How My Kitchen (and Life) Changed When My Teens Left for College

I opened the door to the freezer, and the half-full bag of chicken nuggets greeted me. Tears welled up in my eyes. How could a simple red-and-white package make me cry? It was Monday morning, and we had just returned late the night before from sending our youngest son off to college. I made a weekly grocery list to stock the house for two hungry teenagers.

Now, there are no hungry teenagers living at home. Would the chicken nuggets be kept until Christmas vacation? My husband and I would unlikely eat them since I’d been threatening to switch our household to a vegan diet as soon as the boys left for college. I pushed the package toward the back of the freezer so I wouldn’t have to be reminded of my loss.

My kitchen and my life changed when my kids left for college. (photo via Kristen Harrington)

Finding a New Recipe

I grabbed my shopping bags and headed to the store, still a little shaky from the encounter with the chicken nuggets. The produce aisle was okay, but everywhere I turned, there were reminders of the man-child who had just left home. I pass the beef jerky and protein bars, leaving them on the shelf. My older son left for college last year, and now no weightlifting teens are at home looking for snacks to bulk up. 

I wanted some milk for my coffee, but half a gallon would spoil before I could finish it now that no one was here to sneak a midnight bowl of cereal. Everything in my kitchen had been calibrated for four, then three, and now it’s just me and my husband. I don’t know how much pasta to cook or what size salmon filet we need. I knew the math before two hungry teenagers times two or three bratwurst each plus one to two for my husband and one and a half for me equals two packages. Now, how many should I buy?

I’ve spent 18 years thinking about other people’s preferences

I realized I’d spent 18 years mostly thinking about everyone else’s preferences. It’s what a mom does. She sacrifices. I’m not complaining; I’m just stating a fact. There isn’t anything in this world I wouldn’t give my kids, even if that means putting onions in with the peppers when I make fajitas, even though I don’t like them. 

But now it’s time for a new chapter and new recipes. On the first night of empty nesting, I made vegetarian enchiladas because not every dish has to have meat. I made roasted beet, goat cheese, and arugula salad the second night because I like beets. One night, my husband and I went for a walk before dinner and ended up at a local brewery. We ran into some friends and stayed for a beer because we could. No one was waiting for us at home. Some nights, we even have leftovers! 

And it’s not just the recipes that have changed; my to-do list no longer consists of getting stains out of clothes, shopping for dorm supplies, and filling out financial aid forms. I have more time to work in my garden, meet friends for lunch, and write.

Kitchen remodeling

There’s no need to keep the liquor hidden in the high cabinet above the fridge now; my kids were the only ones who could reach it anyway. I moved the Kahlua down to a respectable height and indulged in an evening nip when the urge strikes. A mini-hydroponic garden and a juicer take over-the-counter tools for my new empty-nest-get-healthy life. 

There are only two placemats on the table, and it looks empty. My husband’s laptop and a few of my plants fill the space where our sons used to sit. Saying grace before dinner doesn’t sound as powerful with only two voices, and we don’t watch Jeopardy anymore after dinner because it’s only fun when the whole family yells the answers at the TV. Sometimes, I eat the last cookie without feeling guilty or listen to Taylor Swift while making dinner. I don’t know if my boys like Taylor Swift, but I’m guessing not. 

Learning a new language 

Food is a love language in our house. It’s how I communicated with my sons. The chocolate chip cookie jar was almost always full, and we never ran out of protein powder or Nespresso pods. Often, I stopped to pick up after-school snacks when I was out; maybe it was a few beef patties from a Jamaican restaurant or a bowl of spicy Chinese noodles if I went out to lunch with friends. The house was stocked with everyone’s favorites, and I made dinner most nights. 

My kids felt the care that went into how I cooked, baked, and shopped for them. But now they’re away at college, I need to learn a new language. Instead of saying, “dinner’s ready,” I send care packages: herbal teas for sore throats, a gift card to favorite cafés, and special chocolates brought back from a trip. Last year, at parents’ weekend, we skipped the tours and hit the restaurants for a successful college visit. I’m still learning to speak this new language, especially with my younger son, studying in Europe. 

I usually like my new kitchen and the freedom it offers to try something new. Sometimes, it’s quiet and lonely. No one makes cookies at 10 p.m. or microwaves instant mac’ n cheese at midnight. I’m thankful for all the times we gathered there, making sushi or pasta or eating a takeout pizza. 

I miss my sons, but I’m so proud of them for having the courage to leave home and explore the world. When my oldest texts pictures of shrimp and grits or chicken pot pie he made, and my youngest tells me of the pasta dishes he’s cooking with friends, I know they’re okay. And I can’t wait for the next time they come home and spend time in the kitchen with me. The chicken nuggets will be waiting. I promise I’ll buy a new package. 

More Great Reading:

I Hate How Often My Teens Order Out and Eat Out

About Kirsten Harrington

Kirsten Harrington is an Orlando-based freelance writer who loves to write about food and travel. She lived in China from 2019-2021 and still has many stories to tell. When she's not writing or planning out her next adventure with her husband, you might find her in the kitchen with her two sons.

Read more posts by Kirsten

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