3 Ways To Simplify Cooking Dinner with Kids

My favorite lash fibers are on sale!

4:45-5:30 is the hardest time of the day for my Luke. And that’s usually the time I need to spend prepping or cooking dinner if we don’t have leftovers.

Dinner has gotten the complete shaft since having Luke. I could totally swing it when it was just David, but introducing a second baby into the mix meant that a home cooked meal, even a few times week, wasn’t happening–OR wasn’t happening without great and stressful efforts!


Creamy Chicken & Asparagus Pasta

Luke is about 20 months, and David will be 3 in a few months, and I think a few different factors play into that time slot being tough for Lukie.

The boys get up from their afternoon naps between 3:00-3:30 usually, and I’ll offer them a small, light snack right when they get up. My hope is that it holds them over until dinnertime, but sometimes it doesn’t.

So, by the time 4:45 comes around, and I need to be in the kitchen, Luke is either starting to get hungry, or just needs a little extra attention, and I can’t really give him either.

So more often than not, cooking becomes extremely stressful while trying to occupy Luke and encourage him to play with David, and when Justin comes in the door at 5:00 I’m frazzled and Luke is upset.

I’ve tried Blue Apron and Hello Fresh and LOVED both of them. I love the concept, I love the ease, and if we had a more predictable weeknight schedule, I would be a subscriber. We like the flexibility though of going out to dinner, or meeting friends, and I couldn’t manage scheduling deliveries around Justin’s work travel or our spontaneity.

I also love to cook! It’s enjoyable for me, and I that’s why I’m trying hard to find a system that works for us. Often we’ll have friends over for dinner and Justin will request, assuming it will take stress off of me, that we just keep it simple with hot dogs and chips, but I remind him that making the food is really fun for me, it’s the managing the kids part that make it stressful.


But lately I’ve made a few conscious changes to allow for more consistency with dinnertime, and I thought I’d share them here!

  1. Prep when you can. Morning is the easiest time for my kids, so I can get a good deal done in the kitchen in the morning. So, if 4 cloves of minced garlic is in my recipe for later, you may find me putting garlic in my press at 7:06am. It’s not the smell I desire at that hour, but I know it’s setting me up for success later in the day.
  2. Set out dishes and utensils you need. This may be eye-rollingly simple, but one of the things I noted from the cooking class was that everything was out on the trays and ready to be used in the recipes we were trying. It may not take long to open a drawer and grab a spatula, but having all your tools/pans/bowls out and ready helps me feel like I can be more efficient. I’ll even put a tablespoon of olive oil in a cast iron skillet and place it on the stovetop just so that’s ready to go when it’s cooking time!
  3. Create leftovers, or in other words: make big dinners that you can eat the following night. Justin is a champion of leftovers, and frankly some of his concoctions he makes from what he can find in the fridge is a bit questionable. In fact, just last weekend he cut up leftover chili-lime flank steak, arranged it on a piece of white toast, topped with colby jack cheese, and microwaved it for 30 seconds. He topped it with another piece of toast, and managed to eat every last bite. I applauded his resourcefulness, and turned to an apple and a piece of cheese for my own lunch. I can totally do leftovers, especially if I have one extra thing to add to the meal. Like a fresh veggie or something.

I refer to my Delicious Pinterest board a lot during the week to find easy and flavorful meals, and there may be some ideas on there that help you too!

Do you have a cooking routine or system that works? I’ll take all the suggestions I can get!

Ps Some of my favorite recipes here and here!


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Veronicalynnhill@gmail.com says · 09.30.16

I have a 2 year old and a 3 month old so I totally feel you on this one!! IF they are both asleep at the same time in the afternoon, I do as much as I can then. My crock pot is my BFF and I probably use it 3 or more times a week. If they are both awake and fussy when I need to be in the kitchen, I break out the moby wrap for the little one and the Disney app on my phone for the other one. Doc McStuffins provides me with 23 minutes of fuss free cooking time (as long as no one pushes the “all done” button on mommy’s phone on accident!)

Hannah says · 09.30.16

Not sure if you have an iPhone or not but if you do google guided access! It has made life sooo much less stressful when my toddler is using my phone… no more uhoh every 3 seconds! It’s a setting on iPhones you can turn on so you triple click the home button and it turns on a child setting- you can even make it so their touching the screen does nothing! Best thing ever!!!

Veronica says · 09.30.16

So smart! I will totally be looking into that! Thank you 🙂

Christy says · 10.03.16

I love this idea! Hannah is it the Tocsin app by Zininworks? for .99?

