Ah-the joys of cooking when you have little people clutching at your knees. Toddlers or mobile babies create an increased level of difficulty when you’re trying to cook dinner. And not the kind of added difficulty that gives you extra points like at the Olympics or anything. It just makes what can be a hard/cranky/tiresome part of the day harder/crankier/tiresome-r. But people gotta eat, so here are some tips and tricks to accomplish feeding your family when little ones just want to be held :
11 Tips for How to Cook Dinner With a Baby or Toddler
1) Start meal prep EARLY if you can. Chop, measure out ingredients, set out the stuff you’ll need. Even putting the pot of water on the stove with the lid on it to start for pasta later is so much easier to do at naptime then with a baby clutching your leg. Also, crockpot cooking is fabulous. Or set stuff into your Insta-Pot and put the insert in the fridge to pull out when you’re ready to start it.
2) Have a baby-safe cabinet that is only available when you are cooking. A collection of pots, plastic bowls and wooden spoons make a great toy box. If it is only available (unlocked) during meal prep or cleanup, it will likely last longer as a distraction. Alternately, a box full of safe kitchen tools and such that you can pull out of a cabinet or closet works, too.
3) Put your toddler’s play kitchen in or near the kitchen. Narrate what you are doing and ask them questions about what they are doing. Taste their creations and have them taste yours. This is also a great idea if you have a kid who is cautious about new foods. It gives them some input to the meal when you ask, ‘Do you think this needs more seasoning?’
4) Bribe, er—ask–an older child to play with the baby. It helps if they play in the baby’s room and not in a room right off the kitchen. My older kids were always afraid they would be on ‘baby duty’ forever, so I’d set the timer for 10-20 minutes, depending on the age of my older kid. A neighborhood kid can do the same job. When my oldest was a toddler, I had a tween in the neighborhood who loved kids and showed up on my doorstep many evenings to take my little one to her house to play for half an hour. God bless her mom who remembered what dinner prep was like!
5) Let them help cook! Even little ones can get the veggies out of the veggie drawer (one by one). Have them change into their chef hat and apron first and wash their hands and you’ll have a couple extra minutes. They can stir, count stuff out, be your errand boy or girl (hint: any errand that takes them out of the kitchen for a few minutes is a good errand, like checking on the fish bowl or looking out the window to check the weather).
6) Set them on a stable step, fill the kitchen sink and have them ‘wash dishes’. I found it helpful to put a towel on the edge of the sink so they didn’t drench themselves. A scrub brush and some bubbles make it more fun.
7) This is a great time for a special activity or toy in their high chair—painting with water, Playdoh™, squishing shaving cream and a drop of food coloring around in a Ziploc™ bag, stirring ice cubes, etc. I have posted some pins on my board for a quick look so you don’t get sucked into a Pinterest hole of wonder.
8) I am a big fan of a healthy pre-dinner ‘snack’. I serve veggies (my kids love frozen peas or mixed veggies) or a small portion of yogurt. As kids get older, a small portion of veggies with dip in their own bowl is great, too. This is a terrific time to try out a food your child is not familiar with, too, as they are hungry but they don’t have the pressure of being at the table. So put a piece of zucchini in with the carrot sticks.
9) Stick a playpen or pack-n-play in the corner of your kitchen and plunk your little one in with a selection of toys. Learning to entertain themselves is a skill and takes some time. Start when they are infants if you can. If not, start with just a few minutes and increase a minute a day until they can sit and play for a solid stretch (15 mins or more). If your baby or toddler does ‘crib time’ or ‘room time’, this is a good time of day to do that, too, if they’re not too cranky.
10) Judicious use of a kid-friendly show. By kid-friendly, I mean whatever they will watch that buys you 22 (ish) minutes of time. This does not have to be the time for mental stimulation.
11) This is what take-out is for. If it’s a really difficult day, shake out the piggy bank and call for pizza.
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