Ask CK: Finding Time To Cook... With Small Children

If you have a question you'd like to ask Casual Kitchen, send it in!!
Reader Jennifer writes in with a great question (I've edited it slightly):

Love your blog, and I love your no nonsense attitude. I'm hoping you and your readers can share some ideas. You often talk about how people use too many excuses about why they can't eat real, healthy, homemade food, and I wholeheartedly agree.

You say everyone can find the time to cook. But what I'd like to know, in practical terms, is how? I'd like to hear some real stories from people, especially those who have young children or for some other reason have little time to cook, who still manage to eat good quality food. I have a VERY energetic 1.5 year old, and by the time my spouse and I get home with him from daycare, we have about 1 hour 15 minutes from the time we walk in the door until the time we need to be upstairs doing the bedtime routine. In that hour, we all have to do the usual getting home activities (changing a diaper, changing clothes, getting the mail, etc), cook dinner, eat it, and clean up again, all with a toddler who by this time is usually tired, hungry, and uncooperative. And that's on a good day. Cooking anything from scratch ends up seeming like a Herculean task.

But I know people must do it, and probably people with many more challenges than myself! I guess I'm looking for some inspiration and encouragement from people dealing with similar constraints. What strategies do you use? Where do you compromise, and where do you hold firm?

I'll confess up front: when it comes to children, I'm as clueless as the day is long.

But I know that a large segment of CK readers actually do have children (in some cases lots of 'em) and have still successfully managed the challenge of cooking affordable, healthy food at home. And I also know that CK readers are always up for helping out other readers who face seemingly intractable challenges.

So here's my question to readers out there: what advice, strategies, suggestions--and encouragement--would you give Jennifer? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Unknown said...

It's tough. I was in a similar situation for a while, with an 18 month and 3 year old in day care.

30 minute meals won't cut it - I focused on meals I could get on the table in 10 to 15 minutes. I did this three ways:
1. Pressure Cooker "one-pot" meals, after the kids were in bed. I left cleaning the kitchen until after the "one hour, fifteen minute" window, and while I filled the dishwasher I would start a one-pot meal in the pressure cooker. Think soups, stews, and chilis. After that was done, I would put the pot it in the refrigerator. The next night, the moment I walked through the door, I would scrape the fat off the top of the pot and reheat it on the stovetop.

2. Slow Cooker one-pot meals: Similar to what I say above, except I did my prep work first thing in the morning. Walk through the door, and the crock pot has dinner ready.

3. No-cook meals: Think lunchmeat, cheese, and bread or tortillas. "Make your own super sub sandwich" with a loaf of french bread is a favorite of the kids.

I made lots of them. :)
Vegetables tend to come out of bags, either pre-cut (think bagged salads and bagged carrots), or frozen (microwaveable bags of frozen corn and peas are quick and easy side dishes).

We ate a lot of salads, because bagged lettuce plus a two minute home-made vinaigrette is a quick and easy side.

Starches were either part of the one-dish meal (potatoes or beans in the stew), or no-cook starches. Think bread (loaves of french bread are great for this) or flour tortillas. Quick cooking couscous is about the only pasta I could manage, and that was with an electric kettle to boil the water.

Weekends are when I would satisfy my fancy cooking and farmers market urges. If you have time on the weekend, you can cook ahead. Cook a big roast; cook a lot of extra fresh vegetables. Leftovers are a good option for a quick dinner.

Planning is critical. There isn't time to think "what should I do for dinner". Every Saturday I sat down with my grocery store flier and figured out my meal plan for the week.

Last, and probably most important - this is definitely a case of perfection being the enemy of good enough. Do what you can, and don't beat yourself up. More home cooked food is better than less.

Good luck!
Mike V @ DadCooksDInner

chandy said...

A weekly meal plan is critical. I try to anticipate which nights are the busiest, and time my meal schedule so I'll have leftovers for that night.

