walked me through it. Sushi's my favorite food. It was really special.
AE: For me, it would be the kind of dinner that's kind of hands-on, where they'll have you actively participate in making the food. Me and Shawn and maybe one or two other couples. Then having probably a two or three-hour period blocked off where you're just sitting there enjoying each other's company and enjoying the food.
I think that just about does it for me, but I really want to thank you for your time…
AE: Before you go! Do you have any tips for us? As a parent?
Oh gosh. It looks like you already have a really good attitude in how you’re approaching everything…
AE: We fooled you there.