Is it a technique thing?

Okay, I seriously don’t understand how to do dinner prep with small children. Many of you have similar creatures, and many of you seem to be functioning at more than a basic level. So please: share your secrets.

Mine are young enough that without near-constant parenting, they make really poor (often dangerous) choices. There is always screaming if I’m out of the room for more than one minute. So I need to parent. I need to offer eyerollingly frequent reminders that “use your words so he understands” and “hands are not for hitting” and “you may do what you want with your own penis but you may not do that to his” and “no bumper scooters” and “tell him he can have it when you’re done” and “we don’t call names” and “get your penis off the toys” and “stop it or I’ll gouge out my eyes.”

My spawn are also young enough that they need a regular infusion of calories. Without food, decisions get worse, and the frequency and pitch of their screaming increases. So do my threats to gouge out my eyes.

So I need to make meals. Until there is a viable living room version of the Easy Bake Oven, I have to leave the room to make meals. Often I cook the night before and just reheat. I resent this, for after bedtime is my time and I’d like to read, write, exercise, or stare at a freaking wall without admitting that this job is a 24-hour-a-day kind of thing.

But even stepping away to scoop and reheat leaves small people screaming and hitting and grabbing and knifing (okay, not the last one, but it seems as though). If, heaven forbid, I try to wash a bit of produce, cut it, throw something in a pot or pan, and plate it when it’s all ready, my children are bloody, bedraggled, and writhing in a pile of all the belongings I used to hold dear. I don’t make nine-veggie quiche or anything. I’m not segmenting oranges and candying the peel. I crock-pot a chili or soup or I bake a casserole or I cook carb/protein/fiber in separate pots and just throw it all on a plate.

And yet within five minutes someone squirts someone else with a hose and someone screams and exacts revenge, and someone climbs on my desk and throws off all the tax papers and the carefully stacked scholarly articles (yes, I print them…sue me), and someone asks to make lemonade and rips two million lemons from the tree and gets juice on the floor and demands agave and then spills the whole lot, and someone pees on the floor, and someone rams a scooter into my ankle, and someone begs for popcorn, and someone tracks mud through the house, and someone torments the cat, and someone starts throwing LEGOs, and someone goes outside to get the mail but leaves the door open for another someone to wander out…

In five minutes.

I’m not kidding. That all happened tonight while I tried to make stir-fry and rice.

Someone once told me (demand credit in the comments if this was you) they’d like to see an episode of Top Chef where the quickfire challenge was to create a delicious meal from what was in the fridge in ten minutes WHILE having to stop every 30 seconds to break up a fight, being away from the stove for an unpredictable number of minutes, and stopping at the midway point to wipe someone’s ass. And the wall they poop-painted trying to “help”.

How do you make a meal when your children are young? I have no earthly idea how people do this. Do other people have a partner or a helper or a prison guard in the half hour before dinner? Do you serve crackers and cheese every night? Do you tie the children to various doorknobs through the house and tell them the last one to free herself get a pony?

Do I need to bribe? Threaten? Order takeout?

HOW do you do it?

26 thoughts on “Is it a technique thing?

  1. I have no earthly idea how dinner is supposed to be done.

    My current tactics involve: partner; super easy dinner (pb&j? why not); let the oldest two help cook; have olders play with youngers, one-on-one; or, if all else fails, a short movie time. I relied on the movie time thing more heavily when I had fewer and younger kids. Sometimes I will make dinner during quiet time/nap time. And by “sometimes” I mean “hardly ever.”

    Surely someone else has a better system. But I may not have the energy/interest to implement it…

    • Melissa, we definitely have a sandwich dinner or two a week (not in an About Last Night kind of way). Older playing with younger is my problem, really, at least for another year.

      I’m willing to consider movie time. Because I feel like I’m failing them, only popping into the room when they need correction, instead of to engage with them. But I need food. Vicious cycle.

      Movies under official consideration.

    • Dame Eleanor, Thank you for catching that! Of *course* my molecular gastronomy leanings have me candying pee, but in this one case I meant peel. Change has been made. Except I miss the typo, for it made me laugh. A lot.

  2. I use the crock pot a lot. It is my best friend. Since my kids started school they need down time before dinner so that is when they get their veg in front of the tv time. I’m not really proud of it but sanity is sanity sometimes…
    Whoever brought the Top Chef idea to you is brilliant! I would totally tune in to see that. I’d gladly sign my kids up for the task. Just try to not burn dinner while whiping up the insane amount of blood coming from the 1/4″ bite wound to the cheek and dialing the pediatrician and praying that they are still open so that you don’t have to go to the ER for stitches (because the anxiety ridden child would never go for that without an insane scream fest) and then packing up the biter and the bitee to run to said pediatrician and hoping you didn’t forget to turn off the dinner that you tried so hard not to burn all the while dialing parent #2 to have her meet me at the pediatrician’s office so that I’m not alone in the repair of the cheek. Finally… order out for pizza cuz’ your spent after all that.