Also, the crock pot is my friend! And not just for traditional 'crock pot' meals. A lot of my simple weeknight dinners (salads, pizzas, burritos) call for cooked and shredded chicken. So I'll just toss a frozen chicken breast with some water into the crockpot in the morning, and it's ready to go when I get home. At least that part of the meal is done and ready to go. And I almost never bother with side dishes. I focus on one-pot meals. My kids would rather have some raw veggies and dip instead of a cooked side dish anyway.

I also keep expectations low on busy nights. You don't always need a big 'meal' at the end of the day. Sometimes we are perfectly happy with some sliced avacados, veggies and hummus, some fruit, cheese, and a piece of bread.

The most important thing, though, is to feed the entire family the same thing. Don't ever get started down the road of fixing separate items for the kids. I barely have time to make one dinner a night, let along two!

Martha said...

I agree with the weekly meal plan comment! Gotta know what's coming!
On the weekend, I plan and cook a couple of basic meats that can easily become a stirfry, soup, or one dish meal.I do extra for the freezer. I always make two casseroles at a time and put one in the freezer. Prepping veggies on the weekend can save money and time on busy nights.
But the biggest help? I have a husband who loves anything I fix, and is content with a sandwich or scramble eggs on toast.He has taught my 8+ kids to be appreciative too! ;)

Sally said...

MikeV has pretty much covered it.

1. Plan ahead. I never planned specific meals for specific nights, but meals that I wanted to eat sometime during the week.

2. Do as much prep work ahead of time as possible. This is everything from prewashing greens to making soups, stews, chilis, sauces, casseroles and even the Sunday roast. Leftovers from roasts can be the basis of an almost unlimited number of meals.

3. Keep it simple. Weeknight meals don't have to be gourmet feasts.

If cooking meals from scratch or nearly from scratch is a priority for you, you will find a way to make it work. Some of these ideas will certainly work for you, but there are others as well.

In addition, I always recommend Pam Anderson's "How to Cook Without a Book," which came from her problem of getting weeknight meals on the table.

Daniel said...

Some great insights and recommendations right out of the gate. Thanks so much, particularly to Mike for his excellent input.

What other suggestions would you add, readers?


chacha1 said...

I don't have any kids but I do have limited time that I want to spend on cooking!

There are an awful lot of things that can be prepared in fifteen minutes or less. Pan-grilled or fried (sauteed) boneless chicken thighs: done in ten. Broiled steaks: done in twelve. Pan-grilled pork tenderloin: done in fourteen.

Best of all, they can be put on the heat and left alone (with a timer) for a few minutes, unlike something like Hamburger Helper.

Taking MikeV's suggestion of compromise is a good one. Make good use of the freezer for vegetables. Most frozen veg can be prepared in six minutes or less in the microwave.

In Jennifer's position I wouldn't use starches at all on weeknights, aside from couscous, tortillas and bread - potatoes & rice simply take too much time - unless you use instant - and don't add much nutritionally - especially if you use instant!

If one parent handles getting the food on the table while the other handles the kid, and then the parents swap roles at cleanup time, it should be possible to get everything done in an hour and a quarter.

Sounds like Jennifer has a great attitude and that is 75% of the win.

beth said...

When my kids were little, we ate a lot of pasta+sauce+veggie, usually +meat dishes. The ubiquitous mac and cheese with tuna and broccoli, couscous with jarred Indian simmer sauce with canned or leftover chicken and a salad, penne with butter & parmesan and veggies on the side (maybe with some frozen salad shrimp tossed in), and fried rice or quickie minestrone with leftovers from the fridge all happened with some regularity.

They may not have always been the lowest fat recipes, but they were always quick (>15 min. to the table), cheap, and otherwise healthy. (And with toddlers or grade-schoolers running around at full speed all day, fat content was not one of my concerns!)

Other than that, I definitely second the crockpot for chilis, roasts, faux BBQ, baked potatoes, and stews. Just have to be sure to stock up on freezer-friendly storage tubs for the leftovers!

Owlhaven said...

