Occupying Toddlers While Cooking

This is why toddlers need something to do while I slave away in the kitchen:




I don’t write very much about my children, mainly because I write as a release from what I do for twelve hours out of the day, but it seems germane to a discussion of healthy cooking to hash out what to do with the little ones while preparing those healthy meals.  Ideally they would just play quietly amongst themselves while I tie on an apron and get down with my bad June Cleaver self, but those of you with kids know how unlikely that would be!


So here is a list of things that work for us – each one doesn’t work every time, but I just cycle through this stuff until something does.


         Peeling garlic.  My daughter (3 years old) is a pro.  I usually have to start it for her, but she loves helping Mom with one of the base ingredients of just about every meal.


         Sifting and mixing.  I doubt this idea is new to anyone, but it usually works well for us.  If you’re worried about the kids messing up dinner, just give them a bowl of their own ingredients to mix and make a mess with. 


         Also related to this is sorting and pouring – give them some small cups or bowls and chopped vegetables, dried beans, or pasta and let them have fun!


         Counting practice.  There are so many things to be counted – tablespoons of oil as they go into the pan, cups of flour being poured into the mixer, etc.  Or use some chopped veggies or dried beans (like in the last example) as manipulatives in simple addition and subtraction problems laid out on the counter.  Toddlers love to count!


         Food storage percussion time.  This one is obvious, but it works really well with my fourteen month-old!


         Setting the table.  My daughter likes to do this one piece at a time, so I let her place each dinner plate, salad bowl, napkin, fork, water cup, etc., as well as any other accoutrements like bread and butter.  She is quite meticulous and will arrange and re-arrange each piece several times.


         Talking about the food being prepared and why we have chosen to eat it.  I’m no nutritionist, but I can give a basic defense behind everything – good or bad – that I choose to eat.  I tell them that the eggs are full of vitamins and protein to keep us healthy and strong, plus they’re a great source of fat for my dairy allergic daughter.  I explain that we can’t have cantaloupe right now because it would have to be shipped from far away Chile and wouldn’t taste very good, but that the blueberries in our freezer are available to us because we froze them after we picked them last summer.  Of course they don’t understand all the underlying concepts, but at least they are getting some knowledge hooks that will help them make these connections on their own as they get older.



If you think this is a short list, you’re right!  I would love suggestions, so please pass along any you have.  

9 responses to “Occupying Toddlers While Cooking

  1. Until recently, I kept the play kitchen and all it’s clutter in our eating area. The boys would pretend cook while I worked away cooking dinner. It was particularly good when I moved my chopping to the table in the eating area. I could sit down and chop while they fed me wooden play food.

    I now cut up a plate of raw fruits and veggies as my first step towards cooking dinner. I put it on the table along with whatever dip I want them to eat (ranch or strawberry yogurt). My boys start eating the healthy foods while I prep the rest of their dinner.

  2. How funny! I have the same problem. Either they’re hanging on my legs while I’m making dinner or they’re quiet at mice….making mischief of some kind 🙂 love your suggestions.

  3. Gourmet Momma,

    Thanks for the great suggestions! We do the pre-dinner crudites course, as well, but it seems like I’m doing some kind of kitchen work all day, so I’ve tried to find some other little activities to distract them. Perhaps I should move the play kitchen back into the real kitchen, though — it used to be in there, but I went on a toy purge a while back and put it in my daughter’s room. 🙂

    And Shawna,

    I mainly have the hanging-on-my-legs problem. The 1 yr old won’t leave me alone, and if I pick him up, the 3 yr old wants me to pick her up, too! I just keep telling myself: only a few more years and they won’t want to spend so much time with me!

  4. I don’t have any suggestions right off the bat, but this is a good list you’ve started.

    Oh, and excellent comment on my less nutritious produce post.


  5. Hair update…it is day 28. I was giving it until 31. I was getting very discouraged. But the past three days I’ve seen real improvement. This may work yet.

    Vegan update: this will be quite the adventure and I may end up back in vegetarian land, or never 100%, but adventure I’ll go.

    Once again, great comment. I’m never offended, what’s the point of blogging if you can’t take the heat?


  6. I’m having troube posting comments so if this goes up doulbe I’m sorry…I really liked these suggestions- I have a hard time getting dinner with a fussy babe and a clingy 2 yr old. I need some patience to do these things that you do– Please God HElp ME!!

  7. Yes, God help ALL of us crazy moms!

  8. It’s like what Bruce Lee said… It’s easier to redirect a force than it is to stop it. You can’t get them to slow down, so put that energy to use!

  9. great ideas! i am going to have to get our play kitchen in the real kitchen…

    I love all your helping ideas.

    what about crafting placemats for dinner

    or making homemade playdoh?

    for your preschoolers, you can make some activities in ziplock bags that they can do on their own…I’m hosting a swap for them right now on my blog! Great minds think alike…trying to keep those kiddos entertained so we can do our work!

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