    • Brotherly love…that’s an episode of Survivor.
      We did that, with a split lip. Two popsicles in the car and a hope that, after the pediatrician, we could find a coffee shop with a muffin left before closing time.
      I’ll register the second vote for a little screen time.

  3. I believe you have read and commented on a couple of my posts on this. Yes, the issue deserves more than one. I must sadly admit that in order to keep myself sane and my children’s blood sugar from plummeting and therefore turning my house into a zone of screaming, yelling, whining chaos, I have lowered the bar a touch on nutrition. I often replay a quote from Dr. Sear’s which says that we as parents should think more along the lines of “balanced week” than a “balanced day” when it comes to diet and toddlers. This is not a direct quote. But, I also try to do prep during nap or after bed with pureed veggies in turkey burgers (I know you don’t do meat) or chopping veggies for a crockpot meal, but I wont do this daily. I can’t. I decided that what my children were gaining in nutrition (if by chance my hours of prep didn’t end up on the floor) they were losing in happy, centered Mommy time. So, we often do trader joe’s spinach tortellini with steamed carrots which takes all of 3 minutes to make. Or something along those lines. Yes, I serve it with a side of guilt that they eat too much pasta, but I make up for it the next day, or the day after, hopefully. Ending the meal with an organic “plum” veggie bag, which they think is dessert helps to ease this guilt a touch. Also, I swear by the “My Baby Can Talk” signing videos. My 2 and a half year old is too old for them now, but my 15 month old LOVES them so it gives me a possible 15 minutes of only one child in the kitchen “helping” me cut asparagus. That’s all I got. But, trust me….there is possibly one day out of the seven that isn’t exactly what you describe so take my advice with a grain of salt.

    • Emily, unfortunately, I use the Plum organic veggie and fruit mash bags as a bribe to get dressed every morning, so I won’t let them have ’em at dinner. ;-) It’s true that every day can’t be 100% perfect, and that I try really hard for breakfast and lunch and snacks that we can slide at dinner. There’s just a cultural expectation of the whole family calmly sitting down (bahahahaha) to a hot, balanced meal.

      I have recently remembered how easy it is to cook eggs and throw bagged salad in a bowl….

    • Dana…you were supposed to be my savior. You were supposed to be the one who told me how you made curries and lasagna and pulled pork while juggling and doing magic and entertaining the girls with delightful tales and quirky quips.

      I should do it back to back, right, so they can’t claw each others’ eyes out?

  4. Whoever is not cooking watches the kids. The cooking person throws together a veritable cornucopia of mismatched items. Then we all sit down and do not enjoy anything we eat (other than the ubiquitious steamed broccoli, which I like very much but judging from the commentary from the sidelines, I am alone in this endeavor).

    Every week, I vow to do the Supremely Organized Method of planning healthy meals in their completeness and shopping carefully and preparing as much as possible during the weekend. And then every week, I FAIL because even squeezing in a trip to the store is one more thing we do not have time to do. So we end up running through the aisles, grabbing stuff willy nilly and then we get home and have absurdity.

    Does that make you feel better? Because I KNOW you have all good ingredients, at least, from which to conjure up deliciously healthy fare. We haven’t even managed that.

    Will try to compile the wisdom presented here by your commenters into a successful strategy for future work. Thank you in advance. ;)

    • Cyn, that still sounds better than what I do. What would you or Mr. Cyn do if the other wasn’t home.

      When I’m not home, Spouse packs them into the car to go get burritos. Every meal. No joke, So that even closes off my burrito options on rough nights.

      Sorry to admit this, but I love the idea of your family dashing down supermarket aisles, kids hanging onto the basket with only one hand and airborne, legs flailing out behind them and narrowly missing your head, just grabbing whatever they can reach. It’s rather Mary Poppinsish, really. Relish that accomplishment. ;-)

  5. I suspect it’s the TWO CHILDREN part of this that’s the real problem, right?

    I’m lucky enough to have a husband who works at home, and can usually be counted on to descend from his office shortly after five to chase the child. But when I have to do it on my own, there is a bolt on the inside of the kitchen door, so the kid is locked in with me, and there’s enough floor space that he can take all the utensils out of the drawers and strew them around. He’ll usually entertain himself with the tongs or something long enough for me to get something done. And then he can stand on his chair at the counter and “help” me by chipping away at the tallow in the crock (our diet is much, much different than yours, obviously) with a butter knife or something. And then he can splash around in the sink with dirty dishes. And then he can eat some raisins or almonds or a carrot or something similarly time consuming. And usually with a combination of these things, I cobble together fifteen minutes of prep and manage.

    It sucks, though, and really raises my stress levels way too much. I much prefer to send the kid outside with his father to play with tools so I can get something done in a timely fashion. I bet you would prefer it too. If I were you, I would totally be doing a lot of takeout, since it’s available where you are.

