Cooking Dinner with a Toddler: The How

I cook dinner pretty much every night during the week. It’s not always easy, but there is a limit to how often we can patronize Maharaja Palace. As you might imagine, or as you might know from first-hand experience, cooking dinner with a baby or a toddler has its idiosyncracies.

I’ve learned to think about the sequence of meal preparation in a whole different way. What can I do with Ava in my arms? What can I do WITH Ava on the floor? What do I have to do by myself (or with Ava strapped to my back) at counter height? What can Ava do to entertain herself while I am chopping vegetables? When do I absolutely have to put Ava in her safe space for a minute?

This is how we do it.

First, when I come in from work, I nurse Ava and play with her right away. Spending this half hour up front helps a lot – she is needy for a reason when I have been gone all day.

Then, we go get ingredients out of the fridge or pick up our CSA together. Ava can ride on my hip while I’m digging through the fridge, and she usually helps me carry some of the ingredients if she hasn’t stolen the jar of oyster sauce that lives in the door of the fridge.

Depending on Ava’s mood, I will either chop something while she rummages around, or do something we can do together. Peeling onions and garlic is something we do together on the floor almost every night these days. Ava really loves the crinkly, papery skin, and she actually does about ten percent of the peeling.

I usually set up some kind of activity on the floor. Her favorite is to have a pot with an inch or two of water in the bottom, some vegetables to wash, and the salad spinner or another pot to transfer vegetables to. Depending on what we’re washing, I might add the vegetable brush to our set up. This is a great activity because it can be done together and independently – I’ll chop something while she fishes for vegetables, then sit on the floor with her to (re)wash vegetables again. Ava mans the salad spinner quite competently now, and she is really interested in transferring vegetables from pot to pot. Ava definitely puts vegetables on the floor during this process, so I just keep rewashing them.

She also spills the pot of water semi-regularly. Last week, I figured out that she was trying to DRINK out of the pot, with predictable results. So I try to put a sippy cup of water on the floor with her and to offer a nursing break or two.

I’ll periodically bring Ava up to counter height, and show her everything I’m doing. I like to show her the whole vegetable, then the vegetable cut in half, then the chopped vegetable so she can see the process. We also go peek at whatever’s on the stove, take spices out of the cabinet and smell them before adding them to a dish, and go set the table or empty the dish drainer together. All of these things can be done with Ava on my hip.

We always take some breaks from cooking. Ava loves to bring me my boots or drag the recycling bag to the door as a signal that she wants to go out to the hallway. We’ll walk in the hall, look out the window at our building’s terrace, push the elevator button (Ava is obsessed), and sort the recycling together (Ava hands me items, and I put them in the right bin). We also take breaks to sit on the kitchen floor and nurse, or to change a diaper and read books.

Sometimes, Ava just needs full body contact the whole time, so I will put her in the Ergo on my back, and carry on chopping things. Eventually, she gets hot, and I let her out again.

Ava also finds some of her own activities. She rummages through the tupperware cabinet, unrolls the parchment paper, fishes out hot pads and empty spice bottles (she has an empty jar of oregano and an empty jar of vanilla that I saved for her) from the coffee table, removes all the shoes from the shoe rack, or pulls apart an entire bunch of celery. Ava’s activities usually generate messes, so Jerry and I spend a lot of time picking up and cleaning.

Cooking dinner usually takes a long time, and I’m usually tired by the time we are done, but it’s worth it to me to include Ava in the process. It gives us something to talk about, and so many fun little things to do together. It’s something that fits into the rest of our lives, since humans have to eat every day. We usually have dinner at eight, when Jerry gets home from the gym, and then Ava goes to bed with mama (and wakes up with daddy, our parental night owl).



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