Juggling cooking/cleaning with toddler

Looking for suggestions from parents on cooking efficient, quick & healthy meals compatible taste wise with spices etc. for both parents and toddler (14 months- needs soft food, doesn't have many teeth yet). We are struggling finding time to cook after work while chasing the toddler around and not wanting to neglect (want to spend time with them). Looking for easy meals that can be prepared in an instant pot, for example and left to cook while working at home (or a slow cooker). We are not into freezing food and buy a bunch of fresh veggies and fruits from Berkeley bowl bi-weekly. Open to meat and vegan/veggie dishes. Any suggestions on weekend food prep and/or how to cook dinner super quickly would be very helpful please! Also any suggestions on getting household cleaning done while trying to spend time with your child (what cleaning can we let go what is important like floors for safety for the toddler) and when to do it (e.g. assign a day for vacuuming) would be much appreciated. Struggling in these departments and it is affecting marriage/ stress level etc. at the moment in all respects so any advice would be great! We aren't able to hire anyone or eat out so looking for advice on how to do it ourselves between two parents, sharing the work load but not leaving one parent doing the work and the other "having fun"?! with child. Thank you!

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I love the New York Times weeknight dinners. You can search their whole archive (if you subscribe) and easily compile menus and shopping lists for the week.

Toddler food is hard. We are big fans of instant pot recipes by Melissa Clark NYT. We have a rotation of mushroom and peas risotto, Chili (see Jacky and Amy recipes), chickpea stew, carnitas, chicken soup, lasagne, Mac and cheese. All of which work perfectly in the instant pot. Our kids also really like Greek food- lots of fresh veggies! Easiest meal has got to be roasted tofu with rice and veggies all done on a sheet pan minus the rice.

Hey, I just wanted to empathize that you are not alone! I think many of us are struggling with this balance and all the demands on us, especially with this stupid pandemic. I don't have any great suggestions on cleaning - our place is a tolerable mess. I try to vacuum and clean bathrooms once a week, if I can manage (big if...) and sometimes our three year old offers to Swiffer (she's not great, but the gesture is appreciated), but that's it. When we were more committed to cleaning, one parent would take the kids out for an hour or so and the other would speed clean the house. It's all tiring.

As for meals, I put together a spread sheet of meals that are mostly quickish (less than 30 min.) that we like and our kids (now 2 & 3) will eat, too. These "higher effort" meals we make a few days a week between pasta (with ready made pasta sauce) and things like quesadillas because doing this every night would be nuts. You may need to adjust spice and consider chopping small/cooking longer for your little, but we started eating these about the same age as your toddler. Here are three:

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If these are the kinds of dishes you're looking for, happy to share the spreadsheet.

Good luck!

I suggest getting some cookbooks for kids, even though your toddler is too young to read , these recipes usually have fun drawings of the ingredients and techniques and are usually full of healthy recipes, I loved " Fanny at Chez Panisse" for example. Also there are tons of blogs and books with Instapot and Slow Cooker recipes, also at the local libraries and some you can download.  Maybe designate an afternoon a weekend to cooking several recipes at once and to save time during the week make double recipes so you have leftovers to freeze. Have a drawer or cabinet in the kitchen for your child to call their own, I put wooden spoons, tupperware, a plastic bowl, they love to pretend to cook with you! Re cleaning: Swiffer once a day and have baskets around to stow toys, also never leave a room empty handed. Don't  spend too much time cleaning, they don't remember if the house was clean when they grow up! 

