How to Survive Cooking with Babies and Toddlers

Brohgan Dieker

Brohgan Dieker

Brohgan Dieker is dedicated to answering the "what's for dinner" question with healthy, quick recipes that can accommodate busy schedules. She is a devout Christian, a wife and mother, and a lover of words and books. She lives in the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas and holds a degree in English from Kansas State University.
Brohgan Dieker

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Moms, cooking with a baby or toddler is not easy. In fact, this is a chore that seems nearly impossible most days. Here are some tips that might help!

The core sounds simple: cooking dinner. But, the reality of the situation is that moms are trying to complete a task that requires a moderate amount of focus in a room FULL safety hazards. The hot pots, pans and knives are of course a concern, along with the chemicals under the sink, but with littles around there are countless minor accidents and injuries in the kitchen involving the hard non-cushioned flooring, the countless furniture corners at a toddler’s head level, and all the cabinet doors and drawers for pinching fingers.

(And each bump and scrape pulls you away from your cooking task.)

Since my son was born, I doubt I have spent any significant amount of time in a kitchen without something happening.  Whether it was him as an infant demanding a series of cluster feeds right in the middle of making dinner, him throwing toy after toy off the high chair tray at 9 months, or him now, at 15 months, trying to crawl into the dishwasher to retrieve a favorite cup, it’s always something.

Just as you start to find a strategy that works, a strategy that keeps those little hands busy and that little mind occupied, these kids grow up and change a little bit, just enough that yesterday’s perfectly formulated plan no longer applies.

Every day is different. Every. single. day.

And that’s awesome! Because when I think back to all of those daily kitchen moments over the course of the last 15 months, I realize that I was watching my son grow every day right before my eyes. It’s messy and stressful, but that’s so cool!

But it also makes the simple chore of cooking dinner DIFFICULT.

Cooking dinner is a chore that you can’t just skip, either. At least, not most nights. There is now an additional mouth to feed (and diaper and take to the doctor and put through college etc. etc.). Eating at home is a financial decision for most families, and getting take out every night is just not realistic.

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Moms, cooking with a baby or toddler is not easy. In fact, this is a chore that seems nearly impossible most days. Here are some tips that might help!

Ask for help.

I don’t know why it was so difficult for me to ask for help with cooking.

When my son was first born, I would try to be the one who made dinner every night. I enjoy cooking. It’s a creative outlet and it’s stress relieving for me… normally… before I became a parent.

But, in those crazy early baby days, making dinner would ALWAYS seem to be timed with a feeding.

(And forget those lies that all the baby books say about nursing every 3 hours… my son was an every hour kid from the day he was born until he started eating solids.)

So, cooking became the thing that I did while someone tiny was grouchy with me. I was pretty hesitant to give up the only chore that I actually enjoy. I was brand spankin’ new to this food blog thing, and I was relishing every minute in the kitchen possible.

So, I had to ask my husband for help.

There were a few days that I would try and do the cooking while he attempted to pacify the unhappy bebe. Often we would switch half way through.

The point is that I often needed help. There were days when cooking dinner was something that required two people to accomplish, and I had to ask for help in some way every night.

Snacks are a game changer!

Hallelujah, there came a day when the baby grew up and SNACKS became my help. Do you know how long it takes an older baby to get one of those rice puffs off the high chair tray and into their mouth? Usually long enough to at least put something frozen into the oven.

Involve babies and toddlers in the shopping process.

This is going to sound easier than it is, but involving my son in the grocery shopping process early on and continuing through toddlerhood was a good decision for me.

First, it has built his food vocabulary. I remember holding up all the produce for my son to examine from his infant carrier (and feeling like a crazy woman while doing so). Now, when he sees a banana, he starts flailing around making the sign and just about jumps out of the cart.

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I narrate the names and flavors and colors and anything else I could think of about every food we see. I remind him why we don’t buy cookies EVERY time (just most times… haha).  I tell him why I am buying it. “This green zucchini squash is going to be for dinner on Wednesday.”

Also, it makes new foods, or foods we don’t eat often, a tiny bit less foreign.

When Wednesday comes around, and we pull out the squash, it’s a tiny bit less foreign (even though it will, inevitably, be tossed onto the floor… all part of the learning process).

And yes, there are some trips to the store where I’m tired and grouchy and I don’t do this. And, those trips are usually quick and more difficult.

Just a note: after learning the hard way, I really prefer building vocabulary at the store vs. at the dinner table. We hit a rut where my son would only eat the foods he knew the words for and he was asking for, which was only fruit bars, apple sauce and bread. Now I just plop something in front of him and tell him it’s dinner without telling him any of the names for the foods. He’s much more willing to try “dinner” than 10 foods with new names all mixed together.

Hand out age appropriate tasks.

When it comes time to cook the squash on Wednesday, I usually try to involve everyone in the family in some way. My son can help me wash it in the sink. And, after I cut it, if I need the pieces transferred into a bowl, he could probably help with that.

When he was younger, I might have him hold one of the big spoons, or he would help get the pot out of the oven drawer.

When he was even younger than that, old enough to be alert, but not old enough that he was mobile, he would just watch from his bouncer on the floor while I talked to him.

There is always an age appropriate task. It takes patience and some creativitiy to think of it. It also takes some willingness to let go of the adult agenda and just have fun together.

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Yes, handing out these tasks takes A LOT of time. I can wash a zucchini in 10 seconds, but with help it might take a minute, if all goes well.

Manage your expectations.

Every day is different, and every dinnertime is going to be different. You could cook frozen chicken nuggets every evening for a year, but it’s still going to be nearly impossible to do some days.

Here is how I manage my dinnertime expectations:

1. I always ALWAYS have a quick back up on hand. Usually, that back up is bread with peanut butter. I’ve said it before: peanut butter is the glue that holds this family together.

2. I limit myself to trying new recipes. If you subscribe to my newsletter and receive my weekly meal plan, you probably notice that I typically try a new recipe on Tuesday. I spend the rest of the week cooking things that are familiar staples, many of which I have written about here on the blog.

3. Some chores can be saved for tomorrow. There are some nights when dinner, bath, bed goes bang bang bang, and all of a sudden the house is quiet and I’m exhausted. Except, nobody remembered to scrub that one pan. THE PAN CAN WAIT UNTIL MORNING. I promise you, that one friend of yours with a spotless house will never know (if they knock on the door, just hide it under the sink). You’re a mom of littles, and that takes some serious energy. Allow yourself the time you need to take care of yourself while you are able.

Best of luck to you, friends! If you have an more tips that are working for you, would you please share with everyone in the comments section below?

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