Living the MSPI lifestyle is hard. It requires SO much time in the kitchen. I’ve had other moms ask me how I can make meals everyday and so much from scratch while taking care of my kids. Some days are easier than others but really it is a constant challenge and always evolving. Today I thought I would share some of my strategies for getting meals made and keeping the kids busy.
I try to give my kids things to do that they can’t get into too much trouble with, or make too much of a mess, and also make it something they don’t get to do all the time. Obviously these ideas will be appropriate at different ages but hopefully you might find a new idea that might help you!
1. Move a bassinet or baby swing near the kitchen. I would sing, rock and jiggle with a free hand (or foot) to help soothe cranky babies during the witching hour, which unfortunately coincided with dinnertime. If you can, hang toys that you keep just for this time of day on the bassinet or swing mobiles . Our bassinet mobile had toys that could be removed so I used those baby links on everything to rotate toys in and out.
2. Place an Exersaucer/Jumperoo near the edge of the kitchen. Again, rotating in “new” toys often keep them occupied longer.
3. A blanket , activity mat, or high chair near kitchen with chewable items on it they didn’t usually get. I often pulled out baby safe kitchen items like my rubber bowl scraper, a soft sided whisk that didn’t make a good whisk, and plastic measuring cups. Both of my kids loved to play with our silicone hot pad. It was the “kitchen lovey” for a long time.
4. Use a Sling/baby Bjorn/Ergo Carrier – Obviously you have to be smart about what food prep you can do safely with a child attached to your body. Heat or knives are no no’s and little hands that want to “help” can make cooking much more difficult. I would often alternate between carrying baby and giving him time in the swing or activity mat, depending on what part of a recipe I was working on. I also learned to do food prep with one hand and a baby on the other hip. I used a pizza cutter for one-handed cutting and used a food processor for chopping things.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
Location – a little table or blanket near the kitchen is great. Even with my older kiddo, setting out a blanket at 4pm on the floor is novel. I think it reminds my kids of picnicking so it is fun. It keeps them close to me for a bit and helps and keeps them in my peripheral vision while prepping foods.
1. Painting with water – I let the kids “paint” on a chalkboard, a spare piece of cardboard or on an Aquadoodle mat near the kitchen. Sometimes I use the waterpens that came with the Aquadoodle mat and other paint with water toys and other times I give my kids a bowl or cup that is hard to tip over and just a tiny bit of water and a paintbrush. We are talking like a tablespoon or two of water so if it spills, it is no big deal. I give my kids a paper towel in case of a spill. (I teach cleanup skills pretty early on- before age 2!)
2. Cleaning with Bubbles – I put a tiny bit of dish detergent in a large bowl and turn the faucet on high to fill it with water and lots of bubbles. Then I put a big blob of bubbles on the front of my dishwasher. My kids love to play in the bubbles with hands, paintbrushes or safe kitchen tools like a rubber spatula. Then I give them a towel and they just wipe off any residue when they are done. Bonus- a cleaner appliance!
3. Dance party – At 4pm my kids are often getting grumpy. I’ve found that turning on music they like and having a dance party lifts spirits. I start the dance party off with them and then cook a little, dance a little. We do kids music and upbeat appropriate adult music.
4. Pots and safe kitchen toys – The old standby. Get out a few pots, lids, a wooden spoon or two and let your little ones be loud and creative. Tolerate noise as long as you can. I often kept a few homemade noise makers in with my pots to complete the band like a toilet paper tube filled with rice and the ends taped shut. Make a tambourine by folding paper plate in half, adding a handful of dry macaroni added and stapling around the edge to close.
5. Magnet toys- I have several different magnet based toys- a magnetic refrigerator farm, a toy with magnetic letters as well as some Melissa and Doug magnets. Kids can play with them on the fridge or on the back of cookie sheets. I store the magnet sets in ziploc bags in the bottom of one of my kitchen cabinets. I pull them out usually just when I’m cooking.
