Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cooking for Small Children: 15 Hows, Whens, and … Honey, Please Put That Cleaver Down

Yesterday, I asked parents* how they managed to cook with small children around the house. See, I babysat my two young (adorable, crystal-eyed) cousins last week, and couldn’t figure out where you might fit any slicing, sautéing, or saucing into the schedule. How did they not starve? How did their mom maintain her sanity? Is it okay to sit them in front of Snow White while you chop a cucumber?

Sweet readers, you came through like gangbusters.

As of this morning, we had 41 voluminous, information-packed comments from a plethora of parenting experts (a.k.a. parents). I included as many as I could in this post, editing only for length. The funny thing is, I’d give this advice to anyone, old or young, childless or childful, who is attempting to eat more wholesomely and frugally.

So, here they are: 15 strategies for feeding your small children without resorting to GoGurt or checking yourself into an asylum. As always, the comment section is open if you’d like to add anything.

1) Follow the Annie Jones Rule.
Many readers agreed with our first commenter, Annie Jones, whose advice could be summed up in a single sentence: “Basically, you just do it.”
  • Hillary: What Annie Jones said…
  • Shris: Yeah, what Annie Jones said.
  • Gabrielle: I agree with Annie's comment. You just do it, and you make it a priority.
  • TJ: I agree with the ‘just do it’. The first battle starts in your head, so don’t defeat yourself before starting!
  • Heather: Ditto to Annie Jones.
  • Kristen@TheFrugalGirl: I have 4 kids and I ditto Annie.
  • Todd: The "just do it" answers speak to the reality of parenting. … There are nights where we eat cereal for dinner (which is also fun), but for the most part, you find ways to integrate your family into "life"; it's no fun keeping them separate.

2) Don’t worry about entertaining.
Babysitting and parenting are very different, in that moms and dads don’t have to supervise their children every second.
  • Amiyrah: I think when you are a babysitter compared to a parent, you think you just have to make it all work for the kid and move as fast as possible. When you are a parent, that ain't the case.
  • Kate Krebs: It's not your job as a parent to entertain your kids 24/7. Your job is to raise healthy, capable adults. That means providing good meals for your kids, and teaching them to entertain themselves quietly while you cook.
  • Amy: When they're in their own space, they can play unsupervised with a toy for a while from an astonishingly young age. Kids don't spontaneously combust when not directly observed, most of the time. :)

3) Keep ‘em where you can see ‘em.
Of course, if your children are younger and/or prone to hitting their heads on pointy things (*cough cough*), it helps to have them in your view.
  • Rapha: I set up a play area in the kitchen - my daughter plays with her tool bench and the lazy susan is full of her cups/bowls as well as her kitchen toys.
  • Lacey: We have a chalk board in the kitchen, which helps.
  • Jennifer: The little baby usually sits in a bouncer in the kitchen (& at this point is usually sleeping). Also crayons at the table generally keep my older daughter occupied for a while.

4) Immobilize them.
By this, I mean “put them in a high chair,” not “shoot them with tranquilizer darts."
  • Anonymous: The high chair - she can come in the kitchen, sit in her chair and "chop" ingredients, and be out of harm's way.
  • Hillary: My babies played on mats nearby when they were tiny and then in the kitchen "cooking," and now, sometimes my toddler watches or cooks with me on a chair strategically placed away from knives and the stove.
  • Shris: As they get interested, you perch them on a stepstool/highchair in a safe spot so they can watch. Give them a little bite or pinch or taste of whatever you're adding to the dish to keep their interest.

5) Cook when you can – especially naptime.
Ahh … those blessed two hours when children are totally unconscious. You can breathe, go to the bathroom, and maybe even chop a vegetable.
  • Kate E.: Nap time (or a quiet time when the child gets older) is essential for getting things done.
  • Jen: Nap time is mostly dedicated to prepping dinner. Or making sauces to freeze, etc.
  • Amybee: One thing that works for me is to cook after my kid is in bed for the evening. … I'll make the next night's supper, then all we have to do when we get home from work and school is pull it out and pop it in the microwave.

