Man in the Kitchen: When Your Kids Leave the Nest

Man in the Kitchen: When Your Kids Leave the Nest

empty nest
© Ben White/Unsplash

On the day Ben left for college, his mom – my ex – pulled up to our house on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn. We loaded his stuff into the back of her hatchback. It took about three minutes. Then that formerly little boy of mine wrapped his six-foot-one frame around me with a crushing body hug and a “Seeya Dad.”

“Love you, Ben.”

“Love you too.”

It took all of about five seconds for the tears to come, followed by the full throttle of my shoulder-shaking sobs.

As I walked down the sidewalk toward our stoop I bumped into a neighbor I vaguely knew. She took one look at my tear-streaked face and said, “First one off to college?”

© Oui/123RF

Now a year’s gone by and Ben’s about to leave me again. His freshman year is in the books and he’s landed a summer job as a sleepaway camp counselor. His kid brother, Matthew, (another six-foot tall bundle of insatiable appetite) has started the college hunt. Soon enough I’ll be waving “buh-bye” from that street corner again, this time contemplating the empty nest.

However, for the past precious three weeks, tucked between the end of the school year and the beginning of the boys’ summer plans, I’ve had a full house – which meant a teenager on the couch, an endless stream of dirty laundry, and the chance to make dinner for my guys again. And oh what a joy it’s been!

No matter how tall and gangly and independent they become, all I see is two sweet, innocent boys filling our dinner table with laughter, conversation, and the inside stories of brothers raised on a script I never imagined.

Carlton sons home for dinner. © Ken Carlton

One evening, having laid out a healthy repast of one of our old standbys (big beefy burgers and store-bought mac & cheese), we got into a discussion about their favorite meals. Feeding the kids for me was never a chore. I tackled each dinner like a bedtime story. Grilled soy-marinated chicken thighs on the fire with homemade mac salad. Steamed cod in my special broth with Rice-a-Roni (yes, we have no shame about the classics: it’s hard to single parent and put 3,000 meals on the table over the course of 12 years). Meatballs and spaghetti. Lemon butt chicken. Pasta in every imaginable form! The list went on and on.

When the boys reminded me of the traditional birthday treat they demanded each year – “Dada Breakfast Sandwiches” – I felt a deep sense of nostalgia welling up. From the cute little sprogs they once were, I’ve witnessed inopportune piercings and bad hair, memorable run-ins and nights without words. Still, dinner beckoned. We always sat down together.

empty nest
Ken Carlton with sons Ben and Mathew. Photo courtesy of author

I got home late from work recently on a sultry, humid summer’s night. The window units rattled the damp cool air. Take-out would have been easy. And still, I cooked.

You turn around for a blink and they’re no longer kids. They’re taller, more opinionated, and distant at times.

Strange stubbly appurtenances appear on their chins and disappear just as quickly. It all goes by so fast. The water boils and you chop away. Looking back, those endless meals were a roadmap to their youth, a recipe to the unique family dynamic we created.

If you’re lucky enough to get your kids back for a day or a week between the cycles of life, dust off those old recipes and serve up a dish of childhood. The food is good. The memories, as tasty as a cold cup of ice cream on a sweet summer’s day.

Easy chicken stir fry dish. © Ken Carlton

Healthy, Easy Stir Fry

There is much to be said about simplicity when feeding your family on a budget – be it the drain on time after work or the hole in your pocket. This dish hits the mark on both scores and according to my boys, is as delicious as anything I prepare.


  • 1 lb. boneless chicken breast or thigh, thinly sliced
  • 4 or 5 packets of ramen soup noodles
  • One bunch scallions
  • One red pepper
  • A few cloves of garlic
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Soy sauce


  • Pan fry the chicken on high until browned and cooked through; remove to cutting board and cut into thin strips
  • Mince garlic and chop scallions and red pepper
  • Boil large pot of water, break up ramen noodles, and drop in boiling water for 3 minutes or until done
  • Drain thoroughly
  • Heat up wok or large frying pan
  • Sauté garlic, then add onions and peppers and cook on medium heat for two to three minutes
  • Add chicken and keep tossing the whole mix
  • Add Ramen and more oil to keep from sticking, and season to taste with shakes of soy sauce. Keep tossing the whole mix until blended and piping hot
  • Serve in large pretty bowl and teach your kids to use chopsticks. It is a life lesson from which much goodness will be accrued.
Ken Carlton is founder and editor-in-chief of Beyondish, a food review and storytelling website. He is the author or ghostwriter of eight books, including the award-winning memoir, THE HUNGER, the story behind Greenwich Village’s celebrity hotspot, The Waverly Inn. Ken wrote the "His Point of View" column for Cosmopolitan and appeared as a dating expert on OPRAH. He still muses about food, relationships and parenting at his website, Food for Marriage. A New Yorker and Parisian at heart, he has scripted conferences in Paris for CNN and Fortune magazine. Ken and his wife, a professor, split their time between Brooklyn, NY and Chicago. You can follow him on Instagram @foodformarriage


  1. I could have used this recipe when I was a single mom! Can you please tell us all where to get lemon butts for “Lemon butt chicken?”


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