I hear it often on Twitter, or in conversation, as Moms are trying to get dinner on the table between 4 and 6 pm.
“I can’t cook with small children around!”
Let’s face it, kids get in the way when you are trying to cook. You can’t focus on what you are measuring when the 3-year-old is grabbing things out of the drawers, or the toddler is wandering in the next room. Something has to give, and it’s usually dinner.
Really, I know how it is—not all that long ago, I was Mom to a little one and had a husband plus three hungry teens to feed. It took a while, but eventually I figured out that I didn’t have to give up my sanity, nor a home-cooked meal, just because I had a little one running underfoot! There really are some tricks to cooking with kids in the kitchen. Initially, it may seem like a lot of work, but the more you get used to it and the more they learn, the easier it becomes.
1. Mom or Dad: Stick to a simple dinner
There’s nothing worse that trying a new recipe that you have to carefully read and concentrate on the steps, when you have little people underfoot. Save those recipes for when someone is around to distract the kids and keep them out of the kitchen. Simple, easy recipes that you can put together in a short amount of time are best on those busy weeknights when you have the kids around.
2. Kids: Give them a job
If they are in the kitchen with you, put them to work. There are all sorts of jobs small kids can do! Pull up a chair or get a special stool, and involve them in measuring and stirring. When they are young, I start with standing behind them and ‘helping,’ by doing it hand-over-hand. It’s a great opportunity to teach about numbers and fractions, and proper techniques. Small kids can also wash lettuce leaves, spin them in the salad spinner, and rip them up, shake jars of dressing, grate things, and more. I know a 3-year-old who can crack eggs! When Kevin was 5, he had his own little cutting board and a little knife, that wasn’t too sharp, to help cut vegetables. The more they help, the more skills they learn, and the more help they become!
3. Mom or Dad: Give yourself time
The one thing that stressed me out more than any other, is trying to get things done in a hurry and having little ones underfoot. Dinner always takes longer to make if you have little ones involved, and if things are rushed, it’s best to not involve them. The point is to make the experience positive and spend time together.
4. Kids: Teach them safety basics
Right from the start, to keep them safe and you sane, teach kids the safety basics. If they crack eggs, they need to wash their hands, and no putting fingers in their mouths. At the stove, when stirring something hot, one hand needs to be on the pot handle, one stirring. You can teach more as you go, allowing them to do more as you are confident they know what to do.
5. Mom or Dad: Organization is key
@kgraydonald: “Set rules at out set & stress safety, pre-prep hard/tedious bits...”
Professional cooks call it a mise en place, which literally means “putting in place.” Have your oven heated, all the utensils and ingredients out, the recipe handy, and be ready to just cook. This keeps you from having to find things and leave kids unattended. As I cook, I put away ingredients after I use them, to eliminate confusion, or, at the very least, move them to a different counter. Also, prepping bits that are not kid friendly ahead of time, makes things go far smoother when you are up to your elbows with the kids in the kitchen.
6. Kids: Distract them and make them feel like they are helping.
@smallerstuff: “Let them 'help.' Occupies them + makes them FEEL involved. I give 2yo a butter knife and veggie scraps while I chop!”
@p2comm: “I put the play kitchen in our kitchen so the kids and I could cook together!”
Sometimes, you just need to do it. Distractions are the key here, but make them feel involved. Put the baby in the highchair and give her measuring cups to play with, talk to her, and get her to help stir dry ingredients, hand-over-hand. Fill your kitchen sink up with water and bubbles, let the kids stand on a chair, give them some plastic cups, a funnel, and a straw, and let them play in the water. So what if they get wet? They are happy and out of your way.
When all else fails, remember that it’s the process, not the end product, that’s important. Kids remember when you made them feel valued and that they contributed to something. And that, more than anything, is more important than a gourmet meal.
Photo Credit: Alexis Hinde