This is one of the questions I get asked most often, by friends, blog readers, and (I kid you not) strangers in the grocery store. How do you cook anything more complicated than a grilled cheese sandwich with small children underfoot and needing attention? And it is, of course, a challenge, especially since the pre-dinner hour is notorious for being a tough one for young children. Here are some strategies that I've developed over the years -- not all will work for your family, but hopefully you'll find something helpful in this list.
1. Do prep work ahead of time.
For working parents, this might mean the night before. Chop your veggies, marinate your meat, make sure you have all the ingredients you need. Do anything that can be done in advance when you have a little more leisure. For me, this is during naptime. Only one of my kids still naps, so I still might have a five-year-old wandering through the kitchen, but she is often content to chat with me while I chop (and of course nibble on some raw veggies while she's at it -- score!).
2. Save the new and/or stressful recipes for the weekend.
Whenever I've made something truly out of my league, you can bet it was a Saturday or Sunday. Things that require a lot more preparation and concentration are good contenders for days when you have a bit more time, and hopefully a few more hands on deck.
3. Include the kiddos wherever possible.
Let them help. If I'm making tortillas, the little ones sit at the table and play with the dough -- they're making their own tortillas, and it will keep them entertained and engaged while I attend to other aspects of dinner. If I'm mixing ingredients in a bowl, I let them either dump things in (that I've already measured), or stir with a spoon, or count the teaspoons, or whatever. A small child can be in charge of tasks like shredding lettuce, shaking a jar of freshly-made salad dressing, or even cutting cantaloupe into small pieces with a blunt knife. Think of tasks that don't even need to be done ("could you count the green beans for me and see how many we have?") but that keep the child engaged in the process.
4. Let them play with your toys.
You've got some mighty gadgets in that kitchen, and they are pretty exciting. Of course, let the baby bang on the pots with a wooden spoon -- that goes without saying -- but what else you got in there? Here are some of our most thrilling kitchen gadgets: steamer basket (did you know it was really a UFO?), salad spinner, tongs, oven mitts, spatulas, collapsible measuring cups. Yes, it might get dirty and you'll have to wash it. It's a small price to pay.
5. Keep craft supplies in the kitchen.
We do a lot of drawing, pasting, and what-have-you right at the kitchen table. We also have an easel set up about six feet away from where I stand at the stove. It's in the dining room, technically, so not really in my way, but the kids can paint or do chalk and feel like they are right by my side (and I can easily lean over and admire their work!).
6. Let them snack on dinner.
I am a fan of snacks. I think kids get grumpy when they're hungry, and they shouldn't have to go hours and hours between mealtimes. My kids are hobbits in their eating schedules, and that's fine by me. What matters is what they're eating, right? So, as you're preparing dinner, let them sample some of the raw materials. Shredded cheese, raw veggies (for kids that are old enough), a few apple slices. I always grate about 50% more cheese than my recipe calls for, knowing the little thieves will come through the kitchen and pilfer whatever they can.
7. Limit TV during the day, so you can use it without guilt now.
If your kids are already bug-eyed from sitting in front of the boob tube all afternoon, then a) they're going to be restless and the TV won't work as a get-them-out-from-underfoot strategy, and b) you'll feel guilty. As a rule, I try to keep the television off all afternoon, and keep the kiddos engaged with lots of one-on-one activities (like reading and crafts) and (weather permitting) some outside energy-releasing time. That way, when 6:00 rolls around and I need to stand in front of the hot stove for half an hour, they're happy for a little downtime -- and I can relax and let go of the screen-time guilt.
8. Kitchen dance party!
It so happens that our family music collection is on the family computer... which resides in the kitchen. So I've got tunes at my fingertips whenever I want. I'll often have some background music playing softly while I'm working in the kitchen, but sometimes, when people are really starting to get cranky, we need to crank up the volume. Don't just limit this to kids' music -- kids love to boogie to "grown-up" music. Even just a few minutes of this can soothe everyone's nerves -- and you can still stir and measure while you're shakin' it.
9. Enlist older siblings.
This is a great time of day for the older ones to take some responsibility for entertaining the younger ones. The five-year-old often conducts "Baby School" for the toddler, which they both love. I also am lucky enough to have a teenager in the house, so when things get really nutty, she gets called down from her homework lair and keep the littles happy while I'm working. For families with no older siblings, I also know of a family who hired a ten-year-old neighbor as a mother's helper for an hour. What a clever idea, and really a win-win.
10. Keep your sense of humor.
So there I am, standing at the stove, trying to saute zucchini, and a small child is literally attached to my leg, howling because I said no to a before-dinner cookie. In this moment, I get to choose how I'm going to react. This is my gift as a grown-up human being -- I get to choose how to react. I could raise my voice -- and who could blame me, right? -- but it's highly unlikely that such a reaction would improve the situation. Or... I could laugh. I could choose to see the absurdity of the situation, and just laugh. It helps. It doesn't help get dinner on the table, but hey -- at some point, you just let it go.
And some nights, we just end up with grilled cheese sandwiches.