Cook Smarts parents share their best tips for how to cook with kids around!
We’re certain that if you traveled back in time to when the first humans were cooking you’d see a parent trying to prepare food with a toddler at his or her feet wanting “up.” While we can’t technically prove this phenomenon spans centuries, we know for sure that many parents face this struggle today. In fact, we receive emails all the time about how to cook with kids around.
So we reached out to the “experts” who face this challenge everyday — parents in the Cook Smarts Facebook community — to hear how they keep their kids happy and safe while they prep and cook. We gathered up the community-sourced advice and now we’re bringing it you à la the article below!
Spend Quality Time Together Before Cooking
If you’ve been away from your kids all day because of work or day care, it’s natural for them to want to be close to you after the separation. To give your kids what they want and to have the space (and hands!) you need to focus on cooking dinner, Cook Smarts parents suggest spending quality time with your kids before starting to cook, as well as letting them know that you will spend time with them now but that you will need to focus on cooking later.
“Sometimes giving dedicated time to read / play before starting cooking has made a difference. ‘I’ll play with you for a few minutes, but then mommy needs to make dinner (or any other task) for a while.’ It may take a few times before they understand, but it helps the emotional state in our house many afternoons.”
— Heather D.
“Remember, baby missed mama all day and just feels they need some loving . . . Make sure you do some hugs and cuddles, or some play time before starting dinner. That may really help them not feel neglected during dinner prep time.”
— Lori M.
The time before you start to cook is also a good time to give your kids snacks to make sure they won’t get hungry while you’re prepping and cooking.
“My kids get a hefty healthy snack right when we get home so they’re not hungry while I’m prepping food. This makes them in general much more content and easier to distract.”
— Nancy N.
Give Your Kids Easy Kitchen Activities
Young kids like to do what their parents do and want to be a part of daily tasks. Give your kids “a seat at the table” while you’re prepping and cooking by putting them in a high chair, a tower or a safe spot on the counter (we love these snap-on counter chairs).
To keep them engaged, Cook Smarts parents suggest easy kitchen activities like playing with bowls and wooden spoons, pouring ingredients, tearing lettuce or other simple tasks that make mealtime more interactive and interesting.
“If my 2 year old happens to have a day where she wants to cling to me or watch what I’m doing, I just clear a space and sit her on the counter. She will usually just watch and I explain what I’m doing or sometimes she’ll hand me some utensils.”
— Sara V.
“We bought a ‘kitchen helper’ and some play food. The play food didn’t keep his interest for much longer than a month, but we use the kitchen helper all the time. It’s a stand that gets him up to the counter. He helps me pour chopped ingredients into things and stir. It works like 50 percent of the time.”
— Joanna S.
“My 3 year old LOVES to help me in the kitchen. She knows not to touch anything hot or stick random things in her mouth (chili garlic sauce, harissa paste, etc.). She is great at stirring, dumping spices into the mixing bowls, etc. I would recommend getting them involved as much as possible so they’re invested in eating what they help to prepare! Seriously — whenever my daughter says she doesn’t like something, I just remind her that she made it!”
— Brian P.
Make a Kid-Friendly Kitchen Area
If your kids aren’t interested in sitting on or standing near the counter and would rather play at your feet, Cook Smarts parents recommend creating a kid-friendly cabinet that’s full of safe items like Tupperware that your kids can pull out and play with when you’re prepping and cooking.
“I reorganized my kitchen so my littles could open the cupboards and take stuff out and I didn’t sweat it. Stuff like mixing bowls and Tupperware are in low cabinets, and nothing harmful under the sink. Sometimes they would make a mess but the trade off (10 minutes of hands-free time for me) was totally worth it.”
— Nancy N.
Call in Reinforcements When You Need Them
When snacks, a seat at the counter and kitchen activities aren’t doing the trick, Cook Smarts parents suggest calling in reinforcements to provide your little ones with attention and play while you’re prepping and cooking.
“Now my kids are old enough to help us cook, but previously, we would take turns with playing with the kids and cooking. They would often want me, which really gave my husband the opportunity to work on his cooking skills.”
— Kristen B.
Mealtime is also a good time to encourage your kids to be more independent and that it’s safe for them to do so.
“My husband runs interference and reads while I cook or vice versa. We’ve been practicing stretching his independent play though. A few minutes here and there [of independent play] have turned into [him playing by himself for] about half of meal prep time.”
— Joanna S.
“This is the time when we need to teach our children that mommy can’t always be ‘right there’ at every second.”
— Lori M.
If all else fails and you have multiple kids of different ages all vying for your attention, Cook Smarts parents recommend a bit of pre-dinner screen time to keep older kids busy.
“In the evenings when I’m actually cooking, things are more hectic. Baby is usually in stroller nearby. I try to get the 3 year old and the 6 year old to go play together. If my husband is home, he reads to them on the couch. When all else fails, I let the big kids watch TV or play on iPads. I try to limit screen time, but often dinner cooking time is the time that it’s most worth it to use screen time!”