Great question! I started writing a huge-ol comment and then decided it was actually a blog post since it was insanely long. Here it is:
But in short, having a weekend cooking session will REALLY help!

Mary, momma to 10

Jen said...

I like to cook a bunch of pork, chicken, or beef in a crock pot, shred it, and then freeze it in sandwhich bags. Then it's easy to pull out for tacos, enchiladas, soups, and pot pies. You can also add barbeque sauce to the meat for bbq sandwhiches, a big favorite at my house.

Emmy said...

What a great string of comments! I'm learning a bunch! The one thing I can think of to add is to assemble your crockpot meal in the liner the evening before and refrigerate until morning. I've heard there's a possibility of the liner cracking with changes from cold to hot, but have never had a problem. Maybe that'll cut down on an extra dishwashing session? Anyway, best wishes all!

Janet C, said...

OK, first of all, my apologies in advance if some of what I say sounds harsh. I am trying to be realistic. Remember what Mike V said above about compromises? Its very important. Perhaps you either need to shorten the commute or maybe allow your child to have a slightly later bedtime. 1.5 hour to do everything seems rigid. Assuming you get home at six pm that means by 7:30 you are starting the bedroom routine. Even when my boys were toddlers they didn't get to bed until 8:30 or 9, and they turned out just fine. Maybe you need to shorten the routine or start it a half hour later?

Also, forget the cleanup. Do that AFTER the child is asleep. Pile the dishes in the sink and forgeddaboutit....time spent with your child is more important. Put them in warm water to soak. Heck, they'll still be there in the morning if need be. I do dishes just before going to bed; I find it relaxing...weird, I know.

One thing that Dan often recommends in his column that works here is pre-cooking and freezing. Make large batches of stews or soups, split into meal-sized containers, and freeze. Crock pots work too. As your children grow they can help with love to help if you let them! It can be part of weekend "fun time" for you all. Also healthy baking is always fun! Everyone loves a treat...

When you pick up the child from daycare, or right when you get home, give them a light but crunchy snack (apple slices, carrot sticks etc) to munch on while you're cooking. The crunch helps with the cooking crunch!

I agree on the other comments on frozen veggies, bagged salads, etc...and Chandy is SO right: everyone eats the same thing! We have a rule in our family: "eat it and shut up about it, or don't eat it and shut up about it." Don't go down the road of catering to your children....if they don't like something they don't have to eat it, but they don't have to whine either and no substitutions! Missing a meal never killed anybody.

And one final piece of advice: Take turns with the cooking duties! Make sure that both parents are equal partners when you get home!

Good luck and enjoy. All too soon your children will be long gone and you'll find yourself wishing you had someone to cook for:-)

Lauren said...

Bedtime is paramount for us, because our short person is not herself if we don't prioritize her sleep. Missing the shut-down window is instant torture for everyone.
There's a whole lot of evening left after baby bed time, I find. Use that resource.
And don't forget the English tradition of children's tea: Kids get easy and quick stuff at 6:30; parents concentrate on kids; kids go to bed; parents eat together slowly and quietly at 8. As long as there's a family sit-down protion to tea time, I think that's a viable option.
Unless you live in a one-room loft and noise is an issue, leave the dishes! Dishwashers should really be run overnight anyway to spread out the power demands on the grid. Think of it as environmentally responsible, rather than domestically negligent ;)
Good on you for searching out a solution rather than compromising on real food!

Unknown said...

I understand your dilema! My 17 month old is at meltdown point by 7:30 if we aren't starting the bedtime routine. I'm a SAHM right now so I make dinner while the baby is napping but I still have another little man (4yo) who doesn't nap.

I think in these situations we need to remind ourselves that this is a season. Just as it felt like you would never ever get a full night's sleep again things will gradually change. It's the nature of parenting. Give yourself a little grace. Find what works for your family and run with it. You are obviously in tune to your child's health! Woo hoo! Keep lovin on your kiddo and enjoying that precious family time.

Julia said...