I make a lot of soups which will last our family of 3 (toddler ~4.5yrs) for the week, and when I buy the veggies for the soup, I also think of other dishes we can make with the same ingredients. So if I make potato leek soup, I save some potatoes for mashed potatoes. When our child was younger, and even now he's kind of a lazy chewer, I would use an immersion blender to just blend it all together so that its softer, and that way I am also able to sneak in more veggies! If I make a veggie minestrone type soup, I might use the pasta and veggies later in the week to make a pasta salad or something. Spaghetti, tacos, mac n cheese with add ins (peas, hot dogs, spam), mashed potatoes and baked salmon (toaster oven), fried rice, making our own sushi or spring rolls is a fave at home where we can have fun with it and eat the same foods! I'd say each meal takes maybe 30-40 minutes total between prepping and cooking since it's mostly one pot! Our kiddo also doesn't like meat unless its a sausage or nugget, but like impossible meat so we've been subbing that in spaghetti sauce and tacos since my partner and I are vegetarian and pescatarian =)

Have you tried involving your toddler in the cooking and cleaning? My 16 month old loves imitating everything we are doing, so for example, we got him a child sized broom and mop, let him put clothes directly in the washing machine, got a "learning tower" so he can safely stand up at the counter and help with simple food prep steps. Of course, it is a little more work than doing it without a toddler's help, but he is learning a lot and it gets easier and easier the more we do it. If this sounds of interest, i would suggest reading up on Montessori philosophy as they are very focused on a "prepared environment" that helps the child be independent. We don't do everything Montessori style but have been extremely pleased with what we have incorporated and our toddler is thriving. Of course, its not easy, and i think it also makes sense to come up with some simple meal planning. I have found "America's Test Kitchen" has some good online recipes for Slow Cookers that require purchase to their online system.

My kids are 8 and 11 now, but wow, do I remember the struggles you are dealing with! Here are a few things that helped me...

1. We bought a roomba. Without question the best money we ever spent. I joke that my roomba is my best friend, but I am only kind of joking.

2. At some point, I transitioned to doing weekly meal planning and then sticking to the plan (mostly). It was amazing how much this helped - it turned out that a lot of the stress I experienced around dinner prep was actually related to figuring out what to make and procuring the food, not cooking it. So doing meal planning and only shopping once a week really helped with that.

3. In terms of flexibility to feed toddlers... I wound up cooking lots of soups that could be gently pureed for my toddlers to eat. (They would turn up their noses at all the veggie chunks in sausage lentil soup but were happy to eat a version that had been lightly blended.) I've also just gotten in the habit of omitting hot sauce, red pepper flakes, etc. to keep the heat down. I wind up adding red pepper flakes or sriracha after the fact to my own dish quite often. The chef in me laments that this is not as good, but honestly, it works OK and everyone is happy. I know you said you're not into freezing things, but the other great thing about making soups/stews is that you can make a really big batch and then freeze some to use later. And they often can be cooked either in the slow cooker (or instant pot) or just without the need for constant supervision. So... better for the days when you have to cook and keep an eye on your little one at the same time.

4. I've made my peace with some amount of convenience food. I used to make lots of things from scratch, and my younger self would never buy pre-grated cheese, for example, or minced ginger in a jar. My mom self loooooooooves minced ginger in a jar. My sanity is worth it.

5. I went through a long process of trying out various recipes and keeping the ones that really work not just in terms of being yummy but also in terms of ease of prep. Epicurious, the New York Times, and Skinnytaste are all big sources for me, and all have recipes that are flagged as "easy" or "weeknight." Over the years, I've amassed quite a collection. Before kids, I was a big fan of Cooks Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen. Now, I never use their recipes except on special occasions - they are delicious but often way too complicated.

6. Some parent friends and I started a google slide show where we pool all our easiest recipes. I turn to that when I need new ideas.

7. I let go of a lot of cleaning. Floors/household dust seem important with a little one, but you should see my stovetop. It's embarrassing and gross, but so is the way I get completely unhinged when my stress levels get too high. I also strongly recommend getting your child(ren) involved in house cleaning early and just making it an expectation. Even if you can do it better/faster, let them do it. At this point, my kids are 100% responsible for cleaning our bathrooms. They each clean one every weekend. It was such a relief when they got old enough to do that. Buy your toddler some child sized cleaning supplies (e.g., a broom), and do some cleaning together.

Good luck!

