This is the truth about cooking with kids: it is a pain in the butt. Despite lofty articles about letting the kids help or making dinner in 15 minutes or less, the reality is that cooking involves sharp objects, hot things and critical timing. And nothing takes 15 minutes when young’uns are around. Kids aren’t known for their attention spans, awareness, listening, or neatness. Combine it all and it’s easy to see how the stress levels ratchet up when you are trying to get dinner on the table.
I love my kids and have loved cooking my whole life. But I do not love cooking with kids… It’s crazy!
Granted I have a lot of patience, but staying undistracted through constant interruptions, staving Pavlovian responses to the open refrigerator or pantry door, or working around projects that sprout from mimicking imaginations…the challenges surmount. And when I actually am enlisting their help, their hair is everywhere, they stick their fingers in the bowl (I think they like “helping” just so they can lick things), and they make messes. And they don’t listen. Man, how they don’t listen! I find myself repeating instructions with rapid succession and increasing volume as we nearly avoid imminent disasters.
Why do we put up with it? We press on because we know that our mothers and their mothers did*, as did generations before them. Heck, people had even more kids then.
Plus there really isn’t much choice besides figuring it out. Especially if you have to get dinner on the table solo. The urge to give in to frozen dinners comes now and then, but I believe too strongly in home-cooked dinner to cave in. Plus some days are better than others. My consolation is that I hope one day my kids will cook. I don’t shoo them from the kitchen because I like that they are creating. It is music to my ears to hear my kids ask, “How do you make that, Mommy?” or declare (as they are packing toys in the salad spinner) that they are making ice cream.
I also get satisfaction from their unbiased love of food from all walks of life, whether sweet or spicy, fresh or fried. My daughter has a new thrill, which is begging me for real ingredients. I protest, because I hate to see food wasted. But she is SO HAPPY to be playing and making Apple Sandwiches, Mushy-Mushy-Banana Pie or Squishy Grape Treats.
So now, after five years and three kids, I consider myself experienced enough to give advice on how to survive the early years with your kitchen skills intact.
Advice for cooking with kids:
Expect it to be hard. It just is. Unless you are making pizza, anything you make for dinner is going to require time at the stove (including boxed dinners, which we are trying to avoid anyway). It is difficult to keep hungry kids at bay while they beg for a snack. Perhaps there are toys or babies on the floor, never mind competing for utensils with tiny scientists, the list goes on.
Prep ahead. I am the last person who wants to give up my time when the kids are out of my hair, but sometimes just having the cutting board and vegetables out, I can chop a thing here and there and save myself 10 minutes during dinner crunch(crash?)-time.
Know it will take longer. Yes, you could probably work on three things at the same time when you had time to think straight. But now, in the midst of chaos, you probably can only focus on one. So don’t beat yourself up when things go off schedule. Doing as many steps as you can in advance really does help, but may mean starting a day or more ahead.
Make two. Double the recipe for more involved dishes (soup, lasagne, sauces, etc.) and freeze half, so you can have an easy dinner another night. If you can, change up the fillings (chicken vs. sausage, cheese vs. spinach) or key ingredients so you don’t have to eat the same thing twice.
Advice for feeding kids:
Don’t give in to bland and boring. It can be irritating when the kids don’t eat something I struggled to get on the table. Though I get to be smug when they don’t eat any more of the grilled cheese I make the following night. They simply aren’t that hungry. Don’t squash the opportunity for them to love new foods by deliberately avoiding them.
Ignore picky eating. Most kids will grow up to eat like their parents, so it doesn’t make sense to cement in their brains that they “always love” one food or “won’t eat” another. If not today, maybe they will learn to like it later. I always stick everything on my kids’ plates. They don’t have to eat everything, but the option is there.
The “One-Bite” rule. Encouraging them to try new foods is necessary since kids aren’t inclined on their own. Before saying they don’t like something, my kids need to try a bite (and they aren’t allowed to throw it off their plate!). Usually, one realizes it is good and the other stands their ground. C’est la vie, we move on.
Make good food. Never underestimate a bad apple. Or tomato. Sometimes my kids take two bites of something they usually enjoy and stop there. When I taste it, I realize it is yucky. Kids don’t want to eat food that has bad texture and color any more than we do.
And that’s it. Take heart and have faith. And reach out, if you need. I randomly wrote to the author of Foodlets.com when newborn + small kids + Minnesota winter + husband with late hours hit me over the head like a cast-iron pan. She gave me the encouragement I really needed that day… and some good kid-friendly recipes, to boot.
*No offense to the fathers out there. You men-who-cook-dinner are awesome, and no doubt have also suffered mental fatigue from cooking with small children.