In the Kitchen with Kids
Do you know what I think is missing from all the cookbooks, websites, and TV shows about cooking? Toddler wrangling. I have lots of go-to sites for CSA recipes, I found good sources for making organic baby food, and I enjoy several reality TV cooking shows. But, no one ever mentions the one thing that dominates my kitchen at dinnertime. Toddler wrangling.
Sometimes I think back to when my firstborn was a baby. My husband and I both took long parental leaves and spent extra time to make the baby food that our daughter would eat when she moved to solid foods. We Vitamixed everything and froze it in small quantities. We used recipes from our baby food cookbooks. I remember everything from that time as slow and deliberate. Just the one baby, just the one goal - wholesome, minimally processed food to nurture her through infancy. Which we did.
Now she is turning four, and she has reached a level of boisterousness and rambunctiousness that I would have been hard pressed to imagine back then. Baby number two came along somewhere in there. She has just turned two, so she is also hardly a baby anymore, either. And, she is also boisterous beyond belief.
We did the same for her - minimally processed, local, organic veggies puréed at their height of freshness and frozen so they would be ready when she was. The extra time afforded us during our long luxurious parental leaves is a thing of the past; and now that one goal - wholesome, minimally processed food - is still at the forefront, but is a bit harder to achieve. Mostly because of the kids, of course, who are nearly always underfoot and are very demanding.
The big chunks of time that we used to have to cook have now been carved into small pieces by those very same little people that we’re cooking so earnestly for.
We take each little morsel of time, and we piece together what we need to prepare a real meal - chopping vegetables the night before, cooking large portions and getting clever with leftovers, etc. Our simple goal requires some complex steps and creative solutions. All of this means that nowadays when I read cookbooks I have to laugh at how oblivious most recipes are to our 9-5 jobs, our immediately hungry children, and, oh yes, the vagaries of toddlerhood.
Recipes that tell you to cook one thing for one minute and then add the next thing and cook for two minutes, instructions that suggest you stir constantly, helpful hints on good prep order…I find the impossibility of it all laughable. A simple recipe step like “Sauté the onion and garlic, stirring regularly, for about seven minutes. Meanwhile, chop the basil.” is a nice idea; But, it turns into an unpredictable multi-step process that’s more like this: “Sauté the onion and garlic, stir once for a half second. Meanwhile, put down all your kitchen tools, and wash your hands so that you can go into the other room to find the missing toy that one of your children needs in a most urgent way. Return to the kitchen to find the onion and garlic two seconds away from burning. Remove onion and garlic from the heat in order to salvage them. Chop the basil, while repeatedly denying your children’s multiple, fervent requests for the dinner-ruining crackers that you mistakenly left out on the counter where your kids can see them.”
Most recipes simply don’t include toddler wrangling. But, that’s okay. I add that in myself. I always tack on 30 extra minutes to each recipe I am vetting. Rachael Ray’s cute little 30-minute meals are, in a household with kids, hour long slogs. Of course, they don’t show that on TV.
These days I sometimes make time for a little reality TV on the Food Network - contests like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.” I watch as master chefs from around the country compete with mystery ingredients, time limits, and harsh judges awaiting them after each course.
Even though it’s “reality” TV, none of it reflects the reality of our family’s kitchen in the last four years. I’d like to see those master chefs attempt some of these time limits, harsh judges (Toddlers are pretty good at dishing out the criticisms, too, you know.), and unpredictable elements:
• The infant who decides to paint with her baby food instead of eating it, completely unaware of how many hours you spent shopping the farmers market for local, organic produce, steaming and puréeing it into baby food, freezing it in ice cube trays, then thawing it and mixing it with breast milk that you painstakingly spent hours at work pumping.
• The big sister who spots the processed cheese puffs at the grocery store and won’t take no for an answer.
• The baby who cries unless you hold her which means you have to do everything one-handed or go get the baby carrier.
• The toddler that becomes unhinged if you give her the wrong the bowl, the wrong color spoon, or, God forbid, a cup with a lid.
• The sisters who are pulling each other’s hair, pinching, and screaming while you are trying to keep the vegetables in the wok from burning.
• The dog who wants to go outside and come back inside every two minutes while you are trying to cook and who barks incessantly if she doesn’t get her way.
• The older sister who tells you, “Mommy, Daddy cooks better than you.”
• The little sister who isn’t satisfied with issuing a loud, firm “No!” in response to the food you worked so hard to prepare, but who must also convey her displeasure by thrusting her full plate onto the floor. And the wall.
Well, let me tell you. If there were a reality show like that, I could win it for sure. As I’ve learned in the last four years, I actually can cook a decent meal under duress. I can still achieve my goal of feeding my children wholesome, minimally processed food. And, as it happens, I can do it all with one hand tied behind my back. Or with one baby strapped on to my back if need be.
Maybe I wouldn’t win anything on a TV cooking show; but in a way, I have already won my own little reality show goal of providing wholesome meals to my kids. Here is how I know:
• When I say, “We have to stop at the market to pick up our vegetables.” and my kids exclaim, “Vegetables!” I have won.
• When the little sister has eaten half a cucumber before we get back to the car, I have won.
•When the big sister says, “Yum!” to the soup I have given her and asks for seconds and thirds, I have won.
• When they beg to help make the green juice, I have won.
• When they ask for yet another pint of cherry tomatoes, I have won.
• My neither one of our children will touch their spinach with a ten-foot pole, but when they eat all the kale chips in their lunch, I have won.
Now, if only I can keep them away from the cheese puff aisle in the grocery store.