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How to keep kids busy while you cook

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Sometimes it seems impossible to get dinner on the table with young children at home. This guide will show you how to keep kids busy while you cook dinner in simple and effective ways. 

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I am a huge fan of inviting kids into the kitchen with you. My goal is to raise adventurous and courageous eaters, kids who are happy to try anything, and one way that I help to foster that curiosity and excitement is through involving kids in what happens in the kitchen. As part of my One Meal for All Framework, I firmly believe that inviting kids into the kitchen to cook and bake with you is so important!

But here’s the truth – it’s not always feasible to have your kids help you cook. Some days, it’s just not appropriate. Whether you aren’t feeling well, you are super short on time, or you just need a few minutes to have a mental break, some days you need to have your kids do something else while you cook. 

Below you will find some easy and effortless ways that you can entertain your kids while you cook. 

baby crying in kitchen

How to Keep A Baby Busy While You Cook Dinner

Cooking dinner with a baby can seem daunting. Its hard when your baby just wants your undivided attention. The following ideas will help you how to manage cooking with a baby.

High Chair Investigations – use the high chair as a safe place your baby can be where you can cook, they can see and interact with you, but they aren’t underfoot. You can pull them right into the kitchen with you and they can:

  • Look at children’s books about food
  • eat puffs and other age appropriate parts of the dinner you are preparing
  • investigate kitchen gadgets like wooden spoons, metal measuring cups, and more
  • Smell spices and other ingredients
  • Stack and play with tupperware

A baby sitting in a high chair smiling

How to Entertain Toddlers While You Cook

Cooking with toddlers can be a challenge! They just want to be involved and engaged with you 24/7. Below you will find some really easy and simple ways that you can use to engage with, interact with and keep your toddler busy while you cook.

Practical Life Skills – It might seem like just busy work, but practicing life skills like pouring, mixing, etc can not only be completely enthralling and interesting, but it also keeps them learning! These can be done in a high chair or at the table, whichever is easiest for you to keep an eye on them while you cook.

  • Pouring and mixing dried beans, rice, etc. 
  • Stuff with foil – seriously – wrapping and unwrapping toys and kitchen gadgets in foil can last a lifetime. 
  • Practice using kitchen gadgets like a whisk with a bowl of water, a pair of tongs with blocks, or a scoop/spoon to transfer items from one container to another.

Sensory Bins – Sensory bins are an amazing addition to your toddler’s activities. Place a towel down on the floor and fill a container with dried rice, dried beans, or dried corn. Add in a variety of objects around a theme (like, kitchen stuff, apples, gardening, etc) that the toddler can play with and investigate. Ideally you want objects with different textures, smells. Add in some sort of container, and something to stir, pour. For more ideas on sensory bins and how to make age appropriate ones, check out How to Make Sensory Bins from Happy Hooligans.

Busy Work – Get those motor skills working with these fun activities:

  • Stacking cups
  • Banging on pots and pans
  • Threading pasta onto straws

image of kitchen stove with text overlay reading \"how to keep kids busy so you can cook - ideas for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids

How to Keep Preschoolers Busy While You Cook Dinner

Preschoolers always want to help! But their little imaginations are great during this time, too! Use that imagination to give yourself a few minutes to cook dinner.

Play Kitchen – have your kids cook while you cook! Utilizing a play kitchen and play food is a great way to get your kids imagination working, but also keeps them thinking about food and kitchen things! Kits by Melissa and Doug are great!

Tinker Boxes – Bins with all kinds of things that you can invent with, tinker boxes are great to pull out when you want kids to focus and sit down. Warning, though: you might have trouble pulling the kids away when its time to eat!

Lets Go Luna TV Show on Public Television. I know, I know, its screen time. But sometimes you just need everyone to sit down and be quiet, right? “Lets Go Luna” is an awesome show where cartoon animal kids visit new countries – exploring landmarks, culture, art, music and – of course, food from around the world.

Water Play – Its no secret that kids love to play with water! Fill the sink and let the kids “wash” the dishes, pour water, and make merry while you cook.

small girl reading a book in a chair

How to Entertain Elementary Kids When You Cook

Elementary aged kids are fairly able to entertain themselves while you cook dinner. But just in case you need some ideas on a specific day, here are some easy ways you can keep kids busy and out of the kitchen while you cook.

Practice reading out loud. This is a great time to get that 20 minutes of reading time in. Have your child pick out a “just right” book and they can bring a chair into the kitchen and read to you. 

Craft time! Those small craft kits you can find at craft stores are great to break out while you make dinner. Coloring, glue sticks, stickers – a small project can give you just enough time to get dinner on the table without a breakdown.

Have them play outside. This is our family’s favorite activity! Even on the busiest of nights, sending the kids out to run and play even if only for 20 minutes is great. Not only does it give you some quiet time to cook dinner, but it helps them get out some extra energy.

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