Let me set the stage… You have a plan for dinner and, by some miracle, actually have all the ingredients. So, you start to prep your meal, feeling good because you’ll actually be able to get dinner on the table before everyone melts down. As you’re cruising along, chopping an onion, you suddenly feel a tug at your leg, or a voice calling for help on homework you thought had been completed, or two little voices from the other room escalating in anger and frustration. Yup, the kids are underfoot and needing attention just when you need a few free moments to get dinner going.
This is an all-too-familiar scene for pretty much any parent. It is one that can cause even the sanest of parents to lose their minds as they try to balance it all. So what do you do? Do you let them fight it out and ignore the screams? Tell them to figure out their homework on their own? Shake your leg free of your toddler and just keep chopping? Or do you drop everything and just suck it up knowing that dinner will be late getting on the table again?
How to Cook with Kids Underfoot
As a mom who spends a lot of time in the kitchen, the dilemma of how to cook with kids underfoot was a challenge that I had to figure out. Furthermore, along my parenting journey, I discovered that the appropriate response was dependent upon the ages of the kids who happened to be underfoot at the time. So, in an effort to help you to navigate these distracted waters, I pulled together my favorite tricks that helped me at each age and stage. I hope that they will help during your dinnertime scramble!
I wore both of my sons in baby carriers while I cooked. Of course, you need to do this carefully so as to avoid burns and cuts (don’t, for instance, wear them while you drain a big pot of pasta water), but many cooking tasks can be accomplished while you wear them.
When my kids were super little, I had them in a wrap on my front. As they got older and more mobile/grabby, I switched them to a carrier on my back. Whether you wear them on your front or on your back, they’ll feel attended to and you’ll get the cooking done.
Baby Swing or Bouncy Seat
If wearing your baby while cooking feels scary or cumbersome, another great option is a baby swing or bouncy seat. I used to set ours up in a corner of the kitchen and set it to swing or bounce away while I chatted with them or tossed them toys from time to time.
Pots, Pans, and Bowls
Once my kids got a little older, I made sure that I had a cabinet of pots, pans, and unbreakable bowls at their level. They would explore it, crawling into the cupboard and pulling discoveries out. Plus the noise was a huge bonus for them (not so much for me, but at least I got dinner on the table)!
If you’ve got a real task they can work on that will help with dinner, such as tearing up lettuce for salad or washing greens in a salad spinner, great. If not, then just setting them up with some flour and water to stir in a big bowl can help them feel like they are a part of what you are doing.
I can’t tell you how many hours my two boys spent sitting on the kitchen floor with giant bowls of water. They’d fill them with toys, measuring cups and spoons, other safe kitchen tools, really anything I let them get their hands on, and the only mess made was a wet floor. I considered it a win every time!
Crank up the tunes and let everyone be their silliest selves (including you while you cook). It will get the crazy energy out and keep them distracted.
Quiz While You Cook
Spelling words? Times tables? Practice reading aloud? Rehearsing lines for a play? Guitar practice? We’ve done all of these things while I cook dinner! It may slow you down a little bit, but at least you can keep the cooking momentum going.
Another perk of this trick: it is a great way to engage your child around homework without hovering.
Put Them to Work
A lot of times I have found that the bickering or pleas for help at this time of day are really all about wanting attention from a parent, so I often invite them into the kitchen with me to help make dinner.
It’s a great way to get the tasks done a little faster while simultaneously spending quality time together. Some great options include:
- Reading the recipe aloud to you. This is a great one for kiddos who are working on their reading skills!
- Chopping ingredients. You can have them chop soft ingredients with a butter knife, if you aren’t confident in their knife skills. Or, if their knife skills are solid, give them some more substantial ingredients to work on.
- Mixing ingredients. Tip: bigger bowls can lead to less mess.
- Tearing up and washing salad greens. Or, better yet, being completely in charge of making the salad.
- Shaking or whisking salad dressing ingredients (check out our post on homemade salad dressings for inspiration).
- Collecting ingredients for you from the pantry and fridge.
- Overseeing ingredients on the stove (this one is better for older school-aged kids who have experience with the stove).
- For more ideas, check out my post on how to involve your kids in cooking!
Encourage Them to Figure it Out Themselves
At this age they are much more independent and when my hands are covered in dough or dirty from handling raw meat, they just have to figure it out for themselves. And they do.
Do you have tricks for keeping your kids occupied during dinner prep? Share your ideas in the comments!
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