I overheard a friend the other day telling someone else that it was nearly impossible to get dinner on the table with little kids running around. This isn't the first time I've heard this either. I have read many facebook posts and so forth of moms having a hard time cooking when there are little ones who need their attention too. I have also seen the ecards going around saying "where's the cooking show that shows two kids nagging them while they're trying to get dinner ready?" I agree. It is hard to want to cook something good and healthy for your family that takes a little time to prepare and at the same time have two little ones (or however many you have) that need your immediate attention. I have days where X and O are playing quietly on the floor together and I get up to go do something and thats when they both realize I was in the room and they both need me to hold them right then. This usually happens when I am trying to do laundry thinking "now would be a great time", just to prove myself wrong. Usually I do laundry while the kids are napping. Hurray for High Efficiency washer and dryers that are fast and allow me to get all the laundry done during a morning and afternoon nap time. (My toddler watches me fold laundry in the morning, the afternoon, they are both napping.)
Anyway, so as much trouble as I have had with trying to get things done while my kids need me is certainly an occasional problem around here, getting dinner on the table is not for me. I have found some little tips that have made getting a healthy, home made dinner on the table easy and a no hassle job. I love watching the Food Network. Maybe I didn't make myself clear..I LOVE watching the Food Network. Its almost an obsession for me. It is usually on in the background during the day so that I can catch a tip or a recipe here and there. My son has just started to stop and watch every now and again....maybe he'll be a chef? I absolutely love to cook! I also love to bake though I would much prefer cooking. I don't really like measuring stuff, so cooking is a passion where I can throw things in here and there and create something that is all mine. But, I also love a lot of chefs. I have cookbooks ranging from Rachael Ray to Bobby Flay to Bobby Deen and Paula Deen to Pioneer Woman. And I love to cook from their books as well. Once I had kids, I didn't want to sacrifice my love for cooking for easy kids and processed meals. So I had to find something that would work and make everyone happy and still have a good meal at the end of the day. Here are my tips on how to accomplish this.
First off, I plan. I usually have two weeks worth of meals planned and written on a dry erase board and I shop in two week spurts for ingredients I need. We don't always follow the plan, but at least if I want to make burgers tonight instead of meatloaf, I know the ingredients are there. We often swap days and eat something we didn't have on that day. We also sometimes have more leftovers than we planned, so a meal or two can get pushed into the next two weeks. Its a good system.
Then each morning, I decide what we are having for dinner. This gives me time to defrost whatever meat I need and marinate it if it calls for it. I try to avoid recipes that call to have something marinated overnight, because lets face it, with a 2 year old and a 9 month old I can't always think THAT far ahead.
Then the biggest thing I do that helps the most is during nap time (usually the afternoon nap because thats when they are BOTH down) which is, I prep. I cut every vegetable that needs it and put it in tupperware or a plastic bag and stick it back in the fridge. This accomplishes two things for me. It helps me be able to throw it in the pot or pan later on with no additional work AND it helps me not have to deal with a knife with two kids running around. I don't ever want to be chopping and have one of them pull on my leg and I accidentally drop the knife or whatever. My 2 1/2 year old can now reach on the counter. So I don't want to bend over to pick up a 9 month old and have X reach for something and get the knife instead. So try to chop during nap time. If it is a meal I can go ahead and put together, then I do. Like meatloaf, burger patties, casseroles, etc...I just prepare them and cover them up and place them in the fridge. While I'm chopping and I'm making a casserole or something that calls for cooked meat, this is when I cook meat too. Once again, this eliminates if I can, a hot stove later on. There is nothing worse than having someone pull on your leg next to a hot stove thats simmering and spattering. Too many variables there that I like to avoid when possible. If we are having fajitas or something I don't want to precook then, then I just make sure the chicken is seasoned or marinated and ready for later.
Stick to 30 minute meals if you can. Look, I am all about making something thats really good and takes a little time, but monday through Friday is not the time for it. I think that unless you have help on your hands, finding meals that take little to no time to make are your best friend when you are trying to cook for a husband or wife who will be home soon and two kids wide awake. Just a thought...