Christy says · 10.03.16

Oops. just realized its free by going to Settings>General>Accessibility>Guided Access on my iphone. Thanks 🙂

Jen P says · 09.30.16

Rotisserie chicken from the supermarket. It’s a great shortcut and healthy option! You can eat it as is, or there are a million different things you can create from it. I buy an extra one and keep it in the fridge. Hello, chicken tacos, salad, casserole, soup, etc!

Anna Lyon says · 09.30.16

My husband built me a learning tower! Google it…best thing ever! You can buy them but they’re pretty expensive considering how easy that it was to make. I use it every night with my two year old, and it has made cooking dinner so much less stressful She’s able to watch me cook and help sometimes too. It creates a great learning opportunity for her while I’m able to provide a healthy meal for my family. I bet your Luke would love this!

JD says · 09.30.16

Yes! The learning tower combined with nap time prep are dinner savers in our household!

Abby says · 09.30.16

Great tips! I like to use my crockpot in the colder months and in the warmer ones- give my husband grill duty!

Courtney says · 09.30.16

I am a busy mom of 3. So to make dinner time a little easier I will make big batches of our favorites when time allows. Then I will freeze the leftovers in the right portion for my family. Some of our favorites are spaghetti and meatballs (freeze the sauce and meatballs and prepare pasta fresh), chili, Italian beef, sloppy joes, and tacos. Basically anything that has some sort of sauce or juice to prevent freezer burn. I hope this helps.

Nadine says · 09.30.16

Crockpot is your friend! Or how about Justin plays with/takes the kids for a walk/outside while you cook dinner?

Lisa Tomlin says · 09.30.16

My favorite go to meal is easy enough to prep in the morning and have it ready to throw in the oven.
sliced red peppers & onions (I usually slice a batch on sunday and store in trig)
boneless chicken breast sliced in thin strips
fajita season packet
olive oil

Mix oil and fajita seasoning together, pour over pepper/onion chicken mixture. I usually make enough to put in two pans and bake in oven at 400 for about 40 45 minutes depending on how thin you slice the chicken. Once out of oven, squeeze lime juice over it. I usually make rice and black bean and this mixture over it. Its so good and perfect reheated the next day.

Kathi says · 09.30.16

Try looking at once a month meals website. You could easily do a 2 week prep in a couple of evenings when the boys are asleep. I didn’t have the site when my 4 boys were little, but I had a book and it was a life saver. You have the flexibility to change your mind. The other tip I have is look into an instapot. There are a ton of recipes on Pinterest.

Andrea says · 09.30.16

I bought my little boy a play kitchen with all of the accessories and put it right in my kitchen with me! When I cooked, he cooked and he LOVED doing it! We were able to spend time together in the kitchen but both kept busy with dinner; I would sometimes give him an assignment of dessert, etc. I went as far as to use empty food boxes, cleaned and taped up for him to use! Fun in the kitchen!! Oh, also making real dough and gave him cookie cutters and a rolling pin! Great fun!! I love your blog by the way, It’s encouraged me to start blogging myself; I’m learning still but we’re all learning something these days aren’t we!!

Megananne5252@yahoo.com says · 09.30.16

I use my crockpot at least once a week. Often one day on the weekend I will make a chicken or a turkey or even a ham and use that for several dishes throughout the week. Also my husband sometimes grills several things for the upcoming week like chicken, pork chops or hamburgers. Hope it helps!

Jena says · 10.13.16

I do the same…I try to double up on a meat that will be featured at least twice, so at least one of the nights, the “big” part of cooking (the meat) is done, and I basically just have to do assembly. This is also helpful for the pickier toddler ages, because we can have “deconstructed” versions of the meal for little ones. (I have 3 boys, 4 and under, so I can testify to the crazy! And, I’m not really sure what we’ve eating in the 7 months since the baby, but we’ve eaten somehow!)

Some examples are pulled pork/chicken sandwiches –>bbq chicken pizza—>bbq chicken rice or salad bowls; roast –> stew; whole chicken/rotisserie–>*anything with chicken*–>chicken broth/chicken noodle soup; ham –> scalloped potatoes –> hawaiian pizza. It also ends up being pretty frugal because you can stretch some ingredients and use ALL the parts.

My new favorite tool is the instant pot – you can use it as a slow cooker but it can also “slow cook” in about 20-60 min (even from FROZEN). It is also very hands off, like a slow cooker, so you can throw it in, set it, and it’s done quickly!

Katie says · 09.30.16

Crock pot meals and breakfast for dinner are my lifesavers! I give my toddlers little jobs to help with dinner. Rinse this, stir that… they can actually help and feel like they’re getting my attention at the same time. Even if they make a mess, I’d rather clean it than have everyone upset. I always meal plan for the week ahead. I look at everyone’s schedule and plan easy meals for days I’m on my own and save the more complex meals for when my husband is around to entertain the kids.

