“What about Dora?” I plead.
“Nope!” he replies.
Low on options and desperate for some form of entertainment for him that doesn’t require me to buck work responsibilities, ignore looming deadlines, or spend 100% of my time on the floor with him, I start to panic. That’s when he cries “Eena! Eena!” and points to the HBO Max app on the television screen.
And just like that, I am saved thanks to a 28-year-old pop star, actor, and cooking novice.
Selena + Chef—a quarantine cooking show in which Selena Gomez is paired with a professional chef who teaches her to cook elaborate recipes from the safety and comfort of their respective homes—first aired on August 13, 2020. “When the pandemic happened, I pretty much was terrified, and then as time went by, I wanted to do something fun and I love cooking,” Gomez told singer and chef Kelis Rogers during episode five of season two.
Gomez—along with a few friends and her maternal grandparents, who all live with the singer in her new, $4.9 million 11,500 square-foot estate in Encino, California—stumbles through some truly impressive dishes. She mistakes her gas stove for electric while learning to make the perfect French omelet with French chef Ludo Lefebvre. She sets parchment paper on fire while roasting asparagus with Nancy Silverton. She makes the mistake of pouring water in a pot of hot oil and burnt garlic while making a hamburger and deconstructed Caesar salad with Graham Elliott. At the end of every episode, Gomez donates $10,000 to a charity of the celebrity chef’s choice.
As a TV cooking show aficionado—Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, and The Great British Baking Show are my favorites—I was hardly surprised by how much I enjoyed Selena + Chef. What caught me off guard, however, was how the show also completely captured the attention of my toddler.
Part of the reason for my child’s obsession lies with Selena’s now signature colorful bowls and knives. (Lefebre says her bowls are the colors of the movie Trolls, and her rainbow-colored knife set has spawned its own Instagram account.) Gomez’s songs play at random moments throughout the episode as well, and yes, my child bops along to all of them.
“Children are fascinated by this show because it has many aspects that appeal to them,” Karen Caraballo, Psy.D., a clinical child and family psychologist, tells me. “The food is visually appealing, and children generally prefer plates with more elements and colors. The music, for children, indicates fun and playtime, so you might see your kids dancing and singing during the show.”
Like the iconic Sesame Street, Selena + Chef has made use of production elements that meet toddlers where they’re at developmentally. For example, one 1994 study published in The Journal of Genetic Psychology found that kids have positive reactions to bright colors, like pinks, reds, and blues—hence my son’s fascination with Selena’s Coachella-like knives that resulted in my purchasing a set. “The colors from food, the background—white background with contrast with clothes, nails, and food—and Selena’s knives boost creativity and excitement,” Caraballo explains.
And the repetitive nature of the show—every episode is set up the same—plays into the sense of safety repetition gives young children, which is why I’ve now spent more than six months of my pandemic parenting experience watching Gomez differentiate between a tablespoon and a teaspoon.