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Inside: How To Manage Dinner Prep Time As a Mother. Tips for making preparing mealtimes easier and possible when you have little kids.
Once you have children, prepping dinner has to be one of the most stressful times of day. It is toward the end of the day so people are getting cranky (all people–adults and children), dinner is approaching, which means hungry people, which also means potential grumpy people, patience may be wearing thin…and this is all made harder when you have a baby to work around. Babies can’t be made to wait like older children can, and even babies who are on predictable routines can get off routine at times. Dinner prep might also be the start of witching hour for some babies.
When we had just one child, it wasn’t a big deal. I don’t really think dinner was at a terribly consistent time of day–Brayden had his dinner on time and we just ate when the time seemed convenient. Plus my husband was working full time and going to school full time, so his schedule wasn’t exactly what you would call consistent.
When Kaitlyn and McKenna were babies, my husband worked at a job where he got home at 4:20. He would get home, I would start dinner, and he could act as back up if the kids seriously needed something.
He now works a job where he gets home later, and I like to have dinner ready or close to being ready when he gets home. We also have the excitement thrown in there of sporting games that sometimes start about five minutes after he gets home from work, so I have to be able to manage getting dinner ready on time.
Here are some ways I manage dinner prep time at my house.
START WITH A PLAN
I do a meal plan. I don’t assign a meal to each day because I find that too confining for some reason, but before I go grocery shopping, I make a list of 7 meals I want to make for the next week and make sure I have all of those ingredients. If I don’t, I buy them. I made a printable I use for it–you can get it for free at this post “Weekly Meal Planner.”
So in the morning, I consult my list and decide what I feel like making that day. I then can defrost any meat I might need to or do any early prep that needs to be done. I also like slowcooker meals, so this allows me to start it on time. I look at my recipe and make a mental note of what time I need to start making dinner based on the meal I am making that day. For more on this, see “How I Do It: Meals”
CUT STUFF AHEAD OF TIME
When I have a baby who is unpredictable, I will often do any chopping and other food prep I can do earlier in the day. I find the time of day I am making dinner is usually the most likely to have disruptions for the baby or a time for older kids to suddenly need me, so I find it easier to have things prepped ahead of time. Brinley is currently ten months old and I don’t have a need for this tip anymore–she is extremely predictable and past the age of disruptions–but I used it often during the first six months of her life.
Find ways to keep your children occupied. There are a lot of options here.
- You can do independent playtime during the time you are prepping dinner. See Index: Independent Play for more on what that is.
- You can have table time activities during the time you are prepping dinner. Table time activities are activities your child can do at the table. This is a structured playtime activity. One note, if you choose to do this, it will be most helpful to you if you do activities that your child can do independently. Play doh can be a good one, too, if your Play Doh toys are age appropriate. You don’t want activities that your child will be asking for lots of help with (trust me, I have made this mistake. It makes dinner prep that much more stressful). Coloring is a great activity that most children can do unsupervised. You can also have several “busy bag” activities for your child to do. For fun ideas, look through the blog I contribute to, Children’s Learning Activities.
- You can also have your child help make dinner. I like to have one child on help make dinner with our chore wheel (see Chore Wheel). I like having just one child help because I can focus on teaching age-appropriate cooking skills to that one child.
- I often plan television time for during dinner prep.
- Prep during nap time. Have a child sleeping or doing rest time while you make dinner.
- You can also have children do homework, practice piano, or do chores while you make dinner.
So right now, most days I have one child helping me, two children watching television, and one child sleeping during dinner prep time. Some times I have the children all play together. Sometimes I have kids doing crafts at the counter while I cook.
HAVE DINNER EARLY ENOUGH
Kids get hungry pretty early in the evening. We eat dinner right around 5:30 each day. If you have a later dinner and your child is having a hard time waiting for dinner, have a snack in the late afternoon to hold the child over. A difficult thing I have found with snacks and children as they get older is that they think they need to be full–so a light snack is not satisfying for the child. I just explain to my children that they don’t need to be full and dinner will be ready at 5:30 and they can eat then.
If you do a snack, just keep it healthy so if it makes it so they don’t want to eat as much dinner, you won’t worry. I allow any fruit or veggie or cheese for an afternoon snack.
I don’t allow whining about being hungry for dinner (not that the ban is always observed…). When they do whine, I remind them that if they want dinner to be done sooner, they need to ask me how they can help rather than whining at me about it. Helping helps them see progress is being made and it helps them appreciate that snapping fingers doesn’t produce food. I hope this will also teach them to have consideration for others so when they want things in the future, rather than standing around and whining about it, they realize they need to step up and take some action to make it happen.
So what about when your best plans and intentions still couldn’t remove the suddenly fussy baby from happening? Some people will put their baby in the front carrier, bouncer, or swing and let baby nap there or wait there if content. You can also stop the cooking process if possible and have dinner be later that day. It isn’t always ideal when that happens, but remember it really is a short season. The minutes creep but the weeks fly by.
If you have older children, you can also have one of them hold the baby or play with the baby. I think it is a great thing to allow them to help when they can!
FREEZER MEALS and TAKE OUT
When you run into that growth spurt week or a hard fussy day after vaccinations, it can be nice to have freezer meals on hand you can use for dinner. You can also have some pre-frozen food you buy at the grocery store; it isn’t my favorite thing to feed my family, but sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack. Again, it isn’t forever and it isn’t every day. You can also get some take out. My kids love nothing more than a pizza night :). Give yourself some grace and remember the point in the post “Slow the Pace.” You don’t have to be superwoman every minute of every day. It is okay if you need to lighten your load some days–that is the wise thing to do.
What about you? What have you found to be helpful while you are getting dinner ready?