I recall the most delicious meals of my youth were also the simplist... roast chicken. You can put a chicken in the oven (pre salting is great, but even that step isn't necessary) with a few small potatoes, a quartered onion or two and some baby carrots. It takes about 10 minutes to get in the oven, and then you have 45 minutes to take care of all your other chores.

There are plenty of things that can get tossed in the oven with minimal effort that make a great meal.

As everyone says, planning is key. Of course, on the weekend to get a meal plan, but also I find the best time to plan is when I'm in the car, stuck in traffic. I plan out my strategy so that when I walk in the door I know exactly what I'm going to do first.

Jen Blacker said...

Sometimes my now almost 3 year old will actually hang out with my hubby instead of being attached to me. Otherwise he is right there in the kitchen with me. I just work around him. he has a stool he stands on and "helps" stir things and add spices to food. This makes him happy enough to go off and play on the floor while I finish up. It's a bit of a dance really but you can do it. He understands to stay away from the stove or else he can't be with me. It's much easier letting them participate than trying to keep them out.

The Calico Cat said...

Ditto the cooking ahead.
On Sunday, I go to costco & buy a "9" pack of chicken thighs. My husband cooks them all in one pan, plainly.
If we are not eating chicken that night, we pack 3 of them into foil. I get home before picking up my 2.5 year old at daycare, so I pop a foil pack into the oven on keep warm. (When my timing does not work so well & I have to pick up my son first, I put the cold chicken in foil in the over & set the pre-heat to 350, by the time it reaches temp. It is hot enough for us.
(I have only ever had the thighs turn to jerky, so I consider this a fail safe method. Heck, I liked the jerky!)
I often serve this with a frozen vegetable. (or even fruit - vitamin c is vitamain c...)
But you can add BBQ (other) sauce, chop them for salads (the mayo type or on top of a green one)
Add to soup or a quick casserole, etc.

We also do not cater to the toddler & we eat as a family. (I think it is important to model good eating behaviours.)

FWIW - my son goes to bed at 7:30 & my husband arrives home close to 6:30, so it can be done.

Anonymous said...

I don't have kids, but I do love this site, written by someone who does. It has a ton of crockpot recipes with a note on each about how well it went over with kids:

Sandi said...

It's really difficult, yes. I was a single mom doing that same routine, and many nights were rough. I don't have the really young kids any more, but I still do the same tricks as I'm still busy. The crock pot really is your friend. Get the stuff together at night after the kids are in bed, toss it all into the pot in the morning before you leave for work, and there is it, waiting for you to eat when you get home. That inventor is my hero!

Also, whenever I make something – unless it’s an experimental recipe that I’m not sure about – I’ll make enough for that day, another meal as leftovers, and a third to freeze for nights when I need to just pull out something for a heat-and-eat. It’s a great time saver, and things can be heating up while you're changing clothes, sorting mail, etc. My problem is that I’m terrible about marking what the food is when I freeze it, so we sometimes end up with what I call “Mystery Meals”. On those nights, we don’t know what we’re having for dinner until after it’s heated up and we can see/smell/taste it. :)

There's also the option of omelets for dinner. They don't have to be just for breakfast, and that is super fast.

Grains take a long time to cook if you aren't using the horrible instant stuff. I usually cook a huge batch of that since it doesn't take any longer to cook 8 servings instead of just 2, then portion that out for a single meal and freeze. That way, I can still have brown rice or similar grains during the week without spending my whole cooking time making it. If Bird's Eye or Green Giant or whoever can offer frozen rice, I can make it myself and a lot cheaper than $2 per bag!

WendyLou said...

Cook tomorrow's dinner tonight. Start Sunday evening and either cook Monday night's dinner completely or get it prepped so that all you have to do is pop it in the oven. Monday after work, reheat it or put it all together quickly. Then after the little one goes to bed, cook or prep the next night's dinner. This might help you get dinner on the table quickly and give you a few extra minutes of family time.