I don’t know where I would be without my instant pot, especially during the pandemic! I frequently soak dried beans overnight and make a big batch of refried beans in the IP. Now that the weather has been cold, I have been making a ton of soups in the IP as well. Other IP staples are chicken thighs and a jar of salsa either with or without a cup of rice, spaghetti squash, even a whole chicken. I also like making casseroles with vegetables in them so I’m not making multiple dishes per meal. Although my toddler is becoming more picky, at 14 months he would eat anything so that was really helpful. 
For chores, my son is very interested in the vacuum so now I vacuum while he is home and not napping instead of always doing it when I could be taking a break. We have a little toy vacuum he likes to push around while we vacuum. I try to get him involved in some kind of project while I do dishes so again, I don’t have to only use breaks for that. He’s interested in the washer/dryer so he “helps” with those things sometimes though it slows everything down. 

I really embraced microwaving veggies after having a baby. I try to always have cooked carrots, green beans or broccoli in my fridge at all times. I try to make staples that I know my girl will eat and always have them prepped on hand, usually I prep like mad during nap time. If I make something that takes a lot of time and attention I make it after she goes to bed, then hubby and I eat late and my girl has the leftovers the next day. Bottom line: we don't always eat a meal altogether. My toddler is ready for dinner at 5:45 and I can't work that fast. Often she eats, then we make dinner after she goes to bed. That said, slow cooker soups are life!

The best thing I ever invested in was a robotic vacuum.  This was indispensable when our child was a toddler and saved me so much time.  Trading off the cooking helped too.  We tended to make things like carnitas in the crock pot that we could use in different recipes.  Also, roasted whole chicken ala Marcella Hazan (simple roast with 2 lemons, salt & pepper) can be combined with throwing veggies in the oven for dinner and you can make chicken salad, etc. with leftovers. Or chicken soup (again, whole chicken, water, carrots, a parsnip, some herbs, then adding leftover pasta or rice at the very end) is easy and there's always lots leftover that can be frozen and saved, reheated quickly for a rainy day or lunch.  Adding a lemon to the soup at the end makes it even better). Baked potatoes in the microwave and lots of pasta, cous cous, etc.  Hang in there, it does get a lot easier soon.

We had to shift out ideals around food and meals post-parenthood. As long as we are getting balanced meals (a balanced mix of vegetables, whole grains/carbs, lean protein) I am satisfied. We used to cook from scratch daily, go to the farmers market weekly, etc. At this point in time, we’ve let some of that go… I’d say at first it was sad, but now weekday cooking is no longer stressful and dinner is simply daily time we enjoy together with food (even if the food is not fancy…)

Some things we’ve found helpful for weekdays:

  1. Pre-washed/pre-chopped vegetables (butternut squash, broccoli, cauliflower, sugar snap peas, baby carrots, string beans, cabbage). Dump in a bowl with a splash of water, cover, microwave and have steamed vegetables within 1-3 minutes. Or roast.
  2. Sheet pan dinners! Super easy and hands-off. Roasted chicken thighs, salmon, tofu, pork chops, etc. Just pre-marinate or toss with oil and seasoning, pop in the oven, and you can also add veggies and potatoes.
  3. Brown rice: we cook 1-2 big pots a week, so that it’s readily available and can be quickly reheated.
  4. Meals that can be “decomposed.” Like Nicoise salad (with canned tuna, so much faster)—but the kids will only eat the boiled eggs, roasted potatoes, string beans (steamed in the microwave), and tomatoes. No olives, lettuce or vinaigrette for the kids. Along similar lines are tacos, rice bowls, etc.
  5. We do eat some frozen foods, which we supplement with fresh veggies. At Trader Joe’s we like the dumplings, tamales, turkey burger patties, spanakopita, turkey meatballs.
  6. Have condiments on hand… I still miss our Life Before Kids-meals (coconut curries, etc.) but I’d rather prepare bland food and just add siracha/ salsa/ harissa/ Krystal than cook multiple meals.

