I was recently asked me how to get the cooking done when you have little kids underfoot. I remember well how stressful and challenging the meal prep/dinner hour can be (also known as the “witching hour”) with little ones, so I thought I would put together some lessons learned and tips. I should declare — I did not do all these things, but if I had, I think my dinner prep and pre-dinner hours would have gone much smoother.
I should also note, I was not cooking Paleo dinners with my kids were younger — Paleo meals require additional prep and work, IMO. Which is not to say you can’t do it with little kids, but rather strategies like these will become even more valuable.
Develop a menu plan.
I can’t tell you how many times I used to look at the clock, realize it was 4:30 and I had no idea what I was making for dinner. Then it became a mad scramble to defrost and cook something, all the while with fussy kids whining at me. Those were not fun times. If you take time on the weekend to plan out the meals you want to make, and preferably what night you want to make them — it will make the actual dinner cooking go much easier.
When I first started menu planning, I just picked 5 meals to make each week and didn’t assign days. It felt too rigid to have decide in advance what to make when. Now that our schedules are more complicated, I find it very helpful to assign days. For one, it lets me spread out the types of food (not have beef two days in a row), but it also makes it easier to plan ahead and pull food out of the freezer the night before, and to pick easy meals for crazy days (like using the slow-cooker on soccer practice nights).
Learn how to make 5-10 easy recipes. Make them well and make them often.
If you have a nursing baby and a two year old on your leg, it’s probably not the right season of life to be scrutinizing a complicated recipe from Martha Stewart or Cooks Illustrated. Find meals that your family likes and that are easy to make. Some of our stand-bys are tacos/taco salad, spaghetti, grilled chicken, sloppy joes, slow cooker pulled pork, Texas Two-Step Chicken Picante, and White Bean Chicken Chili.
Once you learn a recipe and make it several times, it will be much easier to make in the future and less stressful.
Also — try and make sure there is something your kids like to eat at dinner time.
I am not a short order cook and don’t make different things for different kids, but I do try and include something in the meal that everyone will eat. For a long time, that meant every meal was served with applesauce. Peas and corn were a quick and easy and popular veggie that was in high rotation. This doesn’t actually help with meal prep, per say, but to me, it helped psychologically.
I make my kids eat a lot of stuff they don’t like and knowing I am going to hear them grumble all through dinner bums me out. Putting something on the plate that they like helps a little with that and makes it easier for me to put up with slaving over a dinner that the kids don’t appreciate.
Use your slow-cooker (crockpot) and take advantage of make-ahead meals that can be pulled from the freezer.
I usually try and have at least one crockpot meal a week and I always have something in my freezer that I can pull out if I need to.
Crockpot meals still take time to prep, but the prep time can be done earlier in the day, or even the night before, so it’s not as nutso at the pre-dinner hour. When I make soups, I make big batches and freeze the extra so I can pull it out when I discover I’m missing key ingredients at 5pm and can’t pull off a “real” meal. Casseroles can also be made ahead and pulled out of the freezer — although you do have to remember to defrost them in advance.
You can take advantage of meal prep places like Let’s Dish or Dinner Done, or you can get together with a friend and do a bunch of batch cooking on a weekend to make a bunch of meals in advance. There are lots of cookbooks on that subject, such as Once A Month Cooking.
Do as much prep work as possible earlier — in the day or the night before.
If you are cooking something that involves lots of veggie prep — slicing/dicing, etc. do that well before the dinner hour. I’ve found the morning time is a great time to do dinner prep, especially if you are not racing to get out of the house. My kids were typically happier and did better at independent play in the morning. Your kitchen is probably already a mess from breakfast, so go ahead and slice and dice throw that stuff in the fridge to pull out at dinner time.
Defer the complicated cooking to the weekends.
If there is something special or complex I want to make, I often wait to do it on the weekends, when my hubby is home to either help in the kitchen (he’s an excellent sous chef) or to help keep the kids occupied.
Keep Kids Busy during Dinner Prep
The two ways to do this are either: get them involved in something in the kitchen, or something out of the kitchen. In the kitchen, that can mean “helping” — something I personally grit my teeth at, but I know it’s a great idea for kids. I think it takes an extra dose of patience, but can really help the kids get interested in cooking and become better eaters.
Ways Kids Can “Help”:
- Wash Dishes — plug the sink, fill with soapy water, pull up a stool and let them go to town. The dishes won’t really get clean, and there may be some mess, but it is relatively contained and they will have a ball.
- Let them stir, pour ingredients, or organize — pull all your ingredients out on the counter and let them organize them — by size, color, texture, etc.
- Dump out your plastic container drawer and let them find matches
Ways to Keep Them Busy in the Kitchen:
- Let them bang on pots and pans — your ear drums will hate you but you just might get dinner served on time.
- Create a “Sensory Bin” — fill a large container with rice, dry beans, or pasta and then add some scoops and cups for them to touch, dump, etc.
- Magnet fun on the fridge — alphabet letters, or the annoying but popular Fridge Farm Magnets (my kids still use this thing). There are other cool magnet collections out there too: animals, abstract shapes, construction vehicles, etc.
I should also add, I am not above turning on the TV or videos. A momma has got to do what she has got to do, and if 30 minutes of Elmo or Barney helps get dinner ready, I am all for it.
My last tip is to Feed Kids During Dinner Prep.
The trick is to find foods that are healthy — foods that will take the edge off the hunger but not fill them up before dinner. A plate of grapes, cut up of veggies, or plain cheerios are a good idea. I would avoid foods like crackers, bread, bananas, and cheese as they tend to be too filling. But a self-serve tray of healthy foods is great — it gives them something to munch on, and if they do eat too much, at least it’s good for them!
Those are my tips for getting quality meals on the table with little kids underfoot. What are your tips?
Find more tips at Works For Me Wednesday, hosted by We Are That Family.