Panel Post: Cooking Healthy Food With Young Children

ng_elenahelpingI recently got a great question from a reader.

“I am a mommy of one 15 month old boy and am finding it extremely
hard to make dinner, he’s constantly not happy if I’m not holding him
or playing with him.  I rely on my husband to watch him so I can
throw something together quickly, which is yummy but is never
exciting.  I am stuck doing the same old cooking.”

Who of us parents have struggled with this issue? I know I have and still do!

Rather than just giving my own experience, I thought I was ask some fellow nourishing cooks if they would be willing to share what works for them in a panel post. What I appreciate about this panel is that we all have different schedules and lifestyles, so you are getting different perspectives. I think everyone had some great tips and helpful thoughts. And please, share your ideas too!

Let’s start with Kristen who blogs over at Food Renegade. She is the mother of two little boys, ages 4 1/2 and 2.

She shares:

“My first son was a perfectly content baby — so long as he was being held. Time in the kitchen alone was rare; I usually wore my son in a sling as I worked. I tried to keep food preparation simple, and I saved many of the harder things (like kneading bread by hand or chopping tons of vegetables) for while he was sleeping. It required a bit of planning, but I enjoyed it. I also started cooking & freezing meals ahead of time on the weekend with some girlfriends. My husband would watch all the kids, and my friends and I would spend a few hours in the kitchen making HUGE batches of freeze-ahead meals. This saved us a lot of time & energy. Now I just had to take something out of the freezer the night before, let it defrost all day, then pop it in the oven for dinner.

My second son was the sweetest, most content baby I’d ever met, but balancing two young kids was still a challenge.  They almost never napped at the same time, so those windows of time to do complicated kitchen tasks vanished. (At that point, I invested in a stand mixer to knead bread.) Both boys often wanted to be in the kitchen with me while I cooked, and neither were really able to “help.” My solution? I put the youngest in his highchair so that he could have a good view of what I was doing, and then I let my oldest stand next to me on a chair so he could see too. I gave them both kitchen utensils to play with, or simple “jobs” like washing lettuce leaves (which turned into fun playtimes in the sink water) or taking things to the compost pile or trash can. Basically, I tried to make them both feel welcome in the kitchen. It’s working so far!”

Next Ann Marie who blogs over at Cheeseslave, the mother of Kate, aged two, shares her experience.

“I find that with toddlers, “whatever works” has become our household motto. When my daughter started walking at around age 14 months, suddenly life got a whole lot more challenging. I was not a “baby-wearer” (except when she was a newborn) so she wasn’t used to being carried around. However, it was hard to do the cooking while keeping my eye on her and making sure she didn’t break something or hurt herself.

Here are some things that have worked for us: I installed gates in the kitchen so she couldn’t wander around the house. I would put pots and pans and other “toys” on the kitchen floor so she could play while I cooked. I also gave her her own cupboard — one she could open. I put lots of fun, non-breakable things in there for her to play with.

Far and away, the best thing we did was get the Learning Tower. It’s a bit of an investment but it was worth every cent. My daughter will spend HOURS playing while I cook. She has one counter where she colors or plays with her toys. I also let her eat in her learning tower. Her favorite thing, though is to play with the “agua” — she can spend forever splashing in the water in the sink.  And when she gets older, she will be able to cook with mommy. We LOVE the Learning Tower!

PS: If you are a baby-wearer, you might try using a good baby carrier. There are some you can get will let you put them on your back which makes it a little easier (and safer) in the kitchen.”

Stephanie, from Keeper of the Home, mother of two littles (aged 4 1/2 and 2), shares the following advice.

“One of the best ways that I have personally found to work in more kitchen time, while having little ones underfoot is to do the bulk of my food prep and cooking at times when they are already occupied in the kitchen. The main reason this works for me is because my kitchen and dining room table are basically in the same room (separated only by a counter). I can be fully functional in my kitchen, while never being more than 12 feet away from my kids, and always within eyesight and earshot. It’s a good setup! 🙂

Although it would be nice to sit down and enjoy a leisurely breakfast with my children (and I do some days, especially when my husband is able to eat with us), I usually just eat more quickly and take advantage of that time to tidy up the kitchen, start some baking, get something soaking, chop veggies for dinner that night, start something in the crockpot, etc. I also do the same after I finish my lunch, which I do eat sitting down, but I tend to eat faster than my children. I’ve just found that they are often the most happy and occupied while putting food into their mouths (aren’t we all? :), and kids are notoriously slow eaters, so it’s great to be able to use that time productively.