Laurie says · 09.30.16

Crockpot, crockpot, crockpot!! Especially this time of year! My son is in middle school so my dinner challenges are a bit different. For me, it’s his sports schedule that wrecks havoc on our dinners. So if I make a crockpot meal, the majority of it is ready when we get home from games/practices. I also use Pinterest for a lot of new ideas for dinner. Good luck!

Shannon says · 09.30.16

You need an Instant Pot Pressure Cooker. I held off for over a year before I was finally convinced, but I’m telling you that it’s a game changer! I have 3 little ones and am pregnant with my 4th – being able to put stuff in and literally walk away and play with them, etc. is amazing! You wont be sorry 🙂

Lauren says · 09.30.16

This is something that I really struggle with and I only have one little one! I like the idea of prepping in the morning. That’s the time of day that Layla seems most content to play independently, so I need to take advantage of that time!

Fizz and Frosting

Heather says · 09.30.16

My boys are 5 1/2 and 2, so it’s a little easier to keep them occupied. I’ve told the 5 year old it’s his job to babysit his brother while Mama cooks. I also do a lot of crockpot meals that I prep in the morning or during nap time. Crockpot days are my favorite because I can be done fixing dinner by 10 am!

Emily says · 09.30.16

I’ve got a 19 month old right now, so cooking dinner is a challenge. BUT, I’ve found what works for us is cooking for the next night once my LO is in bed. I don’t have time to come home and bake a chicken for dinner (and my LO doesn’t appreciate a 2-hour wait), but after she’s in bed, I can bake the chicken, let it cool, then put in in the fridge for a heat-and-eat meal the next day!

Mary says · 09.30.16

Give him frozen peas to snack on while you’re cooking! It’s nutritious, great for molars coming in, and keeps him occupied. Also, we use a stool and that def keeps our 2 year old happy–we’re going to do the IKEA stool learning tower hack soon and can’t wait. It’ll make it so much safer.

Holly says · 09.30.16

Hi Kate- I have 3 kids and 1 on the way, so with the added lethargy of pregnancy, cooking dinner at dinnertime is tough, especially given that I tend to get progressively tired as the day goes on. I agree with the crockpot suggestions above and there are delicious varieties of meals to make in them. I even make a turkey breast in my bigger one and all you have to do is wash it, season it and let it cook on low for about 10-12 hours and its tender like you basted it in an over without all the work! You can’t beat the ease… try searching allrecipes.com for their top-rated slow cooker recipes. I’ve tried most and they are great. Another idea is finding a time in the morning when you can pre-cook or prep for dinner later… prepare everything for a casserole or lasagna and then just refrigerate it. Bake it and play with your boys when you’re ready to eat… couldn’t be easier. Although everyone has their thoughts about parking their kids in front of the tv or computer, if you only do it for a little while when you are prepping a dinner it isn’t the worst thing in the world. You could make it a part of their routine that it’s Sesame Street time or whatever they like. They could enjoy their little show while you make something, and there are sooo many great recipes that can be made in 30 minutes or less. Honestly, you have to just experiment and see what works for you. It took me many years to figure it all out myself. God bless your family, Kate! 🙂

Candace says · 09.30.16

Agree with the crock pot comments. Skinny taste.com is my fav. It does take some effort and organization though. If you do a good job meal planning on Sunday you can have dinners all week. I like to put all the ingredients in a large freezer bag on Sunday…each day just dump into the crock pot and turn it on (freezing the bag for later in the week and just thawing in fridge overnight for the next days meal). The only question you have to ask yourself is: is this a priority for me? If it is you’ll make it work, and if it isn’t you won’t 🙂

Js says · 09.30.16

Crockpot, yes! Not just all canned soup reciles anymore! Damned delicious has some great slow cooker recipes. Even breakfast! Or risotto. Definitely rotisserie chicken. And it sounds like y’all have a good group of friends, so I suggest a freezer meal swap! You’re hanging out, and you’re being productive and everyone gets a new meal to try for their family! (So, if you have 5 friends, then you get 5 new recipes, etc. You make enough to feed a family of 4 or whatever the case may be. Just make sure you all know what you’re making ahead of time, so you don’t get 5 white chillis).

But it sounds like a good solution to Luke needing your attention is to let him help you cook. Seeiously. He’s big enough to pour ingredients into a mixing bowl, etc. Give him his own spatula and bowl to play with. Bring his high chair right next to you if you can. Then, let him sample the veggies you’re cuttibg, even the garlic or olive oil. He feel so much pride, helping you make dinner and be fully engaged with his dinner. Win. It may take longer, the excitement may wear off, but you’ll be passing on your joy in cooking to your boys!