6) Get the timing down.
Every family lives by its own schedule, but setting a routine when a spouse is around and the kids are sedate (Note: not sedated) will help everyone in the long run.
  • Erinlaughs: I think the most important thing is knowing what you can accomplish. We get home at 5:00 and need to be eating by 5:30 or so.
  • Gabrielle: I aim for dinner on the table between 5:30 and 6, when my husband comes home. This insures that we'll be finished with dinner by 6:30, the kitchen will be cleaned by 7 (or earlier), and my child can be in bed between 7:30 and 8. But we're flexible when we want to be.
  • Hannah @CookingManager: Use a timer, not only to remind you when food is done, but for the next step. (and reset the timer if the food isn't done yet!)

7) Get the kids involved.
It ain’t no urban legend: When children pitch in with their own food prep, they’ll be more invested in their eating. Plus, it’s a good babysitting trick.
  • Julie: Get them involved in safe but meaningful ways during meal prep. It is worth the extra time it WILL take to do it.
  • Debbie: My 4yo does pretty well with a butter knife and a pile of mushrooms.
  • Lindsey: The older one likes to hold the recipe card and pour out what I measure. I can also have him fetch ingredients from the pantry and lower shelves of the fridge.
  • Todd: My 9-, 7-, and 5-year-olds all love to help in the kitchen. One will pour bread crumbs while another cracks an egg into the ground beef that the third is mixing with her hands (and they LOVE getting in there with their hands).

8) Enlist your spouse or a helper.
Four hands are better than two. Unless they’re all coming out of the same person. Then it gets kind of weird.
  • Marcia: At 18 months...yeah, I wasn't doing much cooking. I waited until spouse got home to start it.
  • Shris: If you have a housemate/partner/spouse/other, enlist them in kid-watching while you cook. … [Or] make *them* cook.
  • Rachel: What works for me is serving the kids early - around 5:30 or so - and cooking our dinner after and eating later. That way my husband is home and he can hold the baby while I focus on the food.

9) K.I.S.S.
If brevity is the soul of wit, than easy meals are the souls of parental sanity. Keeping things simple and quick will make everyone a little grinnier.
  • Milehimama: I have 8 children, age 1-12 … I don't prepare dishes that require constant, lengthy supervision. So I'll make rice - but not risotto. It's not difficult to find 5 minutes to measure water and grains and put it on for a boil, but standing at the stove for a long period of time just isn't going to happen.
  • Debbie: Develop an arsenal of super-quick recipes. Bonus points if they're pantry based.
  • Jen: I do a lot with roasting vegetables, things I can start on the stove quickly and let simmer.
  • Anonymous: Frozen spinach cubes (cooked spinach and cream cheese blended to puree) and sweet potato cubes, perfect for adding to sauces, in pizza or pasta, quesadillas, etc. for a little added boost of nutrition and no added cooking time/effort.
  • Anonymous #2: Breakfasts are the hardest. Everyone is hungry RIGHT NOW and even cooking an egg takes too long. We keep it simple and marginally healthy - yogurt, cereal, toast, etc.
  • Amy: Lunch is a sandwich and chips and fruit, or mac and cheese, or soup and grilled cheese.
  • Katie Krebs: We keep alot of fruit on hand. It makes a good, healthy snack and doesn't require cooking.
  • Lyn: I make a Kiddie Sampler Platter, which takes 5 minutes. Basically, little bits of things I know she will like on one plate and mostly finger food: rolled up slices of deli turkey or ham, pieces of fruit, a little bunch of grapes, applesauce, grape-size tomatoes, baby carrots, slices of bell pepper, avocado, cheese, a mini bagel with cream cheese, crackers, etc.

10) Don’t cook separate meals for them.
As a non-parent, this one surprised me the most, but in a good way. Bring on the osso bucco, junior.
  • Gabrielle: I refuse to serve one dinner to my toddler and another dinner for my husband and I. I don't purchase fish sticks, chicken nuggets, and french fries because these become the fallbacks of many families with picky children.
  • Ashley: I'm a registered dietitian who works with families on limited incomes … Definitely only make one meal, not two separate meals for kids and adults. Offering kids "adult" foods over and over is helpful for dealing with picky eating behaviors.
  • Rapha: If we were eating something like sweet potato curry, she would eat the sweet potato pureed. Now at age 3 she always eats what we eat - and she's an amazing eater as a result because she knows if she doesn't eat dinner she doesn't get anything else.
  • Jen Blacker: I have a 19 month old … When we go out to dinner, if the place has crappy food to choose from on the kids menu, I just order off of the adult for him ... He eats what he can, then the rest is for leftovers.

