Tips For Cooking With Kids Around

My best tip for cooking with little ones around--set 'em right in the middle of the action.

When I attended the OnStar event last month, one of my favorite activities was a session with chef Louisa Shafia, author of the beautiful cookbook Lucid Food. We all had a ball making a meal together, including a delicious, creamy squash soup that I made today to serve for dinner tonight (Wednesday is Soup Night in my Six-Meal Shuffle!)–I’ll share the recipe and pictures tomorrow, PLUS I’ll be giving away a copy of Lucid Food, so be sure to check back!

But first I wanted to address a comment on Monday’s post: Tatiana said:

“My issues with food usually come down to the struggle of giving attention to my toddler while also cooking. By the end of the day, my little guy is usually cranky, and sometimes I have been working all day long and dinner prep time is the first time he has seen me in hours. I would love some advice on how to prep dinner while also giving him attention, especially some easy and cheap vegetarian meals that he could help prepare and feel involved with. Either that or some good ideas for activities he could work on while I am cooking.”

Tatiana, this is such a common problem, and I know anyone reading this who’s ever cooked with a toddler in the house can relate. I made soup with my 20-month-old daughter Clara and 4-year-old Owen in the house today, and while Owen was pretty easily distracted with some paper, glue, and macaroni noodles at the kitchen table, Clara? Not so much. Plus the recipe I was making was so simple there really wasn’t much for the kids to do to “help.”

It may seem ridiculously simplistic, but in times like these, I often just plop Clara right up on the counter next to me and toss stuff at her to keep her entertained. Like today…

Index cards make great toys in a pinch…

Later I let her read Lucid Food…she was pretty into it.

I then bought some more time by allowing her to perform a dolly lobotomy with some tongs.

Finally I handed her a can opener (the kind with no sharp edges!) and that kept her busy for a while.

All in all this tactic bought me a good twenty-plus minutes of happy Clara time! Of course, one of the great things about having a tiny kitchen is that she was always within arm’s reach.

Here’s why I think the toddler-on-the-counter tactic works:

  • It keeps her at my level. Sometimes she’s happy playing in the plasticware drawer or banging a spoon on a pot on the floor, but she soon grows tired of being at my feet. Sitting Clara on the counter means I can talk to her and interact with her while I work. We can talk and sing together, and I can narrate the process as I slice a carrot or peel an apple. Having her at my height means I can also see when she’s getting bored and easily toss her a new plaything to keep her occupied.
  • It’s safe. Yes, the counter is a high spot, but I feel safer when Clara’s up there, because I can really see what she’s doing and don’t run the risk of tripping over her, dropping a knife on her or dumping hot liquid on her. (Yes, I am a complete klutz.) Bottom line, with supervision a child sitting securely, butt scooted back, on a counter can be just about as safe as life with kids gets.
  • It’s novel. Clara doesn’t get to go around sitting on countertops all the time–only when I’m cooking. She knows it’s a special activity. The novelty gives it more super-distracting powers.

So maybe your kitchen is even smaller than mine with zero toddler-seating counter space, or you’ve got a rambunctious climber; or perhaps it’s an older child who needs your attention. Whatever the circumstance, the toddler-on-counter tactic won’t work for you. Is there another way to engage with your kids and give them some novel activity while cooking? Here are some ideas:

  • Go where they are. You can slice veggies at the dining-room table, for example.
  • If there’s nothing they can do to really help, still let them “help.” Your four-year-old is not going to know that the flour/water paste he stirred for a half-hour never actually made it into the meal.
  • Provide a special treat. My older boys often sit at the table and sip hot chocolate while I cook.
  • Make it entertaining. Maybe you could listen to a book on tape together. I admit to sometimes bringing the iPad into the kitchen for some portable Kipper The Dog. Works in a pinch!
  • Multitask creatively. I’ve been known to tape spelling lists to the refrigerator so I can read off the words to my sons sitting in the dining room. Maybe it’s not ideal, but sometimes multitasking is a necessity.
  • Enjoy the process. Making a meal isn’t just about the end product. By making it fun for everyone, you’ll have a lot less stress…and a lot more meal success.

Do you have any great tips to share for cooking with kids around?

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