Caroline says · 09.30.16

My kiddos are 1.5 and 2.5, so I feel ya! A few things that work for us:
1 — just getting in the routine of cooking and making that the expectation for them. Kids thrive on routine as you know, so mine just know that we are making dinner during that 5ish time period. And we always eat dinner together, and they expect that…so are pretty well behaved (maybe 80% of the time…can’t ask for much more than that!)
2 — my kids love to “help”, so I got them little cutting boards. If I’m chopping garlic or herbs, I’ll hand them some of the leftover ones and give them butter spreaders to help me chop. Or have them dump part of a marinade in a bowl, or whatever it might be.
3 — I make a big deal of showing them all the ways the food changes from prep to cooking. So we simply roasted cauliflower the other night, but they touched the big head of cauliflower, noted it was cold, we chopped it up, they ate some raw, then we all shook seasonings on it on a pan. Then they watched it in the oven. This generally makes them super excited to eat stuff too!
4 — You didn’t mention if your kids are pickier eaters or not, but one of mine kind of is…we employ the “touch it, smell it, kiss it, lick it” mantra for her food. She’s usually excited to do all those things, and figures out most of the time she likes it once she licks it 🙂

Good luck!! Once you get it down, dinner time is one of the most enjoyable times I have with my kids (again 80% of the time, ha ha!).

Selma says · 09.30.16

Organisation and planning are key requirements when cooking for a family regardless of whether you have little ones or teenagers. A lot of excellent suggestions have already been mentioned. Weekly or monthly meal planning is excellent as you know exactly what to prepare each night and what grocery items to shop for. Another suggestion is to get Justin involved, possibly on a Sunday night (and when he is not travelling), in helping you prepare meals in advance that can keep and be frozen (soups, casseroles, pasta sauces, curry sauces). I don’t mean this next comment to come off mean spirited, but something for you to consider is have you prioritised things that are not as important over having time to prepare nutritious home cooked meals.

Colleen says · 09.30.16

I recently opened my own sandwich bar and deli. I find prepping ahead is key. Even when it comes to baking. The day before I measure out the dry ingredients and put them in a ziplock bag. It saves a lot of time in the morning. I make soup every day and getting all the veggies chopped the day before or anytime I have a moment saves a lot too. I don’t have a lot of help so I am constantly looking for “shortcuts” to help me.

Angie says · 09.30.16

I’ve done freezer meals before and that was super easy. You can find a bunch of recipes on Pinterest, and I found that the prep was easiest after my son went to bed on a weekend. Then you prepare all the meals, put in freezer bags, and in the freezer. It can take an hour or two but you can usually get 10 meals done in that time. Then, you just thaw what you want in the fridge and cook it when your ready. My favorites are the crock pot meals, where you just dump the whole bag into the crock pot in the morning, and its ready by supper time!

Lindsay says · 09.30.16

I really appreciated your realistic pointers. As much as I would love to have food boxes delivered to my door all of the time, it seems pricey to be getting that on top of the regular grocery bill every week. I love to cook, also, and as moms time management comes with practice. Thanks for the great ideas. I will definitely be checking out your Pinterest board!

Myra says · 09.30.16

My kids are 3 1/2 and 10 and that time of day has always been hard for us. They are tired from school & daycare and we are tired from work! I spent a Saturday with friends preparing very easy freezer crock-pot meals. We don’t use them every night but they have been a lifesaver when we do. They are big enough to use for lunch the next day or to reheat for dinner again. It feels nice to know on days/weeks I can’t get it together or we are really busy that I have a backup.

Kristi says · 09.30.16

I agree with all the freezer meal suggestions. It takes a bit of organization but even if have 3 hours on a weekend when the kids are napping or you’re husband can watch them, make some meals to freeze. Chili, meatballs, lasagna, taco meat, chicken casseroles all freeze great and are easy to heat up and add a side dish. Even if you use 2 freezer meals a week, it takes a mental load off. Lifeasmom.com has menus, recipes and tons of ideas I’ve been using for years! If you really want to get serious, you invite a friend over and you both end up with lots of meals and it goes by faster with more hands. Good luck!

Dawn says · 09.30.16

I have 2 tips. First, invest in a Food Saver. It removes all the air and freezes your food, with no freezer burn. I buy, and cook, meat & fish in bulk. Then I freeze in portion sizes for one meal. I also do this with leftovers. I’ll make a large lasagna, we will eat 1/3 & then I will freeze the 2/3 in separate packages. It’s so easy to just pull out of the freezer & reheat.

