If any Food Network executives happen to be reading this article, please pay close attention.
I have your next hit show. Don’t click away! Seriously, hear me out! It’s brilliant.
Let me set the stage.
The camera will start high above a normal neighborhood. It will focus in on one lovely, yet unassuming house and move in through the front door.
From here, it will pass stacks of children’s books, baskets overflowing with laundry, intricate lego structures, and a forgotten sippy cup tipped over on its side.
Then the camera will turn into the kitchen. It will move past a sink full of dirty dishes and a toddler unloading the entire contents of the Tupperware cabinet.
Finally, it will settle on a screaming baby just as his mother swoops him up and gives her salad a toss. She will brush her hair out of her face, give the camera a shrug, and get back to cooking her meal.
This is our real life, Food Network.
Please give us a show that matches us both in chaos AND decibel level.
The Reality of Trying to Cook
with Little Kids Underfoot
Now, I’m a big fan of cooking shows, but the more I watch them, the more realize there are a few glaring differences between the Food Network kitchens and the reality of my own…
In my experience, the reality of cooking with little ones underfoot looks less like clean countertops with beautifully arranged hydrangeas, and more like a cutting board sandwiched between the dirty dishes you never got to after lunch.
It sounds less like a calming breeze blowing in through an open window and more like the storm of a screaming toddler who wants to let you know he’s hungry NOW.
It smells less like the beautiful aroma of perfectly blended spices and more like the burnt french fries that you forgot about in the oven because you were busy changing a diaper.
Sure, I’m happy for the people who have two hours to spend cooking peaceful meals in their kitchens each night.
But me? I’m just trying to survive until dinner time, and I suspect I’m not the only one. (Please tell me I’m not the only one!)
If this is you too, have hope! I’m here to tell you that you can cook amidst your chaos and still stay sane. You can capture the essence of Food Network cooking even if you’re afraid to go barefoot because of all the stray legos on the floor.
The Ultimate Challenge:
Sanity While Cooking with Kids
Gone Delayed are the days of food prep for an elaborate four-course meal, but I’m here to tell you that you can still have fun cooking delicious things in your kitchen. Chaos and all.
Sure, it may require some flexibility and strategic planning, but you can cook dinner for your family every night without burning something or peeling a screaming toddler off your legs.
Trust me. You just need these five tips to get you started:
Sanity Tip #1: Meal Plan (Smartly.)
I used to grocery shop without a list.
I KNOW, okay? I’m shaking my head at myself too.
And then, every night when I would go to cook dinner, I would be one or two ingredients short which meant I had to run to the store with all the kids before I could even start cooking.
I know! It’s ridiculous.
I have learned the error of my ways. Meal planning has saved my life. It can save your life too…
- You’ll know exactly what you’re going to make, the moment you need to make it.
- You’ll know you have everything stocked and ready to go.
- You’ll save money because you will avoid unnecessary trips to the store.
- You’ll be more likely to cook new things because you’re actually taking the time to plan ahead.
It’s a win on all fronts.
If you need help with meal planning, eMeals.com is a great place to start. They offer a free 14-day trial and can help with everything from recipes to grocery lists.
If you’re not going to use eMeals and prefer to put your plan together by hand, here are some suggestions to keep you organized:
- Use a simple dry-erase board calendar and write in your weekly meals.
- Use a meal planning specific dry-erase board.
- Use a meal planning pad that sticks right on your refrigerator.
- Use a meal planning notebook.
This single step alone will make your kitchen life so much easier.
Sanity Tip #2: Prepare (if you can) in Advance
Has anyone else noticed that dinner time coincides perfectly with the “witching hour”? It’s an unfortunate combination. Kids crying at your feet are no help at all in the kitchen.
Think about the best times of your day. Is there a stretch where all your kids are sleeping or otherwise pretty happy?
If so, utilize this time to prep dinner before dinnertime even rolls around.
- Cut the vegetables and store them in Ziploc bags in the fridge.
- Brown or cook any meat.
- Chop your salad ingredients.
- Mix up your sauces and put in tupperware until dinner time.
- Use your can-opener while you have two hands available, and set it on the counter for later.
Can you assemble your entire meal in the morning and then stick it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake it? If so, do it.
If making an entire meal in advance is your jam like it is mine, here are some cookbooks that might help you get started:
- The Make-Ahead Kitchen
- Make it Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
- Prep-Ahead Meals from Scratch: Quick & Easy Batch Cooking Techniques and Recipes That Save You Time and Money
- Not Your Mother’s Make Ahead and Freeze Cookbook
Get as much done as you can during the day, and you’ll decrease your kitchen time in the evening when your kids are more prone to crying and other similar hysterics.
That’s a win for everyone.
Sanity Tip #3: Keep Your Baby Safe and Happy
I know you’re a pro at doing things one-handed: Loading the washing machine…unloading the dishwasher…cleaning an entire house.
But cooking in front of a hot stove? That probably shouldn’t be one of them (just ask this mom).
If you have a baby who likes to be held while you’re cooking, try bringing something into the kitchen that will contain her AND keep her happy.
- A bouncer is a nice, portable option. This particular bouncer has an interactive toy bar that can be removed easily as well as vibrations that can be turned on to soothe your baby.
- The Graco Doorway Jumper is my current go-to. It lets baby bounce happily on his own while still being able to see what you’re doing.
- A swing is good if your baby is soothed by a gentle rocking motion. This particular option is portable, so it could move into your kitchen if need be.
- An exersaucer is great because it gives baby so much to look at as well as the ability to “stand” and keep his eyes on you as well.
- A baby activity chair will give your baby some soft and stimulating activities to keep him busy while you’re doing your thing.
Figure out what your baby enjoys and then move it into the kitchen! (Just mind the proximity to hot surfaces!)
Sanity Tip #4: Keep Your Toddler Occupied
The toddler. A completely different story than your contained baby. You can’t tie her down, so you’ll need to occupy her instead.
- Put all your Tupperware in a low cabinet and let her load and unload.
- Give her some spice containers and let her practice stacking.
- Place two types of dry beans in a bowl, and let her practice sorting.
- Set out some pots and a few wooden spoons, so she can practice her wicked drum solo. (You miiiight need some earplugs for that one.)
Whatever you choose, try to make it a dinnertime only activity, so it’s something she’ll look forward to when she’s in the kitchen with you.
Sanity Tip #5: Involve Your Big Kid in the Process
If you’re also ready for that, have him pull up a chair (or one of these cool kitchen helpers if you need something more secure) and let him help.
Little hands are usually good for things like:
- Helping dump ingredients.
- Transferring chopped food to another bowl .
- Wiping the counter when you’re finished.
They’re also good for sneaking bites of whatever they can, but who can blame them, really?
In addition to keeping them happy during mealtime prep, this time can also foster great conversations around patience, types of food, and safety.
Plus, as an added bonus, you might find your picky eater more likely to try something new if she helped make it in the first place.
Be the Star of Your Own Cooking Show
Are you still listening, Food Network executive? Because I haven’t even told you the best part about your new hit show.
The mom from the opening credits? She spends the whole show smiling. Sure she’s surrounded by mess and noise, but she has embraced the chaos. She has planned in advance and is ready to tackle the meal at hand, yes, even with all her kids underfoot.
And you can be too, mama.
With a pinch of time and a dash of preparation, you can master the dinner time routine!
Even with all your kids underfoot. And then, in no time, you’ll even be ready to host your own cooking show.
If only we knew someone who could land you that job…
What are your cooking-with-kids tips? How do you turn the chaos of dinnertime into something everyone can enjoy?
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