Friends often comment that they don’t know how I am able to do so much cooking from scratch with three small children at home. It seems impossible, or at the very least like a rather stressful endeavor.
Truth be told, there are times when it is stressful. Being pulled in multiple directions can be difficult, whether you are cooking or not. But any mom already knows that. It’s been those stressful moments that have pressed me to figure out ways to keep my children occupied while I do whatever kitchen tasks that need to be done.
Being in the kitchen is an expected part of our family’s daily routine.
There are days when time in the kitchen is limited. There are other days when it seems like most of my day is spent in or near the kitchen. My boys are getting a little bit older now (4 & 2) and they don’t usually need as much focused attention from me while they play. So they are often just able to occupy themselves while I cook. Other times, they are able to participate in what I’m doing.
There are plenty of times, though, when they want to be in the kitchen with me but can’t help. And there are plenty of times when they are starting to get craaaazy playing on their own and their attention needs to be focused on a calmer activity to help to curb their energy a bit.
These activities are sort of my secret-weapons of necessity. As in, I don’t let the kids do them everyday but just when I need something special. Making them every-so-often activities rather than daily activities helps to keep them fun and exciting rather than becoming old hat. Each one also involves a certain degree of “mess”. To keep it manageable, the kids have to stay at their activity, and be responsible to help clean up afterwards.
This is a particular favorite of my boys. Fill up the sink with warm water, give them some kitchen utensils and a container or two, and let them play. Expect a wet floor. Expect to change their clothes afterwards. Neither is a big deal in the scheme of things. I put a towel down before they start playing and this helps to speed up cleaning afterwards. The rules are no big splashing or dumping water intentionally on the counters or the floor. They typically stick to the rules because they want to be able to keep playing.
Babies and small toddlers: When the boys were smaller, I would set out a towel on the floor and set out a couple bowls of water and let them splash, pour, and play that way. I have also used a long, shallow plastic box filled halfway with water and set out on the floor for them to play in.
Cooking with Dry Beans & Pots
I keep a container of assorted dry beans for the boys to “cook” with handy. The boys get to use some of my real pots, bowls, and kitchen tools to cook with. They will stay engaged in this activity for a long time. The tradeoff is that this is the activity is the one that takes the longest to clean up. Typically, I clean up the pots and such while the boys pick up the beans. It can take a bit, but I don’t mind too much since it is an infrequent activity.
Babies and small toddlers: In a high chair with a tray, set out a few safe kitchen tools (rubber spatulas, plastic bowls, etc). Uncooked rice, oranges, and other larger (non-choking hazard) foods work well too.
Straight-forward and probably the activity that happens more often than the rest, my boys love to play with play-doh. When I am working in the kitchen, they play right at the kitchen island. Sitting on tall stools keeps them from running around with their creations, distributing play-doh throughout the house.
Babies and small toddlers: If your child isn’t ready for play-doh but you want a safe alternative, you can make a simple dough of flour and water for her to press and squeeze.
It’s amazing how engaging something as simple as flour can be. My boys love to use the bench scrapers, spoons, and measuring cups to move the flour into piles, dump it onto the island, and spread it around with their fingers. Any flour left on the counter after they are done can be scooped up and kept in a jar for the next play time. Like water, you can expect some flour to be on the floor and on your child’s clothes. But, it cleans up easily. We just change shirts and shorts (or just wipe them off if it’s only a little bit). And even small children are capable of using the vacuum hose to clean up the flour off the floor.
Babies and small toddlers: This activity can be just as fun for babies and small toddlers. I used to put a small amount of flour on the boy’s high chair tray to let them feel it and move it around with their little fingers.
The Big Guns
Occasionally, when I’m feeling just as crazy as the boys, I will come up with something that I know they will especially enjoy. In the picture above, I set up a ski-ball type game for the boys with a pool noodle and marbles. Even dad was entertained for a while when he came out of the office for a break. This was a simple activity with about 5 minutes of prep, but it kept them occupied for a long time. Think of a few “big gun” ideas or find them on Pinterest and keep them up your sleeve for when you and your kids need a more unique diversion.
Babies and small toddlers: Keep a few fun toys in the kitchen that your child only plays with during kitchen time.
A few final thoughts…
Homes and floor plans vary just like our kids. Not everyone has counterspace to share with kids or a big kitchen island to work at. But these limitations are just problem solving invitations. As the nester says in her book, The Nesting Place, “embrace limitation, recognize it for what it is, and consider it a dare to overcome it.” Setting out a blanket near the kitchen or in an adjacent room may be what you need to do. Or setting up a small kids table for playing at while you work in the kitchen might work.
The times when we are together in the kitchen are some of my favorite. (Which is good because it happens a lot!) Even in the midst of hard work and constant demands, remember that there will come a day when your kids won’t be near you all day. You will finally have a quiet, empty kitchen to cook in, and most likely, you will look back at these hectic days with much nostalgic fondness.
I love the conversations that happen while my kids are busy working with water, beans, play-doh, flour, etc. They are cooking just like I am. They are making ravioli and quesadillas and food to bring to church. Giving them these types of activities not only keeps them occupied, it also keeps them learning.