6. Chalkboard Time- I’ve used a chalkboard easel, a small child’s lap chalkboard as well as a chalkboard wall decal/sticky paper like this. I put some of the wall decal kind on a wall near the kitchen so my kids can color to their heart’s content while I’m cooking. LIght colored chalk is great and easy to clean off clothes and walls if my little guy gets a bit too crazy. Although we do paint with water sometimes on the real chalkboards, I haven’t tried it yet on the wall decals.
7. Coloring with Crayola Color Wonder- In the beginning I couldn’t take my eyes off my little one for a second during coloring time for fear of walls, faces, floors, etc. covered in beautiful two-year old art. Then came Crayola Color Wonder products. They only work on the special color wonder papers. I wouldn’t let my kids run around the house with them, just in case there is something they can in fact ruin, but for moderate supervision art time, they are great!
8. Screen Time- Our kids get a very limited amount of screen time (TV, Kindle, Computer etc.). I purposely save it on some days for when I really need some dedicated cooking time. When I’m up to my elbows mixing meatloaf or madly throwing ingredients into a searing hot wok are good times for my kids to have their 20 minutes. I am fortunate to have a kitchen open into the living room so I can see my kids. Colin doesn’t last long, but five minutes “alone” is five minutes!
9. Busy bags – I’ve started making a box of these games to keep for restaurant outings or any time I need to keep the kids busy without my help, like dinner time or long car rides. Just Google “busy bags” and you will find a million little games/activities for kids. These ideas aren’t something you can put together right before dinner. They are something to make for when you need to keep them busy. I keep my busy bag activities in labeled ziploc bags and stash them in the kitchen cabinet, car and diaper bag. Colin’s current favorite game is Button Snake. (Mine is nowhere near as pretty as the one on that link. Colin just gets felt squares I could cut out of our felt scraps). Hannah’s favorite right now s a bag of 10 cards with a dry erase marker from this set of Usborne Book activity cards. – No craft skills needed on that one! For a long time Colin loved to play with a baby wipes box containing lots of baby food jar lids. Any time we finished a jar of food I put the lid in the dishwasher and added it to the baby wipes box. Colin loved dumping them out and then putting the lids back in through the wipes slot.
10. Small snack – Sometimes my kids are melting down right as I need to cook and it is because they are suffering from the crabbies of low blood sugar. Not the medically serious type, just the “I am a toddler who needs to eat soon so I’m losing my mind” type. I try to find a small healthy snack that they can munch on while I”m doing a bit of food prep. Is your table not near your kitchen? Try the picnic blanket idea from above! My kids hang out and “picnic” with me and stay occupied much longer. A few apple slices are good. Hey, I’ve already got the knife and cutting board out anyway. Some dry fruit or veggies, Happy Baby puffs, or a “trail mix” of things your kids can eat (keeping a bag of this stuff around is helpful). We don’t eat until 6 pm so a small snack at 4 usually doesn’t affect dinner appetites but if it does, you can try to make your snack one of the food groups you are NOT serving at dinner to keep their food intake nutritionally balanced.
11. Cooking with me – I try really hard to find opportunities for my kids to participate in the cooking process as early as they can. When I go around gathering ingredients I give them one of the unbreakable items to hold and they help me get everything to the counter. I’ve sat my kids up on the counter and I’ve also sat on the floor with them to let them dump, stir, mash and so on. Yes it takes a little longer and we may make more mess but they love it. We practice counting and measuring, they get both fine and motor practice, they might pick up a cooking skill here or there as time goes on but even more importantly, we have fun and make some memories.
Some other things that have helped me are The Toddler Busy Book, by Trish Kuffner, when I really need some new ideas for things to do with the kiddos.
Other Helpful Thoughts: To make cooking even easier, I try to plan ahead. (It’s always about the planning with these allergy diets isn’t it!) If I know I’m making something like chili, that takes a lot of chopping, I might take an hour out of my Sunday afternoon and let my husband watch the kids while I do a bit of prep work. I will even freeze bags of chopped onions and peppers to make dinner time during the week a little less hectic. I’d love to get the “Once-A-Month-Cooking” thing down but I’m not there yet. At my best I might think to double an easy recipe like meat and veggie spaghetti sauce or meatballs and freeze half for another week when things are busy.
Hope you found something to help your week go a little smoother and happy cooking!