I remember the days when I had only one, similar in age to yours and miserable because of teething. I only had a small apartment kitchen, and my table was in a separate room. My solution was to bring in her high chair between meals, and set her in it so that she could be at “adult-height” (where all the action is), watching what I was doing. I would give her drinks, finger foods to snack on, or else just put toys, coloring, or books on her tray. I would chat with her as I cooked, telling her about what I was doing. It allowed me to get so much more done than I could have otherwise, if she had been down on the floor or expected to just entertain herself (because this inevitably turned into crying and fussing).
Another great solution I’ve used is to put my baby or toddler on my back, in a good carrier. I use the Ergo, and absolutely love it, even for a heavy, squirmy toddler! Once they’re a little bit bigger, I just start bringing in a strong, sturdy kitchen chair to put beside me, so that if sitting at the table or in a high chair just isn’t working, they can be right beside Mommy, but I can still get done what needs to be done. Little ones love being helpers, even at a very young age! They can dump measuring cups and spoons into bowls, help to mix things, rip lettuce, knead a little piece of dough, or even just nibble on what you’re making.
When I’m in a season where these techniques don’t work as well (a newborn baby that needs to be nursed during mealtimes, a 9 month old who has to be spoon fed, etc.) I try to rely more on nap times and on evening prep, after the kids go to bed. As long as I have a good meal plan, sometimes just taking 10 minutes in the evening to pull out some meat, soak some beans or dump ingredients into a bowl to be refrigerated overnight can be a really great investment of time.

And lastly, know that we all have days when meals are simple, quick and not really very fancy or interesting. You’re not alone, this season will not last forever, and the fact that you are doing your best and meeting the needs of your son is the most important thing of all!”

Finally, I add my two cents.

First, just because I have a food blog doesn’t mean that my tables have always been brimming over with food, because that’s not true! I deal with the same issue all the time.  There were times when it was quite difficult to get dinner on the table and there still are times, though it’s gotten much easier as Elena has gotten older.

Here are a few things that have helped me.

If your baby is quite cranky, plan to do something simple. Dinner doesn’t always need to be fancy. We like to eat a lot of soups, big salads, and easy to fix dinners like rice with flavored ground beef (like this one).  Keeping it simple takes a lot of pressure off.

I also tried from a fairly early age to encourage Elena’s skills in playing alone, close by me. When she was just starting to learn to sit up with support (around 4-5 months), I would set her in a sturdy laundry basket with some toys. This would keep her well amused while I did some dinner prep. Later she moved on to looking at  books. She would often read books for hours! She did naturally like to do those things, but I did have to help her be okay doing it alone. It’s always fun to have mom playing with you, so sometimes you have to help train them a bit too. Like the other mom’s shared, keeping them close to you works well too.That way they don’t feel you are “leaving” them.

My mother in law had a little drawer in the kitchen full of toys for her children to play with while she worked. Elena now loves it! I have also given Elena a big bowl of water, set on a towel, with different measuring spoons and cups, which will keep her entertained for a while. (Though your son may still be too young for that).

But having said that, I also expect that there will always be times when a child won’t be willing or able to handle self-entertainment.  It could be teething, being tired, or just a common cold. So even though I have trained Elena some to be able to play by herself, there are still times even now where she will be want attention during dinner prep time.

For those times, I did sometimes have to wait until Joel got home to finish dinner. When she was younger I would try the Ergo too, but she never really liked it after about three months. So sometimes you have to just do what works.

If he is less fussy earlier in the day, you can also try to do what dinner prep you can then. Cut up vegetables, wash lettuce. etc. Crockpots, or slow cooking oven meals can be of great help too! Make double of recipes and freeze half.

Now that she if older, I often have her help. I will place bowls on one of our kitchen chairs, and she will stir for me, for example. It’s sometimes a bit of working having her involved, but she’s learning and entertained. So there is hope for the future for you!

One last thought that I will just throw out there, is that recently when Elena was being really clingy and much more whiny, we discovered that she had a food allergy (she was also breaking out on her skin). When we removed the problem food, she went back to being much more willing to entertain herself.