The second thing I do is on Sunday I will grill a bunch of chicken and another meat or fish. I usually throw 6-8 potatoes on the grill also. (My son runs cross-country, 60 miles a week, and is always in need of carbs.) I can make at least 3 different meals out of that and 1 night of leftovers. You can always freeze whatever you end up not eating!

Whitney says · 09.30.16

I have a 6 month old and a 3 year old and completely agree with dinner time being tricky. Love your tips because I also really enjoy cooking for my family. I try to cut veggies, prep dinner items during afternoon nap time. I love to make big meals and eat leftovers and I also have had great success with cooking one large batch of meat (grilled chicken breasts, seasoned taco meat, crock pot roast, etc) and then planning 3-4 different meals from that batch of meat. It really simplifies dinner time when the meat is done and I just have to whip up the sides to the meat. I’m hoping to use my crockpot more now that it’s getting cooler to make dinner time easier, too.

Ashley B. says · 09.30.16

Kate, I’m going to have to try that Chili-Lime Flank Steak Salad. Looks delish! Your old rosemary bread post has been a go to recipe for our family ever since you posted it way back! Thank you!!

Cassie Kulp says · 09.30.16

Love these tips! I have a 2.5 year old and a 14 month old and it is HARD during that time! I also love cooking and want to be able to enjoy it! I almost always prep and start during nap time- I love recipes that I can just finish in the oven or need to simmer for an hour or two! I do use my crock pot, but find that it does get old if I use it more then once a week for an actual meal (I use it to make shredded chicken or beef more often though!). I also try to meal plan to save time and money. My meal plan for the week has recipes we love on the bottom so I don’t spend a ton of time figuring out what to have, I just pull a few from the list. I also have two shopping lists I keep on the fridge- one for Costco and one from Safeway/Trader Joe’s. when we need something I can just check it off, and when I meal plan I only have to write down needed ingredients. This has worked way better for our family then Hello Fresh and similar things have. Also- I almost always save tv time for my 2.5 year old until then, and my 14 month old (who is into everythinggggg) get to hang out and watch/ taste test in his highchair!

Ashlye says · 09.30.16

I have a timer set for 2:30 every afternoon. This gives me an hour before I need to leave to pick my kids up from school. I prep and cook as much as I can during this hour. I set the table, clean up as I go (load the dishwasher), etc. (You could prep your meal during naptime or the night before after your boys go to bed). I get home with my kids at 4:10 and this gives me just enough time to finish up a sauce, whip potatoes, etc., and have dinner on the table when my husband gets home between 4:30-5pm. We try to communicate whether we want to eat out that night or not and usually only eat out on the weekends due to the kid’s evening activities (we try to plan ahead). I utilize the automatic cook on/off time function on my oven and will set it to 170- 200 degrees to keep the food warm or give food a quick zap in the microwave when I walk in the door with the kids. After many years of experimenting with meal times, we’ve found 4:30 to be the ideal time to eat – even if my husband isn’t home yet. We start at 4:30 no matter what. Everyone is happier and this gives my kids a chance to eat a real meal before we rush off for evening activities. (Get in the routine of eating early now, because soccer and band practice are coming!!! ?). I have a meal plan that is very predictable, and my husband refuses to eat leftovers, so I’m making something new each night. I use any leftovers for lunches.
Monday – MEATLESS (soups, quiche, baked potatoes, veggies, salads, beans & cornbread)
Tuesday – TACOS (ground beef, fish, chicken fajitas + rice and refried beans)
Wednesday – CHICKEN (crockpot chicken legs or roasted chicken +mashed potatoes, veggie)
Thursday – SALMON / FISH (bbq shrimp, balsamic salmon, tilapia parmesan + rice, veggie)
Friday – PASTA (spaghetti & meatballs, baked penne, ravioli, lasagna + salad, garlic bread)
Saturday – GRILL / CROCKPOT (burgers/dogs, crockpot bbq pork, crockpot pot roast, or crockpot chili + potato salad, baked beans (if we grill) roast: potatoes & carrots, chili: fritos, white rice, lettuce, tomato, olives, pecans, cheese)
Sunday – PIZZA (homemade or delivery) This gives me an easy entree to pack in the kid’s lunch boxes Monday!
I’ve found this little system to really take the pressure off. I no longer have to worry about what I’m going to cook for dinner. It’s predictable and kids like (and need) predictability. I don’t spend hours meal planning a different dish every week. I have my 2 or 3 standards and I rotate those as needed. My family doesn’t mind having the same kind of tacos every week. Seasonally, I will change my plan to accommodate the weather and our tastes.
Ex: Summer – main dish chicken salad instead of crockpot chicken legs
Fall & Winter – crockpot chili, heartier soups, pot roasts, hearty casseroles.
This makes grocery shopping much easier and I find I have more time for fun things like laundry and cleaning house??! I shop Monday or Tuesday for groceries and replenish perishables on Thursday or Friday (depending on when we are out of milk). I do 95% of my shopping at Trader Joe’s with my husband picking up a handful of things from his Army Post’s Commissary. I buy 4 packages of ground beef, a big bag of frozen salmon fillets, 4 bags of frozen green beans, 4 bags of frozen peas, a 5# bag of rice, 5# bag of potatoes, 4 boxes of pasta,and bread, milk, cheese, eggs, any condiments, spice packets (taco seasoning) I might need to complete my meals. The meats, veggies and extra bread go in the freezer until I need them (I have a spare deep freeze in my garage). This has saved me. I see other women struggling to decide what to make for dinner. I also make big bags of pbj’s and cheese sandwiches and freeze them on Sunday or Monday afternoons to make lunch prep easier. 3 sandwiches go in the fridge, the rest in a freezer bag and into the freezer for later (this might be helpful for you for preschool, mother’s day out, etc.). When you have kids at home, it is so much better for everyone to make it as easy as on the parent preparing meals you can when the children are young. We tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to feed our children healthy food, yet meal prep and dinner time are the most stressful times of the day for most families. It truly is the witching hour!!! My children are 10 and 8 and I am just now settling into a routine that I feel both comfortable and confident with. The most important thing though is to not feel ANY GUILT WHATSOEVER if you need to skip cooking one day and eat out, turn the television on to occupy or set them up with the ipad, or you break out that bag of chicken nuggets for the third time in a week. When they are a little older, you’ll be able to let them loose in the backyard to run around until dinner is ready. A nice, predictably gentle dog will sweeten that deal. Life will throw you curve balls and stress when you least expect it. Roll with the punches, just keep swimming, and you’ll be fine?