11) Embrace the slow cooker.
All the flavor of braising with only a fraction of the mess. Plus, you can walk away from it for eight hours.
  • Kathleen Bakka: I make my homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs in the evening after he goes to bed so that I can just turn the crock pot on in the morning for a fantastic homemade dinner meal.
  • DRosa: Good easy slow cooker recipe - slice up some chicken strips, pour in a can of coconut milk and a little thai red curry, let cook all day, serve over rice with steamed spinich. Get a rice cooker with a timer and you are golden.

12) Explore big batch and weekend cooking.
Have a few hours to yourself? Start making some kid meals. It’s like meditation, but with meatballs.
  • Anonymous: I do the time consuming meals on the weekends when I'm not working. And I make enough so we can eat it one night during the week.
  • Anonymous #2: Sunday afternoons are a nice quiet time for me to help do some prep work.
  • Anonymous #3: I can slow cooker a pork shoulder with some salsa and we have several nights of burritos, nachos, tacos, etc.
  • Anonymous #4: [We] plan to have leftovers revamped from our weekend cooking … We may roast a chicken on Sunday and then plan to have chicken quesidillas one night (super quick to throw together) and chicken soup another (stock made over the weekend after roasting).
  • Heather: I would do an entire box of whole wheat pasta tossed with olive oil and store it in the fridge. I could scope out as much as I needed for a meal and add goodies like chopped veggies, cheese, etc.
  • Myrnie: We make a batch of goodies every week- cookies, brownies, muffins, etc. for snacks and when they're gone, they're gone. 
  • Sarah May: I often use church potlucks or family gatherings as an excuse to prepare something new or special. This lets me satisfy my fancy-cooking urges without stressing about it every day!

13) Menu plan.
It works for everybody, whether you’re a single Brooklyn blogger or a ma of eight.
  • Jen Blacker: I plan what my family eats on a menu and stick to it. It saves us money and I create the menu with the sales going on at the grocery store. It's not difficult at all to feed your kids the right way.
  • Erinlaughs: Menu plan! I can't stress that enough. It saves me every night.
  • Kristen@TheFrugalGirl: Menu planning seriously saves my sanity.
  • RaeBerry: Menu planning is the only way to survive.

14) If all else fails, turn to Nickelodeon.
This does not make you a bad person. If anything, it makes you a really good person who wants to feed your kids right.
  • Marcia: At age 3 ... I used Dora the Explorer. I admit it. 1/2 hour is all I needed to get things going.
  • Shris: Turn on their favorite video or TV show or whatever, and let them zombie-fy for a half hour while you get the dinner done. This is, of course, the least favorite option, but it works really well.
  • Craftevangelist: All these other moms are super heroes. My TV goes on to a kids' station at 4:00 if I need to focus on making dinner. Often, I'm still interrupted and the kids love to "help" (usually in an effort to get a snack of what we're preparing).

15) Don’t panic. It gets easier. I think. Maybe not.
I’ll let the commenters take it from here.
  • Kathleen Bakka: I remember feeling very overwhelmed when he was first born and my husband feeling slightly jilted when it came to meals- but you get used to it and you begin to streamline your prep and meals.
  • Amy: Seriously - kids start off small and immobile and sleepy, and they very g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y get mobile and require higher levels of attention. It's not like they're born needing help with their homework. You come to that over a period of time, and there are lots of stages in between.
  • DRosa: It isn't like it gets better. Monday night tennis, Tuesday baseball, Wednesday tennis, Thursday baseball, Friday the inevitable sleepover. By the time we pull in from work, we often have 45 minutes to eat and be out the door. And we only have two.

And that’s it, everybody. Thank you boatloads to those who wrote in with advice. This is a subject I couldn’t even touch, and now I have a vague iota of a semblance of a clue.

Again: Best. Readers. Ever.

*Uh, actually, when I initially wrote the question, I addressed it to “moms” instead of “parents.” I try to keep it gender neutral here, because men and women should be equally invested in child raising and home affairs. That was just a huge oversight, and I apologize.


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