Lastly, my husband and I take turns as much as humanly possible. For grocery-shopping, cooking, clean-up, bed time routine, etc. It’s a constant conversation of “Who’s turn is it?” and it’s not perfect, but we do rotate back and forth a lot which helps my sanity. In LBK, I used to do all of the cooking because I’m better at it, but frankly I don’t enjoy cooking as much anymore now that the food has to be toddler and preschooler-friendly… so that was a conversation.

Am so glad that my daughters see this model of partnership and parenthood though (rather than what my husband grew up with-- a SAH mom doing the majority of the housework and child-rearing… seriously, in the first part of marriage I had to FIGHT with him to do dishes. He didn’t see that it was unfair, one person doing the cooking AND clean-up). The house is still messier than I'd like, but I'd rather have ~30-60 minutes to myself before my own bedtime than just be on constant childcare-work-cook clean/childcare mode. 

Good luck!!

I’ve struggled to find foods my 3 YO will eat that I want to eat. I usually make him a quick, easy dinner (pasta, quesadilla, or sandwich with fruit and carrots). While he’s eating I talk to him and cook a simple dinner for my husband and myself. One pan dishes I can throw in the oven are simplest and easy to clean. 

Cleaning the house with him is a slow process. He likes to help vacuum and dust, but cleaning kitchens and bathrooms has to happen when he naps or sleeps. 

Hi! We are by no means pros at this, and have been re-configuring our juggle with the birth of our newborn but I thought I could share some things we have found to be helpful having a 2 year old and a newborn. 
My husband and I divvy up the cooking and cleaning: I do all grocery shopping and bulk prep (weekly grains, a weekly legume, roasting nuts etc) he then puts together the food quickly during the weeknights for dinner. We’ll do food prep on the weekends, including cut up kale, or use a food processor to mince garlic we can throw into a dish quickly. We’ll do a quiche, yogurt or beans (she likes black puréed) with scrambled eggs for our toddler for breakfast which is all easy prep-wise. He does a lot of puréed vegetable soups,  which are great one handed meals for work/baby juggling and we can easily toss in some grains or cheese ;) to make it more substantial for us or our daughter. (My favorite way to make grains (faro, barley, brown/wild/basmati rice, quinoa) is get them going on a high boil for several minutes and then turn the burner off, keep it lidded and let it sit and soak up the water, this way I can make a pot of grains with really only 5-10 minutes of hands on work, they’ll soak up the water in about an hour or so but I can leave it and do other things, work, etc. I do like to use a healthy amount of olive oil or butter for flavor). 
We started using Farm Fresh To You weekly when the pandemic hit (prior was biweekly) and I have found that to be a great way to save time and still get quality produce.
Cleaning wise, I do most all the cleaning, vacuuming on Saturday morning sometimes getting started while she and my husband sleep in, other times while they’re hanging out and we just flip flop rooms as I make my way through the house. Being a no shoes house means mopping is pretty quick and can be done depending on how often our in-laws are here/rainy weather etc. Those are really the two things I prioritize as the kids are on the floor, might pick up and eat things from the floor ;) and then things like tubs/toilets are a monthly occurrence. 
Otherwise we just try to pick up clutter nightly, using a lot of baskets and bins for toys/crayons/etc after the kids go to sleep. We also do laundry every other day and folding is our excuse to watch a show together at night once the kids are asleep. 
I’m looking forward to others’ suggestions to make this process even more efficient. 

What first come to my mind is outsourcing the cleaning and some take out. But I saw that is not desired.

We both work and have 2 girls (4 and 1 year old). We cook extra food over the weekend for the week and make a meal plan for the week. During the week, we cook the rest of the meals while we are doing the dinner. While one of us is cooking the other one is taking care of the girls. We switch every day so that the girls are used to be with both of us.

Sometimes one girl want to be in the kitchen, the older one draws in the kitchen while one is cooking and for the small one I put some toys or safe kitchen stuff on the floor so that she can play with it.