Ashlye says · 09.30.16

One more thing… Cooking Classy, Damn Delicious, AllRecipes, Ina Garten, and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything are all really great resources for relatively easy meals. Alton Brown has a new “everyday” cookbook out, but I haven’t tried any of his recipes yet. No affiliation with any of these blogs / websites. They are just helpful for me. ???

Katherine says · 09.30.16

I don’t really love to cook so when my kids were small I would come up with almost any excuse for takeout – lol. Costco became my friend – lots of frozen dinners that could be prepared quickly and easily, i.e. spinach ravioli, tortellini, meatballs, chicken, etc. And then add a bagged salad. I didn’t even look at recipes with tons of ingredients, and if there was too much prep, forget it!
Best suggestion is to keep it simple. And no one’s gonna die if you order pizza -lol!

Kristin says · 09.30.16

I struggle figuring out meals for my family (or just for me!) with only having one child and I don’t look nearly as good as you while trying to figure it out haha. I definitely try to prep weekly to simplify things but I’m pretty hopeless in the kitchen so get easily frustrated and overwhelmed. That being said, I’m determined to figure it out. The freezer will definitely be my friend, as well as the crock pot! Pinterest here I come.

Angie says · 09.30.16

This is along the same lines as making a double batch, but if I am already cooking something on the stovetop – say, chicken breast, ground turkey or veggies, I will sauté up double the amount that I need and save them a different recipe for the next night or two. So, extra chicken for tacos, extra turkey for meat sauce and pasta, extra veggies for a side, ect. Chopping and sautéing takes a while so if I’m going to put the time in anyway, why not double up so I don’t have to do it the next night? Saves a step. Not a revolutionary idea by any means – but even 10 less minutes of cooking with a 2 and 4 year old on each leg helps preserve a little sanity during agreeably the hardest time of day with small children.

Also, if there are nights my husband won’t be home til later and a full family sit-down meal isn’t going to happen anyway, I will slice up avocados, cheese, fruit, ect. – ie, something simple and nutritious for the kids that requires no firing up of any kitchen appliance, and let them eat early. Then after they’re in bed, my husband and I will eat around 8 – actual adult food that maybe the kids wouldn’t enjoy anyway. A good way to build in a date night when you aren’t going anywhere!

Meagan says · 09.30.16

I agree with the crockpot! I would also suggest maybe making a big batch of chicken on the weekend that you can use for salads, wraps, pasta etc! I’m also a fan of using short cuts like the garlic in a jar. Mainly because I hate peeling garlic. I know some mama’s shame the tv as a baby sitter but I reserve it for that time slot. I allow my son to watch an episode or two just during that time and it keeps us all happy. Sometimes it allows me to catch up with a friend while I cook too! Bonus!