I also agree with the commenter above in regards to the children's tea idea. Our littles had an early bedtime - 7:00. We often fed them first and did a more leisurely 'grown up' dinner after they went to bed. It wasn't until we had our 3rd and the others were a little older and could stay up longer that I finally had it together enough to get an entire real meal on the table for everyone on any consistent basis.

And be sure to show yourself some grace!! You've got about 17 more years to practice :)

Anonymous said...

A rice cooker could be a good investment if you have the funds/space for one. Ours has a delay start feature so you could feed it in the morning, and then have nice warm rice when you get home. Brown rice for extra fiber/nutrition.

When I'm time crunched, I do lots of fried rice. Chop up veggies, throw in whatever proteins need to be used up, some seasonings, scramble some eggs and done in 15 or less. I switch up the seasonings so I have had asian, mexican, italian, etc based on what I throw in there so it is different but not really any more work.

I only have a 3 week old, but planning meals ahead makes such a difference. Even having the meat defrosted so I can toss it on the grill makes food ready so much easier. My fast default meal is pasta with sauce (homemade, frozen in food saver bag so it defrosts faster) with frozen meatballs. About 20 minutes and add a salad. When food is going slower some days, I serve the salad as an appetizer. Buys me a couple of minutes of sanity from a hungry husband. And I almost always do the clean up right before bed.

Tragic Sandwich said...

I think these are great comments. My problem is that my toddler won't nap, and fights going to sleep at night as if her life depended on it. Last night I was lucky to be able to scramble some eggs. Hopefully she'll move into another phase soon and I'll be able to put these into action.

Anonymous said...

I work full time and have 3 kids, although they aren't small, but the window to get meals on the table seems even shorter with their various activities and the need to still get to bed at a decent hour. Weekends are busy, so I just can't wrap myself around the weekend cooking thing, but if you can, I would highly suggest it. I do meal plan and do try to cook extra or meals on the weekend that I can reuse during the week (lasagna leftovers, roastchicken or roast that I can turn into someting else) The best advice is to weekly menu plan and realize not all of your meals have to be super complicated and super healthy. Hamburgers with a side of baked sweet potato/regular potato fries fits into a meal plan, along with some veggies or a plate of watermelon. Embrace the slow cooker - taco filling, chili, sloppy joe filling, slow cooker chicken fettucine - thing of using it not for the entire meal, but an easy way to cook the main part and then throw in pasta or some rice or a salad as the base and you have a good meal on the table with little hands on time. cook once, use twice - cook extra meat for lasagna filling or tacos or whatever. Cook extra chicken one night and save for chicken quesidillas or fajitas. downplay the final meal of the day - who says dinner has to be the heaviest meal - soup, salad, easy sandwiches (leftover meatballs from Sunday's dinner work great in grinders, chicken parm cutlets from Saturday's dinner also work great in a sandwich). get creative. And definitely assign one of you to clean up or do the prep work so your child is being cared for during the short window you are with him/her. and maybe a more flexible work could work - even working from home one day a week will lessen the chaos.

Anonymous said...

We have three little children 7, 4 and almost 2. I work full time and my husband is a student. I can relate to everyones challenges. I just kept thinking as I read each comment...How do we get dinner on the table and get the kids into bed at 8? We do take advantage of the weekends and do some meal planning for the week. I do belong to a lot of blog sites that offer recipes daily and free meal plans. I also tear out recipes out of old magazines if they are easy and appropriate for little kids. I often make one "fancy" meal for the adults on the weekend and that feeds us a few nights during the week. This is a great meal option on the mac n cheese nights for the kids, Good luck to you and your family.

Carol Cripps said...

