It’s 4:30pm. I forgot to thaw any meat, my kids are crying, my husband is still at work, and I’m tired. How do you cook dinner with babies and toddlers crying and pulling at you and needing all your attention?
Should I try for some easy carbs? Reach for a freezer meal? Order takeout? Phone a friend?
Is it just like this at my house or can you relate? I’ve been here so many times, and I’m still perfecting my meal planning, but I’ve learned some tips that will revolutionize that stressful hour before supper. With a bit of planning, and possibly some advanced prep work, you can avoid the stress of needing to cook at the exact time your babies and toddlers need you most.
How to cook without being in the kitchen
“I wish there was a way I could cook without having to be in my kitchen!” I lamented to my husband one very stressful evening. Guess what? I’ve found the answer!
Imagine dumping frozen chicken thighs and frozen mixed veggies on a tray, spraying them with oil and sprinkling with garlic salt and pepper. Pop into the oven as soon as you turn it on (it’ll thaw everything as it pre-heats!). Start a pot of rice or water for noodles. Then, go sit on the floor and play with your babies while supper cooks.
That was my meal recently when my husband had to work late and it was just me and the kids. The best part? We ate a healthy meal at home without lots of whining or frustration in the half hour before supper. That’s a win in my book!
You can cook at home, even with toddlers and babies.
Yes, you can! Even if you don’t have thirty consecutive seconds to be in the kitchen, it is possible. You just have to have a plan and be creative.
Make your appliances work for you
The most important tip is to make your appliances work for you. I use my crockpot, oven, rice cooker, and Instant Pot to multiply my time. On busy days I put a meal in my crockpot so that it cooks all day and then can be served when we’re ready to eat. I’ll throw a bunch of frozen meat and vegetables on a pan and bake it while rice cooks in my steamer pot.
I was recently given an Instant Pot and have been learning how to make that work for me. A few weeks ago I made a white chicken chili while the kids napped and let it pressure cook the chili for me so I could rest and then play with the kids. You’ve bought these appliances and they take up space in your home. Make them earn their keep! It’ll greatly reduce your stress come supper time.
Grab my freebie “Cook Dinner on Auto Pilot” to help you make a quick plan for using your oven, Instant Pot, and crockpot this week!
Meal plan in advance
Even if it’s as simple as listing three suppers that you have the supplies on hand to make. You can choose from the list depending on how the day is going or what you feel like eating.
Another way is to plan a supper for each night of the week, marking the night before if anything needs to be pulled out to thaw for the next day. This method requires more time upfront, but the payoff in the evenings is huge. When it comes time to cook there is little decision-making involved.
I prefer to have a few meals planned for the week and factor in leftovers a few times. My current breakfast rotation has three choices and my lunches are also simple and easy to prepare. Suppers are usually a meat cooked simply with a good carb or fat source and veggies.
Meal prep in advance
Another method I use is to meal prep in advance. Meal prepping can be done in different ways. Sometimes it looks like doubling a meal so that I can freeze half of it for a future supper on a busy day. Other times it means buying an extra pack of celery and chopping the entire thing and freezing it in a bag so that I can save time cooking later. As a newly wed I started portioning my meat to freeze it (we bought in bulk!).
I’ve carried on that lesson as it makes meat thaw very quickly and you can choose exactly how much you want. You know those sandwich bags that don’t zip, but only fold over on themselves? They’re cheap and a perfect way to portion one or two chicken breasts. Then put a bunch of those in a gallon ziplock bag and you’ve made your life easier! Sometimes I will bake or cook at night after the kids have gone to bed. Easy day the next day!
If you need help with creating some routines to get this done, check out my post on Daily Routines.
Keep staples on hand
Keeping staples on hand also makes last-minute meals easier. I try to keep rice, noodles of various kinds, pasta sauces, oatmeal, and flour on hand. These are easy building blocks to simple meals. I’ll usually try to have some ground meat, chicken nuggets, chicken breast and thighs, or plain burger patties in the freezer to make for easy proteins. A can of tuna fish, fried eggs, and bread or rice is often a simple lunch at our place.
Get creative! Pay attention to what meals are easy for you and that your kids like and then keep the basics for those on hand. My kids don’t like macaroni and cheese, so you won’t find that in my pantry. They do love canned tuna fish though, so we try to stock up when we find sales.
Now, we all know that it’s not the cooking that’s the problem. It’s the kids!
Ah, yes. Those lovely little people who bring so much joy to your life and so much frustration when you just need to get dinner on the table. What do you do with them? How do you cook dinner while also keeping up with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers?
I’ve currently got two small boys ages 3 ½ and 20 months. I get it. Some days I just ask my husband to watch them while I cook so that I can have 30 consecutive seconds to accomplish something. Sometimes a movie or show is a lifesaver! However, there are other solutions too.
When my first was a baby I was introduced to the concept of Crib Time. Basically, you train your young toddler to play quietly and independently in the crib (for containment and safety) so that you can accomplish other tasks. I used it for my oldest every morning for half an hour after he dropped the morning nap. My youngest hasn’t really been trained in it, but we have started teaching him so that I can now use it while I cook supper.
I’ll turn on a story they can listen to, give them some toys in their beds, and give lots of encouragement, and sometimes correction, as they play quietly. As they’re learning this skill I make sure to give them a reward at the end and lots of praise throughout. This provides a peaceful atmosphere so that I can quickly get a meal on the table.
My older son loved to be in the kitchen with me while I cooked, which meant he was often underfoot as I tried to move around. I made sure my lowest drawer had some kid-friendly items in there that I didn’t mind him playing with and then I talked to him, sang to him, and sometimes just let him play by himself while I worked. Sure, I’d look over to find him standing in my giant metal mixing bowl. But hey, that’s what soap is for!
With two now, I’ve put them in high chairs to watch me cook and given them all sorts of things to keep them occupied. I’ve let them play with spoons, color, drive a toy car, have a snack or smoothie, play with play dough, etc.
Help “wash” dishes
My three-year-old absolutely loves water and has ever since he could reach the sink. He likes to help me “wash dishes” and is actually getting pretty decent at it! I thank him for his help and say he can just leave them in the sink when he’s done.
Find other things they can help with. Your babies and toddlers can “cook” too with a spoon and a bowl. Perhaps all your plastic cups need to be stacked or sorted by a tiny person. Do your tin cans need to be rolled around the floor or stacked in towers? Get creative (or just let them get creative!).
Character growth: Being bored is good!
Another thing to keep in mind is that these situations offer the chance to grow character in yourself and your children. Sitting in their bed playing quietly is teaching self-control and obedience. Entertaining themselves is teaching independence, creativity, and a host of other things. You are learning to plan ahead, think on your feet, and guide those little ones in their own character development.
You’ve got this, mama! Make your kitchen work for you so that you can spend time playing with your kids in the living room while dinner cooks. Plan your meals in advance, and prep what you can in easy times. Give yourself grace and keep those simple, well-loved meals handy and stocked up in your pantry. Have a few simple activities to keep the kids occupied and invest the time training them to play independently and quietly. Even 15-30 minutes can make a big difference for you.
You can do this! You can cook at home, even with babies and toddlers and preschoolers that struggle so much around the dinner hour. With a bit of planning and preparation you’ll be set to transform your dinner hour from frustration and craziness to peaceful and sane.
This can be you! Try it for a week and let me know how it goes! I’d love to celebrate your wins with you. Tag me on IG or Facebook with your great meal ideas or the perfect way to occupy your kids. You’ve got this, Mama!