Natalie W. says · 09.30.16

A good friend of mine is a Pampered Chef consultant and she regularly hosts freezer meal workshops! They are an absolute life saver and really fun! We usually get a group of 3 or 4 friends together and spend 2 or 3 hours making 6 or 7 meals that are so simple to take out and heat up. My boys are 9 and 3 so you would think dinner time would be easier at this point. It’s not! Haha! It sounds like you are doing the best you can so don’t stress about feeding kids a grilled cheese/soup or scrambled eggs/toast on nights where it is just falling apart! ?

Emily R says · 09.30.16

Meal Prep Every Sunday while my son is napping plus I will also have my crock pot going with Soup so we can reheat it during the week (makes great left overs) this is my trick. I start off by making a menu for the week, then make my grocery list on the back of the menu. When I get home from the grocery store, I will post my menu on the fridge for the week. This way I know what I will need to Meal prep on Sunday and it will keep me on track for during the week. Also cut up extra Fruit and Veggies and leave them in the fridge ready to grab!

Hope this helps =0)

GWENN WESTON says · 09.30.16

You should try MyFreezeasy.Com. It’s not a subscription service like Blue Apron. You get access to a monthly freezer meal set up. 5-10 meals, you can customize. You prep it all at once and throw in the freezer so you can pull it out later and eat it without much more prep than throwing it in the oven or putting it in the crockpot. I have 2 older kids but as a teacher, this is a life saver!

Cicily says · 09.30.16

Kind of a long the lines of making leftovers….I freeze what we don’t eat. I’ve got cafe Rio pork in the freezer, and some tortilla soup. Both are heat and serve. I have been known to even make a ton of rice, and freeze what we don’t use with dinner. I buy the hints spaghetti sauce and add garlic, onion and crumbled sausage, the rest goes in the freezer. It has been a life saver in busy nights, or when I didn’t make it to the store.

Sarah Beth Allen says · 09.30.16

I’m a single 23 year-old, so I just make one meal and eat it throughout the week. That makes grad school a little more manageable. But I listen to Jamie Ivey’s Happy Hour podcast and she always mentions PrepDish and says it’s super helpful!

Kim says · 09.30.16

I feel like my kitchen is chaos and I don’t even have kids haha I can’t imagine! Great Tips!


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Kimberly says · 09.30.16

Give him frozen peas to snack on while you’re cooking! It’s nutritious, great for molars coming in, and keeps him occupied. Also, we use a stool and that def keeps our 2 year old happy–we’re going to do the IKEA stool learning tower hack soon and can’t wait. It’ll make it so much safer.

Sarah says · 09.30.16

I totally understand the couple hours before dinner being crazy. I call it the witching hour for my kids. From about 4pm until dinner they act nuts. Even if they get a snack. I also try to prep earlier in the day, mostly when I know the meal is extra complicated. The only other thing I would suggest is making a grocery list for the weeks dinners on Sunday, and going shopping Monday morning for the entire week. I like to shop early in the morning when the store is nearly empty. Even if you think you might eat out a couple times during the week, at least having three meals on hand would be helpful.

Lori L. says · 09.30.16

I completely hear you! I do a freezer/slow cooker meal exchange every 6 weeks with 7 close friends from church where we cook 7 meals of one dish (at your own leisure at home – I do it in the evening when the kids are in bed) and then bring it to the swap and you leave with 7 different meals for your freezer! It has saved me so many times! And I love the variety of food!

Bailey says · 09.30.16

I have a 4 yr old and a 1 yr old and my toddler is really needy at dinner prep time too. Not wanting to spoil her dinner I will usually give her the fruit or vegetables that I’m serving with dinner so that when we sit down to eat she can focus on the main course (even if she decides she doesn’t want much) and, if nothing else, we got in her serving of fruit/vegetables. This is especially helpful when my husband is running later than usual. I’m big on meal planning. I usually plan a month of meals but it’s easy to do one week or two weeks at a time. Knowing what I’m going to make ahead of time is a big stress reliever for me and if my taste changes and I’m not in the mood for what was originally planned I can usually whip up something else by trading out some of the ingredients. Every Friday is make-your-own pizza night in our house. I make the dough during nap time and it’s ready to go whenever we are. My 4year old LOVES working the dough and topping her own pizza

Brady says · 09.30.16

Our crockpot is a life saver! Also, something that saves us SO much time is cooking our hamburger right after we buy it and portioning it into 1-1 1/2 pound portions and THEN freezing it. That way, if a recipe calls for it, we just defrost it for a minute in the microwave and add it to whatever we’re cooking. Makes things like spaghetti, shepherds pie, chili, etc, super fast and easy. Same thing with grilling a bunch of chicken at once.

