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Tips for cooking with babies or toddlers (or other cranky kids) underfoot

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I had been a parent for about 5 minutes when I completely understood why they call the hour before dinner the “Toxic Hour.” Everyone is hungry. And tired. And cranky—including me. Can I see a show of hands if you cooked dinner last night with one hand while you balanced a fussy kid on your hip? Or shuffled around your kitchen with one clutching your leg?

With just a teensy bit of planning, you can avoid mealtime meltdowns for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and other hungry kids. Here are some tricks to get dinner on the table faster and with less tears all around:

1) Start meal prep EARLY if you can. Chop, measure out ingredients, set out the stuff you’ll need. Even just setting the pot of water on the stove to start later for pasta is so much easier to do at naptime then with a baby clutching your leg. Also, crockpot cooking is fabulous.

2) Have a baby-safe cabinet that is only available when you are in the kitchen. 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 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 mom says, ‘Do you think this needs more seasoning?’

4) This may be the time of day you 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 afraid they would be on ‘baby duty’ forever, so I set the timer for 10-20 minutes, depending on the age of my older kid. A neighborhood kid can do the same job and you may have one who would love to help.

5) Let them help cook! Even little toddlers 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 or looking out the window to check the weather–the sillier, the better).

6) Fill up the kitchen sink and have them ‘wash dishes.’ I find it helpful to put a towel on the edge of the sink so they don’t drench themselves.

7) This is a great time for a special activity or toy in their high chair. They can paint (with water on a dark piece of construction paper and a craft sponge), play Playdoh™, squish shaving cream and a drop of food coloring around in a Ziploc™ bag, stir ice cubes, etc.

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, 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 may take time to develop. 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 for it.

10) Judicious use of TV or a DVD. Really.

11) Take-out. If it’s a really difficult day, snuggle your little one, shake out the piggy bank and call for pizza.

How do you get dinner on the table in your home?

-Melissa Caddell

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Comments
  • comment avatar Amber Johnson May 20, 2010

    All great suggestions and I wish I’d tried some of these out when my kiddos were younger.

    My 5-year-old daughter has recently shown a real interest in learning to cook. While it is completely inconvenient and takes me so much longer, I let her do it. Best to help her learn now because in a few years when they’re at the best age to help, they won’t want to.

  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz May 20, 2010

    If I could get just #1 down, I’d finally be ahead of the game.

    I’m proud to admit that I’ve mastered #11!

    (Great to see you last night, and congratulations on your new ebook!)

  • comment avatar Jenna Hallock May 20, 2010

    Definitely a list to hang on the fridge next to precious artwork! My kids love to play in a sink of bubbles, but I do try to involve them too. The Pampered Chef used to sell (probably still does) a kid safe knife that we use often.

    It has definitely gotten easier as my kids get older. I’ll never forget days with a baby screaming and me (nearly screaming) trying to hold them and make dinner at the same time. I shudder at the thought.

  • comment avatar Melissa Caddell May 20, 2010

    Glad the list was helpful! Dinner time is (mostly) easier now that my youngest is 3.5, but man, it was painful for a few years! 🙂 I always did better when I had a plan ahead of time for what to entertain the children with.

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