    • Kristin: yes, two is the problem. Yes, with just the little one I can lock him in with me and get some awesome mess-making going. Yes, with jut the older one we concoct some awesomeness. Yes, we’re tallow free these days. ;-) And yes, life is infinitely easier when one adult plays with child and one does the chores, including meal prep. For that I can hire a chef (ha) or hire a sitter (double ha) or hire takeout. I need to do more of that.

  6. “Relish that accomplishment” = just another reason I love you so. You always make me feel good about my bad. Merci.

  7. I’m just beginning to contemplate this project today, so this is gonna be short and sweet:

    1. screen time
    2. partner at home
    3. one in the kitchen with you; one with favorite Lego (or other) toy (alternate every night, make a chart to decide whose turn it is, roll dice or other creative method) Bonus points: sharing between siblings
    4. spouse is not allowed to hog all “burrito time” (Hmmm, I like my new word); spouse must cook too and allow you 50% “burrito time.” Bonus points: spousal empathy!
    5. bribes: no dessert if I have to come in this room in the next 15 minutes (set timer).
    6. more “organic junk food” (I can’t claim this word; it’s a friend’s): package cooking from decent healthy brands with recyclable packaging. Down side: expense and some measure of guilt
    7. Are they calm in the bath? Dinner prep is also bath time for our youngest (NB: he is 4 now and can be left alone for a few minutes with water and bath toys). Downside: eating dinner usually negates the effects of having taken a bath.
    8. Is Peanut reading alone yet? “Can you read this story to your brother”?
    9. Stories on CD.
    10. Fenced in backyard? Sandbox? Fort building? Downside: By the time dinner is done, they both need a bath together (this is never calm!) and then dinner is cold…

    There are no good answers. Sigh.

  8. Karen, thank you.
    1. Okay.
    2. I wish, but not going to happen
    3. Sounds great; going to try it
    4. YES!
    5. Worth a try. The problem isn’t interruptions; it’s fighting.
    6. Yes. We have out share of nights of sweet potato chips and string cheese and trail mix.
    7. Wild as monkeys in the bath. Oldest might like that, but youngest LOVES bath, and won’t stand for someone getting it first.
    8. Yes. He usually offers, and Butter finds a way to make it unpleasant.
    9. YES! Love this idea.
    10. Fenced backyard: that often works the best because it’s right off the kitchen. But they know how to turn on the hoses and blast each other to tears. Or scream at each other about who gets the shovels or the tree house or the…

    Thank you so much. Will try a combination of all those, and just hold my breath until the youngest is four. Recalling four, I think I mean five…

  9. You’re more then welcome….I hope some of it works. Looking over the list now, I note most of the “solutions” involved a. children growing more mature, b. having more help at home. Which means that they weren’t really solutions at all, just natural processes and impossible dreams. Whatever. A girl can dream, can’t she? Hang in there….

    • Any offer of ideas and perspective, Karen, helps. I write this blog to find generous people like who who will play my reindeer games, see that I’m rather pathetic, and try to help.

      Believe me, it helped a lot more than you know. Thanks.

  10. I survived, my kids are now 8 and 6 years old. Hubby works shifts, is rarely here to help wrangle at mealtimes. My best (still pretty lame!) advice:

    1. Child-proof the house. More. A lot more, as in, have one room with pretty much bare walls and no furniture, even if it’s super-inconvenient for you. It is ultimately worth it, and it won’t be forever. Lock up everything they could possibly touch or climb on – everything pointy, wet, marking, rippable, small parts, etc. Then put gates, locks or suitable obstacles in every doorway.

    2. Start prepping/cooking supper while cleaning up from lunch, to avoid the “witching hour” 4-5 pm. Cook double quantities every chance you get, and hoard these extra meals. Jot food ideas on the calendar or grocery list. Try to serve snacks without using any dishes or cutlery :)

    3. Consider making the main meal of the day lunch, or possibly even breakfast. Measure the kids’ height regularly so you can see the evidence of your good work!

  11. TV. It’s the best I can do when no other adults are present. PBS or they might be giants here comes science or 123’s or ABC’s. 20 min is better then no food or crappy food that makes me feel like crap. and the bonus is they know songs that are all about the elements and infinity.

  12. Chickadee, those are great. I do try to make extra and hoard leftovers. And measuring them regularly is an adorable way to get perspective.

    Tara, I’ll check into They Might Be Giants. I prefer to be with them for their weekly dose of screen time, but I need backup plans…

  13. me too, i feel like if it’s a repeat thing that we’ve seen together a few times i feel better about it. TMBG i used to like as a regular band and their stuff doesn’t make you want to pull your hair out (i don’t think). at first i was a little put off because it moves kind of fast but it evens out, there’s some longer segments. they seem to really like it and you can’t beat the subject matter. especially when you’re just playing and one of them starts “i one a skunk” then the other “i two a skunk” so on until…. “i eight a skunk, BAHAHAHAHA… ok now you one a skunk”

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