In the end, just do your best and experiment with different things to see what works best for you.

Anyone else want to share what works for them? I would love to hear!

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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  1. says

    Wonderful advice everyone has to offer!

    Thanks for posting this, Kimi. It’s great to read recipes and to read posts about nutrition and food politics, but at the end of the day we have to get stuff done in the kitchen and get that food on the table.

    And it’s challenging for all of us — especially for those of us with little ones. So it’s nice to have the real-world advice!

    PS: That’s not a knife Elena is holding, is it? I keep looking at it, thinking it looks like a chef’s knife!

  2. KimiHarris says


    LOL! I was afraid people would think that! It’s actually just a handle of some kitchen utensil. 🙂

  3. says

    I second putting them in the high chair in the kitchen along with giving them something to eat or keep them busy. That always worked for all five of my kids.

  4. says

    I have two boys, 4 1/2 and 2, so this post felt like it was written just for me!

    I think Stephanie’s idea of getting some food preparation done during breakfast time would work really well for me. I have a basic routine that I get done now, but I admit I usually end up spending time on the computer after that, while the boys are still easting breakfast. If I left the computer until the afternoon (when I now try to do food preparation), I suspect things would run more smoothly in my home!

    I love all the suggestions about water play, but does anyone have any idea how to convince my 2 year old that the water needs to stay in the sink during water play? He loves it, but I find that anything involving him and the sink ends up with me and the mop!

  5. Lynnpaulus says

    All the suggestions are very good. As a mother of 4 and some close to marriage I must encourage you to patiently include your children in all you do. When you mop the floor, hand them a sponge too. When they spill hand them the rag. Yes, you will have to follow up but a smile and the rag makes for happy helpers later on who take responsibility for themselves. I guess what I am saying is enjoy them, include them and realize that the key to not only loving your children but enjoying them is training. It is really worth the time and effort.
    Oh, and Pamperd Chef has a little item called My safe knife. A child with a big carrot can saw away chunks for stew or whatever and really tell Daddy “I helped Momma”
    What a precious time this is for all of you with little ones. It truely is gone in the blink of an eye.

  6. Kimberly says

    I totally agree with you about alone play. From very early on I allowed my both my girls to entertain themselves and now at age four and two they will happily play with each other or alone while I prepare dinner.
    We also have a kitchen drawer for them full of paper plates, bowls, wooden spoons, a child size cupcake decorator, some mini tins and napkins. They love it!
    I find meal preparation time a good time to pull out the homemade play dough. Hand them some safety knives, a couple of plastic bowls and cookie cutters and they are ready to chop and bake like mommy!
    I also keep a wooden easel in the kitchen and they happily draw with chalk while I clean or cook.
    Finally, for my eldest I often fill the sink with bubbly water and ask her to “wash” the dishes for me. This will entertain her for hours. Just be careful to put a folded up towel on the chair beneath them so they don’t slip.

  7. Heather says

    My soon-to-be-2 year-old is starting to be able to help with chores, kitchen and otherwise. And, if she’s not helping cook, she’s crumbsnatching and asking 9 million questions! However, I also have a 6-month old, so there are days when I am lucky to keep diapers washed & dried & the little people reasonably dry and fed.
    Getting us fed? The crockpot is my friend! Much in the way of crockpot cooking can be done throughout the day in “drive by” fashion. I usually have a little while in the morning, when my little girl isn’t up yet, and my baby will play on the floor. During this time, which is always not _quite_ long enough, I run about like a madwoman, starting laundry, emptying the dishwasher (which I usually load & turn on at bedtime), figuring out breakfast–and, often, starting a crockpot supper. Once it’s started, you can come back when you have a minute, add a few ingredients, and repeat till it’s all together. By dinnertime, it’ll be yummy.

  8. Kaylin says

    Great suggestions. I’ve done a lot of those things too. It gets easier as you have more children and there are older ones to entertain the younger ones. Mine are 7 1/2, 4, and 14 months and my 14 month-old daughter usually wants to play with her brothers. Of course she also has her fussy/clingy times too. My mom (who had 8 children) used to say, If you give them 5 minutes, they’ll give you an hour. Usually if I sit down with my toddler and give her my undivided attention, after about 5 minutes she’ll climb off my lap and go play. Sometimes they just need a Mommy Fix. Also, if she gets very irrational I give her a few bites of good fat like coconut oil and that helps to stabilize her mood.