Thank you for asking this! Everyone's replies have been useful for me. I have a 21 month old and in the mornings my partner and I usually take turns with one of us watching our toddler and cooking breakfast while the other does some exercise or gets ready for work or sleeps in. In the evenings its often the same with just one of us free to prep dinner while the other finishes up work. We always invite our toddler to cook with us and although it can sometimes take longer, it is fun and gives him lots of opportunities to practice fine motor skills. It also gives us a little more time together, since we don't have all that much time with him before and after work on weekdays. We have a learning tower and some toddler knives and give him specific things to do, like cracking eggs, chopping fruit for a smoothie, drying greens in the salad spinner, snapping green beans. Sometimes he's not interested and goes off to play on his own or takes out some pots and pans and does some pretend cooking on his own. On the weekends we usually make one or two big dishes for lunch for the week. Sometimes we don't get around to it, or it doesn't last as long as we thought and one of us will cook another big meal during the week at night after our toddler is asleep. 

We use our instant pot a lot, usually making a pot of beans and a pot of rice each week. We used to plan what we were going to make each week and make a specific grocery list, but we have mostly abandoned that. Now we have a produce CSA box and a fish CSA that we pick up each week, some basic things that we order each week for delivery or grocery run (chicken stock, cheese, nuts, avocados, beans, rice, etc), and also have a small veggie garden in our backyard. Then whoever is cooking opens the fridge and comes up with something to make based on whats in there and what needs to be used first. This has worked out really well for us, I think we have both become better cooks and what we make usually ends up tasting really good.  We have a few recipes that we repeat regularly when the ingredients appear in our box, but a lot of what we make are variations of recipes we have cooked in the past. Our toddler loves this red lentil curry and it is pretty fast to make in the instant pot or on the stovetop (sometimes we make a giant batch that doesn't fit in the instant pot to last the week). https://www.veganricha.com/instant-pot-red-lentil-butternut-squash-curr…; We do a lot of frittatas, soups w/beans and veggies, savory tarts similar to the ones on NYtimes cooking from Martha Rose Shulman, and sometimes just beans, veggies, and quesadillas. Probably half the time we make a big salad for dinner because we always have lots of greens we need to use and its the easiest and fastest when we are pressed for time or tired. Our toddler doesn't eat the salad greens but eats whatever toppings we add, like avocado, roasted veggies, cheese, nuts, etc. Same with smoothies in the mornings, we make those a lot and thats one of the few ways to get our toddler to eat any kind of greens.

I'm a single parent to a preschooler, and a robo-vac and dishwasher saved my life. We do a 5-minute mad dash around the house picking stuff off the floor and then set the vacuum (which my daughter named) to run as we're leaving the house. As for food, I mostly have to do 2 separate meals for dinner, which is a big drag. I either order out for one or both of us or cook larger batches for myself (curries, stews, slow cooker chicken, etc) once or twice a week that I can just warm up while I'm making a kid-friendly dinner. My daughter is involved in picking up toys and likes to help sort laundry, like match socks together, though of course she's not efficient.

Reading these responses has been so affirming! In the mornings, I cook breakfast and pack our 16-month-old's lunch for daycare while my spouse feeds our kid. Our child is sleep trained and is put to bed at 6:30p, so my spouse or I do dinner cooking after the kid goes to sleep (depends on who has work meetings/time to cook after we put the kid to sleep). We're doing a lot of mix-n-match bowls these days. We switch off meal planning responsibilities every other week. Sometimes either my spouse or I will do some meal prep when we have breaks from work during the day. All of the toddler's meals are more like mezze platters -- a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Flavors don't always go together. I focus more on making sure there are some proteins, fresh veggies, and grains. We are lucky that our kid is so far not too picky when it comes to food. For cleaning, I've created a schedule for myself of things that need to be done daily, 2x weekly, 1x weekly, 2x a month, 1x a month, 2x a year, and 1x a year. Trying to assign tasks to specific days was getting too stressful for me. Now I know that as long as I've done things on schedule, it is probably "good enough". And I second all the posts about getting the toddler involved with the cleaning tasks. My kid likes taking stuff to the trash can/recycling bin, has a kid-size push broom, and recently started helping me push the vacuum around.