By this point, dinner is half way ready. Then, the rest is about efficiency. If we are having something that goes in the oven (I make my fajitas in the oven...super easy, maybe I'll share that recipe another day, meatloaf or a casserole) then I turn the oven on to preheat while the kids are taking a bath or winding down for bed (usually this is happening around 6). Then the food goes in, timer set and I'm done. I can easily go and get things in and out of the over while they play in the living room. 1 minute away is nothing to them compared to me walking away to prepare the whole dinner right then. If its something I need to manage on the stove top then I make it while my kid is in the high chair eating dinner. If they are busy with their own foods and eating dinner then they don't really care what I am doing. (Sometimes, I will hold them off to eat a little later and make dinner a little earlier for this scenario so I can stand at the stove while they eat. A little compromise goes a long way here) As long as I keep the food coming, they are content. So I stir and then get them some more food. Stir, give my toddler a bite or two (since he's usually at his little table), stir, put more carrots on her tray and so forth. Once dinner is finished, the stove goes off and it sits there hot while I get everyone cleaned up or we play. Once my husband calls to tell me he is on his way home (usually between 6-7), I will turn the stove on low and keep an eye on it until he gets home. Because my husband gets home later then its usually easier because the kids are winding down. Our daughter goes to bed around 6pm and our son around 7-8. So its easy for us to turn Mickey on and let X watch while I finish dinner and let O settle down in her bed.
Keep in mind that this works for us because of the timing in our household. My husband gets home around the time my oldest is going to bed, and my youngest is already in bed. So this schedule and timing may not work for you. But let me give a few more tips that might.
Have something in your kitchen for the kids to play with. We have a magnetic barn on our dishwasher that has animal halves that you have to put together to make animal sounds. It sings to you and its a fun matching game. We leave it in the kitchen so thats a special toy that they play with if I need to be in the kitchen cooking.
Let your child have a kitchen cabinet. If you're children aren't eating while you are cooking, and they need to feel close to you, then let them have a cabinet to play in. I am not saying move their toys to the kitchen, but rather put tupperware and maybe their plastic plates and cups in a low cabinet that they can get into and utterly destroy. I also have a recipe box that I don't really use that I put in a low cabinet. My son loves to open and close it and take all the cards out and put them back in. It can entertain him for hours. By giving them a cabinet, then they feel special getting to be in there with you in a drawer of their own and they are near you.
Teach them where to stand when you need to open a hot oven. I taught X that he had to stand on the carpet, which is on the edge of the kitchen when I need to open our oven. I'll say "back up" and he runs to his spot. It makes our kitchen that much safer.
Let them help cook. Depending on their age and how comfortable you are, let your child help. X helps me sprinkle salt and pepper on veggies and meats. He will also help stir sauce (thats not on the stove) or I let him put the chopped veggies in the salad or bowl and so forth. After a few minutes of that, he usually feels content and goes off to play.
Right now we all 4 don't eat together. We really can't make it work with our schedules during the week. Our daughter is in bed usually around 6, our son is getting ready for bed around 7 and my husband is usually walking in the door by 7. Some day when bed times get pushed out a little bit more, we will be able to eat together and this system will change some. On the weekends we do get to do a lot of eating together. The main thing is, do as much as possible when the kids are down. You can even plan more ahead than me and prep everything the night before after the kids go to bed. I am also a fan of crock pot meals. We have those once a month and I always have some stored in my freezer for a rainy day or for dinner when I haven't been to the store yet.
With a little bit of planning, some efficiency, and patience as you figure out a system that works best for your family, then getting a good, home cooked, healthy meal on the table with little kids can be easy and even fun! Cooking shouldn't be a stress in your day. You already have too many of those, so do yourself a favor moms and dads and plan a little and pre prep so you can enjoy cooking and your kids (tears or tantrums free) at the same time!