The day you bring a baby home from the hospital is the same day you lose an arm in the kitchen. (Let’s be honest — you lose a bit of your mind, too.) To turn on the microwave, close silverware drawers and open the oven you now use elbows, knees and hips. At that moment you officially become a “one-armed” cook.
Since I’m a professional chef, I’ve learned how to work in the frenetic atmosphere of a foodservice kitchen. Since I’m a mom, I’ve also learned how to work in my sometimes-chaotic home kitchen, using efficiency strategies from my professional life and some fun kitchen safety tips. There aren’t enough raisins in the world to keep a toddler occupied during family dinner prep, so here are my favorite methods for making the meal happen.
Use Naptime Strategically
When my boys are asleep, I try to get all my hot and heavy lifting finished — this means knife work and sautéing. I know that when they’re awake they want to be right in center of the action, so if I can get the potentially dangerous parts out of the way, they can hang with me for the rest of dinner prep. To help get the most accomplished during your kids’ naptime:
- Get organized. Plan your meals in advance and prep for everything at once. For example, if you have a couple medium onions, chop them on Monday and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Use them in a Greek-inspired skillet, dirty rice entree and grilled potato salad side dish. Consolidating meal-prep tasks helps make cooking easier each night, and it lightens the load of cleanup, too.
- Always make more than enough. Considering all the hours my boys are awake, plus the fact that I’m one-armed during most of those hours, I can never seem to stay on top of all the “testing” that’s going on. Raw pizza dough, fresh-cut bell peppers, chocolate chips — they’re always gobbling nuggets of ingredients. Before they wake up, I try to create stations including extras to account for all the sneak-tastes.
Kitchen Safety Tips for Kids
Every kitchen is set up differently — each with its own perks and challenges — so tailor a set of rules just for your space. Mark a spot where the kids have to stand when you open the oven door. Make it fun, like you’re all playing kitchen safety games. Designate a whole drawer for pots, pans and utensils the kids can play with. And make sure the bottom half of the refrigerator doors are available for original magnet art. By having cooking safety rules in place from the moment you start a family, you minimize the risk of injury and save yourself some serious panic.
Get Your Kids Involved
Assign roles and responsibilities to children of every age. Reassign them with every birthday, switching up the roles and adding to the responsibilities. Even if they’re not technically cooking, you are nurturing in them a lifelong interest in the kitchen and appreciation of food. Here are some age-appropriate ideas for keeping your little ones busy during meal prep — based how kids grow up in our kitchen.
- Babies: Give them a wooden spoon to chew on. Set up pots and pans on the floor with some utensils for a makeshift drum set.
- Toddlers: Place a pot of water on the stove, but don’t turn on the heat. Sit your little guy on the countertop or perch him on top of a sturdy step stool and have him count cups of water as you pour them into the pot. Encourage him to stir his “soup.”
- Little kids: Put them in charge of setting the table with silverware, napkins, even glasses of water for each member of the family. Let them get dirty, too — mix cookie dough completely by hand, pull ribbons of homemade pasta through a pasta machine and decorate cupcakes with icing and sprinkles.
- Big kids: Start to hand them the tools of the kitchen. Have them peel potatoes, wash fresh produce and improve their measuring skills. You can even start to teach them how to hold a knife, scramble eggs and pull things out of the oven. For example, in this Southwest chili recipe, kids can open the beans and other canned veggies, crumble the tortilla chips and help measure out spices.
My favorite thing to do is to let my boys have the all-important last taste and final approval before we sit down to the table. They take great pride in serving as “quality control” for the whole family.
There’s one important last step to prepping any meal: show extra love for all the help you’ve gotten in the kitchen. With two arms and both hands, celebrate the contributions of each of your children — even the one attached to your hip.