I don't have kids, but I remember when my mother had three kids aged four and under, and a husband who worked weird hours. When Dad was going to be home for dinner, Mum would cook a "proper" supper, with mashed potatoes (except when we had new potatoes, then they were just boiled and buttered), meat and veg. True, the veg usually came from a tin, but she made good use of a cast iron frying pan for the meat. Other times, supper might be hot dogs, meat pies from the freezer, or fish fingers and chips. When she had a bit of extra time, when an aunt was staying with us, or something, she'd make those meat pies ahead of time for a night when one baby was teething and the other was colicky. She didn't have a slow cooker (they weren't around, yet) but made good use of a Dutch oven on the back burner, with pot roasts and stews that needed time, but not attention. She'd perch us on chairs to "help" as soon as we were able - I remember sitting on the counter as my sister stood beside me on a chair. We got to taste things as they went into the pot, and apart from peas, I can't remember us being too fussy about what we ate, either. Weekends were when all te stops were pulled out - there'd be an oven roast of beef or pork, fish and chips, or any number of things that couldn't be made when time was a premium. And yes, we were all bathed and in bed on time.

Jennifer said...

I'm the original question-asker and I just wanted to say thank you so much to everyone for their comments! So many great ideas, and they're timed well as I'm having one of those frantic weeks where any amount of cooking seems daunting.

I'd like to contribute something back to the group, but I'm not sure I have any strategies other than what's already been mentioned. We do as much freezer cooking as we can, eat lots of eggs and pancakes for dinner, rely on frozen veg many days, etc. There are some really great practical ideas here though. (LOVE the idea of the no-cook meals! Had a forehead-slapping moment on that one.) Lots of you with kids say sometimes you just do the best you can--that is so good to hear. I know my son is at a particularly needy age, too. I always imagine other parents putting beautiful, all-from-scratch, and elaborate meals on the table while their kids peacefully color or read in the other room. It's good to be reminded that this may be reality for a minority, but probably not for the majority. :)

Suanna said...

It's hard. I have 5 kids, the oldest is 7. I've found that I use my crockpot one day and use the leftovers to make a different meal the next day or two (e.i. roast chicken, chicken tacos, chicken soup).
Another thing I do is "make 2". When I make a casserole I make one for now and one for another week. It only takes a few extra minutes to make a second and freeze it. Ask hubby to help in the kitchen or with other chores as well. Menu planning is crucial to getting a meal put together in a short time period.

Marcia said...

Boy, I can relate. If it makes you feel any better, I think 18 months was the TOUGHEST time of all. THey are mobile, and they REALLY aren't able to keep themselves occupied at all. It gets easier from here on out.

I have a full time job and a child. And I'm the cook. Some of my tips:

I prepped the night before. When my son was smaller, I made weekly, or even monthly, meal plans. (Now I wing it.) That means I knew what I was going to make each night and could prep accordingly.

So, I might put beans on to soak in the morning and then cook them in the pressure cooker at night.

Or I would chop vegetables and night and put them in a tuppeware, so I would be ready to cook them when I got home from work.

I also cooked 3-4 large meals on the weekend and had leftovers during the week. If I could make a double batch and freeze it? Even better.

I occasionally used the crockpot.

Frozen vegetables are easy. I learned how to steam or microwave vegetables. Vegetable fried rice was a staple.

Soup and salad or sandwiches and salad are a fine dinner option.

After about the age of two, my son could help me shell peas or lima beans or other things.

Kate said...

I don't face the same time challenges as many do, but I have a tip to share about one of my go-to summer meals: Rice noodles. They require very little cooking if you have the foresight to soak them well in advance. Throw them in a cooking pot with enough water to cover in the morning. In the evening, drain them, barely cover them with fresh water and stick the pot on the stove. You won't even need to bring the water to a boil to have them done enough to thrown in a skillet with vegetables and some seasonings. Preheat the skillet while the noodles are on the heat. Since vegetables can be bought pre-washed and -cut, and every supermarket offers all kinds of seasoning sauces, this is a healthy and easy-peasy meal that can be done in minutes. For extra protein, beat eggs and add that to the pan when all other ingredients are cooked through. If you want specific examples of such a dish:


...but obviously you can go in many different directions with rice noodles. For the peanut noodles you can make up a jar of the sauce at home and keep it indefinitely in the fridge. These meals really do come together quickly.