  9. says

    I giggled as I read this. With a 6 mo old, a two yr old and an older child cooking is quite the circus! I remember a friend telling me how his grandmother would take her two little babies, put them on the floor in front of the bed, and then lift the bed posts and stick their old fashioned long white nightgowns underneath to “keep them put” while she got all her morning chores done. Way back then this was necessary so she could milk the cows, gather, the eggs, etc… without worring about them getting in the fireplace while she was busy!! I usualy just keep them in the kitchen with me and on fussy days wait for my husband to help.

  10. Jasmin says

    I have a 16-months old boy and he is a pretty avarage kid.
    With my in-laws he is terrible. He acts fussy, needy and wants them to do all the time things he wants them to do, whereas I can do all my cooking and online-surfing while he is entertaining himself.
    I thing the reason for that is that my in-laws spoiled him to much and listened to everything he wanted them to do. That is the result. He is never peaceful with them but when he is with me he can play very cheerfully even alone by himself which gives me a hell lot of time.

  11. says

    What I gleaned the most from this post was comfort to know that all of you talented ladies who post these wonderful food-blogs deal with the same issues, and manage to continue to feed your families nourishing food 🙂 We’ve tried most of the ideas that you all mentioned (I have a 2yr old and a 5mo old) and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

    Planning ahead is definitely the most important step in getting dinner on the table, isn’t it? Easier said then done some days, though.

    I think I will incorporate more of Stephanie’s suggestion to get a lot done in the morning, as both of my children are quite content for a good hour in the morning.

  12. Karen T. says

    Thanks for the simple recipe Kimi! My husband travels a lot, so I would love to have a carnival of quick and easy recipes sometime!

  13. Misty says

    Great tips! Thanks. When I had a larger house, I used a learning tower, and loved it. I’m in such a small space now that even our round table for 4 get’s one leaf dropped when not being used for meals.
    I have another question regarding little ones – any good ideas for finger foods that don’t include dairy, soy or gluten (wheat). My almost 1 yr old loves to feed himself. I’ve made GF Bread sticks & crackers for him. And occasionally he’ll eat broccoli, green beans, pinto beans, sweet potatoes, frozen blueberries and rasberries. But he really is being quite picky. Maybe you’ve covered this elsewhere??

  14. Jen says

    I find planning ahead and the crockpot are life savers!
    I have an almost 4 yr old & 2 yr old boys and a 4 mo old girl, I usually decide by morning if not the night before what is for dinner. The kids are much easier to entertain and play on their own in the morning hours then late afternoon, so if I can get the hard stuff out of the way earlier, dinner is much easier.

  15. says

    This is such a great topic – I have two insanely busy little guys. I did as much as I could with one in an Asian wrap, when they were smaller it was a moby front wrap. When they got old enough to sit up I would put yogurt or applesauce on the high chair tray and let them finger paint. I would also put a small amount of water on a jelly roll pan on the floor and let the baby splash in it. Another fun thing was putting photos of things in a small zip lock and then putting ketsup, mustard or colored water in a larger zip lock. Then I put the small one in the large one and let them squish it around until they could see the pictures. I’ve even been desperate enough to bring the larger blow up swimming pool in and then put the baby blow up swimming pool inside that with a small amount of water for them to play in. That would sit just outside the kitchen door so I could keep a constant eye on them but it sure kept them busy! When the toddler was past the age of putting small things in his nose & mouth I would fill the pool with beans and scoopers instead of water. I’ve found sensory play is by far the thing that occupies most fussy babies.

    Thanks for another great post Kimi!

  16. Samara says

    Thanks for the great post and comments! I’m always needing ideas :-). My 6 mo girl has been trained to enjoy time in her playpen which I keep near me while I’m working in the kitchen (so she’s not “alone”), and that has worked so far but she is now more mobile and wants her world to expand! I appreciate the suggestions.

  17. says

    Interesting post, Kim. I like to put my little one in a baby backpack carrier – high enough so he can look over my shoulder what I am doing while not having his hands near anything hot or sharp. And sometimes he likes better to play by himself. I like the comment about including children in what we’re doing, I found that to be a great way to bond too. If I do something which is not dangerous, I may just put him in front in the same baby carrier – a mei tai can be used in different ways, so he can help while secure in the baby pouch.

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