— Martine K.
Plan Ahead But Keep Simple Recipes Up Your Sleeves
Besides engaging your kids in the kitchen, many Cook Smarts parents suggest taking advantage of “down times” like nap time, weekends or after your kids go to sleep to prep for the days ahead. Keeping a few simple recipes up your sleeves is also a good idea for when you have zero time and need food fast.
“On a rough night, I have a few 5-minute prep meals up my sleeves where I can get the meal on the table while holding the baby, and the toddler complains or is distractible for a few minutes. In that case, I eat later. Not ideal but reality. Have a few dinners in your head that you can pull together with your eyes closed and the kids will eat.”
— Markell M.
“Right now, we mostly cook on weekends and microwave the meals on weekdays. I try to cook two big meals (I double the portions), I freeze the portions we don’t eat for future weeks, so we always have a good stack of ready-to-go meals.”
— Audrey P.
“I do all my prep the night before (after my son goes to bed). The thing I love about Cook Smarts is that it does separate all prep that can be done ahead of time. I also double all of my recipes so that I only have to cook every other night.”
— Jessi J.
Use a Sling or Carrier for Hands-Free Holding
If your little ones aren’t budging about being held, Cook Smarts parents suggest using a sling or carrier to securely hold them while keeping your hands free for prepping and cooking.
“Right now I put her in the LÍLLÉbaby [carrier] on my back if she only wants me to hold her. But that’s usually after one or two diversion tactics have failed.”
— Nikki K.
Save Time With Quick-Prep and Quick-Cook Ingredients
Using pre-prepped ingredients can save you a major headache when your little kids are persistent about being held. Quick-prep vegetables like pre-diced onions and chopped carrots, and frozen vegetables like broccoli florets and vegetable medleys can save a ton of time and are as simple to prep as opening the package. Use our handy infographics for quick-prep vegetables and quick-cooking ingredients when you need a fast and easy meal!
“I think with little kids I finally figured out who buys overpriced pre-sliced veggies at the store. It’s hard to work with a knife while holding a baby, but dumping pre-shredded carrots or pre-diced onions is no problem.”
— Melanie J.
“Meal prep is helpful but so are modifying the recipes and cutting corners / skipping ingredients. Think frozen vegetables, using minced garlic, etc. That is one thing I love about the [Cook Smarts] site, it’s easy to modify if time is an issue.”
— Mary M.
Give Yourself Permission to Do What You Need to Do
When cooking is simply not an option, there’s no shame in ordering out. Cook Smarts parents suggest doing as much prep as possible in advance, but also giving yourself permission to do what you need to do to get dinner on the table.
“Your kids won’t grade you on your effort, they’ll just remember the time you spent with them at the dinner table.”
— Jess Dang, Founder of Cook Smarts
(Read more of Jess’ personal time-saving tips, here.)
“I will say there were some evenings when cooking just couldn’t be the priority when I was in the toddler plus baby trenches. Do as much prep beforehand as possible, batch cook a couple meals and keep snacky food on hand too. And remember there’s no shame in occasional take-out and convenience food too. I promise it does get better.”
— Rebecca K.
“Prepping as much as possible earlier in the day when my toddlers are a little less clingy helps. There are stages we live off of crock pot recipes or completely make-ahead [meals] (salads, things I can prep to just slip in the oven at dinner time, batches of soup, etc.). Giving my clingy child a kitchen tool for play while I cook has proven helpful, but I agree with Rebecca, there’s no shame in convenience food or take-out now and then. We did have to start budgeting for that to give me freedom and peace of mind.”
— Heather D.
Join thousands of other like-minded parents and home cooks in the Cook Smarts Facebook community! It’s been described as “truly the happiest, most positive corner of the internet!”
10 Resources for Cooking With Kids
Besides simply giving kids something to do, cooking with them actually has a ton of positive benefits — some of which set them up for success with food later in life. In general, cooking with kids can help them develop healthy eating habits, teach them where food comes from, help them have positive relationships with food, curb picky eating and create lasting family memories.
If you, as a parent, aren’t sure how to start engaging your kids in the kitchen, we have so many ideas to share with you! The 10 resources below are a great place to start when you need ideas, inspiration or just some extra support when cooking with your kids.
- 10 Lessons I’ve Learned from Feeding My Daughter (Months 5 to 19)
- A Fun Way to Teach Kids About Food & Healthy Eating
- Mealtime Memories with Dinner Conversation Starters
- 12 Practical Habits for Raising #KidsWhoEat Well
- 6 Ways to Bring More Fun to Sack Lunches
- How to Manage and Solve Picky Eating
- How to Include Kids in the Kitchen
- How to End Short-Order Cooking
- Veggie Discovery Sticker Table
- 4 Food Projects for Kids
How do you engage your kids in the kitchen? Any tips you want to share about cooking with toddlers around? Let us know in the comments!
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