How to Cook Dinner with Kids Underfoot

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Making dinner with two young children

March 2004

I'm looking for suggestion on ways to make dinner with two young children. I have a 1.5 y.o and a 4 y.o. My 4 y.o. will very easily stay focused on a project for 30 minutes while I prepare dinner but the 1.5 y.o. of course doesn't have that concentration ability yet. I've tried many things (art projects, eating while I'm preparing, tupperware stacking, crockpot cooking, involving her in the cooking, preparing in stages throughout the day, changing the time we eat, etc. I should probably go back and reevaluate what I have tried but thought I'd see if there were other ideas out there. Thanks dinner help

I put my son in the backpack until he was about two years old. I would hand him tidbits to snack on and kept up a monologue describing what I was doing every step of the way. Eventually he got too heavy but by then he could stand on a stool next to me and participate that way. That was over ten years ago. My 23 year old daughter now has two boys exactly the same age as yours, and she does the same thing I did with the youngest. When he's not in the backpack, she's usually dancing as she cooks and he will dance in the kitchen next to her. There's a lot of interaction between them and he gets a kick out of it and she gets dinner cooked and excersize as well. backpacking mom

I have the same problem as you do. Best tips I have found are to use ingredients that offer shortcuts whenever possible (like prewashed spinach, salad greens, peeled garlic, spices that are already ground in tubes, Egg Beaters, etc), and to prep in the morning while my younger child is napping and the older one is in school, and to cook things that marinate in marinades you can make in a blender (South Beach Diet book has lots of good recipes) all day for flavor without a lot of prep time. I also wash and cut up fruits and vegetables into edible pieces for snacking and recipes as soon as I bring them home which saves me time later. I make soup at least once a week, or bean salads etc that can do several meals, and cook extra quantities of meats, rice etc so I have ''leftovers'' for good kids' meals and lunches, and some mornings when I have time make more than one marinade for meat and stick the next day's in the fridge. This way we eat healthy foods every day. The worst thing is trying to cook after 3:00 when the toddler and preschooler ''witching hours'' set in. If you can prep or prepare ahead and just stick something in the oven at the last minute or broil and toss at dinner time, you will be way ahead. No Time To Waste

How to cook while keeping ambitious 14 month old out of harms way?

July 1998

To all those folk who shared helpful hints on quick cooking -- any tips on how to keep an ambitious, 14 month old toddler who both climbs and walks well, happy, occupied, and out of harms way while one is cooking? I live alone -- dinner time is one of those times when I feel like forget having someone to do half the work, I'd settle for someone to just PLAY with the baby and keep her occupied while I work. As it is, we end up eating a lot of take-out and canned chicken soup. At 14 months, her ability to play alone is limited to about 15 minutes, which allows me to a) put a pre-made (take-out) dinner on the table and b) later, in a separate 15 minutes, clean up (maybe). When she hasn't seen me all day long, and wants nothing more than to cuddle and play, trying to wrest THREE 15 minute chunks out of our first hour home is pretty impossible. Advice?

Keeping a toddler busy while you cook: Not an easy thing by any means. I too am a single mother and when my son was that age I made a big dish of some kind on the weekend which I heated up portions of on weekdays, interspersed with days where we ate things like fishsticks.

If the kid needs to run around, there's not much you can do, but if she is willing to sit still, you can put her in a highchair with some finger food, or some dough to play with, perhaps some of the food you are preparing. That way you can interact with her, talk to her, etc. while you are cooking. This only works with things you are pretty experienced in making, trying to follow a complicated recipe from a cookbook would probably drive you nuts at a time like this.

Another idea is to have both of you eat some finger snacks (little carrots, etc) on the way home so that you are not ravenous. Then take some time (15 minutes?) to play with your daughter, hold her and snuggle, then maybe she will last a bit longer while you try to get dinner started.

Good luck

I have a 15-month-old and a 4-year-old, and, luckily, I also have a spouse, so often I don't have to cook alone, but here's what I do when I have to.

I find that my toddler often wants to be in the kitchen with me, but will sometimes play on the floor while I cook or clean up. If you can possibly arrange your kitchen this way, put your tupperware and your pots in lower kitchen cabinets without locks, or on open shelves. Carefully lock up every thing else (even the refrigerator, if necessary) so that you won't constantly have to pull the toddler away from trouble. The tupperware will end up all over the floor and your toddler will make a terrible racket banging the pots together, but if you're lucky you'll get just long enough time free to chop your vegetables. Most other things (stirring, etc.) can be done with the toddler on your hip (as far away from the stove as possible). One other option, which I hesitate to suggest, is to see if your toddler likes videos. Many kids this age will watch Barney or Sesame Street videos, so if you can put the TV near the kitchen, I think it's not to bad to let him or her watch for 1/2 hour. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

One final option: if you ever have any time and energy left after your child goes to bed, try cooking then. Cook a triple recipe, freeze it in individual portions, then you can just put it in the microwave some evening when you're too tired to do anything else. I never try to cook anything more complicated than pasta or burritos on a weeknight before dinner -- everything else we eat is pre-cooked and frozen.

Good luck!