It’s that dreaded time of day, 4 o’clock, and you’re like, Oh, crap, what am I making for dinner? Just when you remember what you were going to make or when you decide what exactly to throw together, you’re reminded that you have little kids by a THUD! and a really loud WAAAAHHHH! That’s right. Big sister just knocked little sister down over a toy that she stopped playing with over six months ago.
You quickly comfort little sister and try to set her back down in the play area, but all she wants to do is cry. In the back of your mind, you remember that if you want to put dinner on the table by 6 o’clock, you had better start prepping for dinner NOW!
© MNStudio / Dollar Photo Club
This is a scene that plays out on a pretty frequent basis in this house. With my girls being 2 1/2 years old and 13 months old, neither of them are thinking about cooperating with mommy by any means. They both have their own agenda, which means I have to keep a watchful eye or things can quickly get out of hand.
So what am I to do about dinner? Ignore it and hope that a magical fairy swoops into the kitchen to make some wonderful meal? Or wade through the trenches of dinner time prep and hope that both dinner and my girls (and myself!) come out alive?
How to Cook Dinner with a Toddler and/or Baby
Actually, I’ve decided to make some changes so that dinner time preparation doesn’t have to be so hair-pulling. These are all the ways I thought of in order to enjoy that two hour block of my day and stop worrying whether my girls are gouging each other’s eyes out. While I have put them in front of the TV in the past (maybe one too many times), I am trying to do things that will be much more engaging for them.
1. SET THIS TIME AS PLAY TIME FOR YOUR KIDS
Get out some pots and pans for your child to bang on or let him play in the pantry. I know, I know. You need to be in control and it makes you insane to see your pantry organization fall apart in seconds. But guess what? Your child will only be this young for a couple years. After that, he should be old enough to know better and you can have some order back. I let my girls play with the containers and get into the pantry while I prepare dinner. Most of the time they actually play pretty well together and I get at least 15 minutes to do what I need to for dinner.
If you really can’t stand the thought of all your kitchen stuff being strewn across the kitchen floor, teach your child how to play by herself instead. It wasn’t until Sofía was 22 months already that I even heard about this concept. It never really occurred to me that a child needs to be taught how to do independent play. If you need some direction in this department, both The Military Wife and Mom and The Early Bird Mom have excellent posts on this topic HERE and HERE. If your child can do some independent play for 30 minutes to an hour, you can cook without worrying about what they are getting into. If your child has a pretend kitchen set, it would probably be really fun for him to play with that during this time.
2. HAVE THEM AROUND YOU IN THE KITCHEN
This one sounds like a really, really bad idea on the surface. Your kids are probably always at your feet and a huge bother and that’s why you can’t get dinner on the table in a reasonable amount of time. But, instead of just letting them wander around the kitchen to snatch things from your work area (like Sofía often does), keep them occupied at the dining room table. Give them some paper and crayons and tell them to draw a picture of their favorite food. Make some playdough that they can shape and mold for a good half hour (this is one I’ll have to try soon since the most recent occasion I offered playdough to my toddler, she still wanted to eat it). Try to have a variety of activities that they can do so they don’t get bored.
If you have a baby, put her in the high chair with a spoon or some (safe) kitchen utensils to play with. As soon as she starts playing the dropping game, it’s probably game over, but try it out and see if it works for your baby.
Another thing you could try if you want them to be close to you in the kitchen is to let them help you cook or at least watch you cook. This probably wouldn’t work for the toddler age group so much, but I imagine as they get a little older they will grow more curious about what you are actually doing in the kitchen. What a perfect time to show them how to chop, mix, or simmer. If you let your 2 or 3 year old help, it will definitely be a chore to teach and watch them, but it will pay off in a few years when they can cook for themselves. Sofía’s mood always changes from bad to great if I pick her up and show her what is boiling on the stove or what I am chopping on the cutting board.
3. DO MEAL PREP AHEAD OF TIME
If you would rather not worry about what your kids are doing while you are cooking, try making meals at a different time when your kids are asleep or someone else is there to watch them. You can make freezer meals ahead of time while your husband is playing with them. Do what I often do and make double or triple what your family will eat and freeze the rest. It will save you lots of time in the future. Think of it, if you are eating food you have prepared from the freezer 2-3 times per week, you only have to cook dinner 5-6 times throughout the week, and you could do two of those on the weekend. That means you can spend more time with your kids on those days when you don’t have to do a lot of dinner prep. You could also throw together crockpot meals in the morning before your children wake up.
If you really just want more time with your kids during the week, do all your prep on the weekend. Bulk cooking is something I tried a little before I had kids, but it didn’t work well for me. I can imagine that if you have a job you probably don’t want to come home from work and start cooking. You probably want to spend some time with your kids before eating. Bulk cooking can be really helpful in that respect.
Before I had Bella, I would often do meal preparation at a different time than right before dinner. Sometimes I would prepare things the night before, but normally it was during Sofía’s afternoon nap that I would just get all the prep done. This made things so much smoother when I had to throw everything together for dinner. My daughter was not at my feet and I was able to play with her before dinner.
You could also take things really, really slow and do dinner prep all afternoon. If you normally would start dinner one hour before eating when you didn’t have kids, start making dinner two hours before so you can take breaks to help your child do something. You could get out your ingredients and take a break. Then you could chop something and take another break. You get the idea. It might take you a ton of time to actually get the task done, but it will be beneficial to your child if you can give them some attention in between cooking.
4. MAKE QUICK MEALS THAT DON’T REQUIRE A RECIPE
I used to rely on a recipe (often one I had never tried before) to cook dinner. That all had to change last year just a couple months after Bella joined our family. Having two children made me realize how precious each minute truly is and that I had to stop wasting all those minutes in the kitchen. When I cook a meal that I’ve made many times before and is not a written recipe, I can get things done that much quicker. I also think it’s important to make meals that can come together in less time.
5. KNOW WHAT’S FOR DINNER BEFOREHAND
I think the one thing that can make everyone crazy, especially yourself, is not being prepared at all. Don’t wait for your husband and kids to ask you, “What’s for dinner?” before you start to think about it. Make a list of meals for the week, have ingredients on hand, and know beforehand what you will be making for dinner each night. It’s important that if you are using a recipe (especially one that you are trying for the first time) to make sure you have the ingredients or that you have decent substitutions.
Here are some examples of what goes on when I am not keeping an eye on my girls:
If you try one or two of these ideas to help you with meal time prep with kids at your feet, I would love to hear how it changes the atmosphere in your home. Leave a comment below to share your experience!