Janelle says · 09.30.16

I know a lot of people have suggested using a crockpot. What I love to do is to use the crockpot to cook a bunch of meat (chicken breasts, roast, pork, etc.) that I can shred and store in the fridge or freezer. I also love to cook up a larger batch of brown rice, pasta, etc. one night making dinner to have extras in the fridge. Then all you have to do on a busy night is grab some cooked meat and rice from the fridge, throw in some veggies, sauce, etc. to make a meal. This still allows for a lot of creativity but can save on time.

Emma Prentiss says · 09.30.16

I have a 7month old and even with one I find it hard to get into the kitchen in the evening to get dinner going before my husband comes home. I searched Pinterest for ‘1 pot meals’ and my GO-to lately has been a chicken bake. I can prep and season the veggies in the AM, defrost the chicken in the fridge all day and when it’s go-time I just chuck it all in the pot and pop it in the oven. Simple clean up (especially if you’re a fan of tin foil). I like to vary the veggies based on what’s available in stores and switch up the seasoning. It’s not much but it’s 1 dish I can call a win! Xx

Alysia says · 09.30.16

I have a 7 month old too! A one pot meal sounds awesome! Fewer dishes 😉 I will have to look into that.

Mormormedstiletter says · 09.30.16

Cooking with or alongside children will for ever be a hot issue…
I always used to do a little appetizers around 4, to tale away the worst hunger and everything went smoother they….

Jessica says · 09.30.16

The three steps seem simple, but they help tremendously. While it may feel silly to put out utensils, serving bowls, or ingredients early in the day, it totally helps! I do this a lot so I don’t forget a step, which is really easy to do with kids under foot.

Like other commenters, my slow cooker(s) are my friends. I do as much as possible with them; especially meat – chicken breasts, pork loin, or flank steak all work well in the slow cooker. They can be shredded and use in so many different dishes depending on how you season them. Taco chicken – one packet of taco seasoning and a cup of your favorite salsa = tacos, nachos, quesadillas (in the oven), enchiladas, etc.

I do whatever I can to NOT standing over the stove watching a pan for too long. Kids don’t like that.

As your boys get older, they’ll be able to “help” you more in the kitchen and you can occupy them that way. My 3 year old, Nathaniel, loves to stand with me as I chop onions, green peppers, really anything. I put some close to him so he can snag a few too.

Katie @ Live Half Full says · 09.30.16

It took me a LONG time to figure out a system when I went back to work after having my son. We get home around 6:00 and I put him immediately into his highchair and feed him either leftovers from the day before or something from the freezer (YAY TRADER JOE’S). Then when he’s eating I can unpack/pack my work bag, workout bag, lunches and daycare stuff for the next day and make dinner for my husband and I. Then we eat after bedtime. It’s been working well!

Here are a few posts I wrote I think might help.
My meal planning formula, this helps a TON! http://www.livehalffullblog.com/2016/01/13/my-meal-planning-formula-2/
My 20 favorite go-to weeknight dinners

Good luck!

Alysia says · 09.30.16

Hi Kate,

I hear you on the dinner time craziness. I have a 7 month old and it’s really hard to get him fed (solids & nursing) and get his bath/bedtime done and get dinner on the table for my husband and I at the same time. I haven’t read all of the comments so someone may have mentioned this. What has been working VERY well for us so far is to cook big batches on the weekend. I try to do little to no cooking during the week. Instead, we do all of our cooking on the weekend when my husband is around to help (with the baby or the cooking). We make big batches that we can microwave during the week and have along with a salad (that’s already been made by the grocery store). We also utelize the crockpot and freezer meals. I love only having to worry about what we are going to microwave during the week. It has been a huge relief for me and I still get to cook 🙂 I hope that helps!

Elisabeth says · 09.30.16

I have 2 school-aged picky eaters and my husband and I both work and often only one of us is home before dinner. My boys also always ask to watch TV while we’re making dinner – and then it turns into a MAJOR battle to get them to turn it off and come eat, even if we’ve agreed on only 1 show! When they’re hangry – watch out!

I’m finding freezer to crockpot meals a HUGE lifesaver!! I prepped 7 healthy dinner mains in an hour and a half this week and it takes seconds to get it going in the morning. Dinner is cooked when we get home, and we usually just add some grain and veggies. I put out raw veggies that were prepped earlier so the boys can grab some as we set the table and that curbs all battles :).

If dinner is cooked when we get home – they don’t even get to ask to watch a show!

Amelia says · 09.30.16

We love crockpot meals! We also grill or bake our meats on Sunday! So all we have to do is make our veggies or whatever side we want that night! Makes things a little less hectic during the week!

Kathleen W. says · 09.30.16

The crockpot is a huge help and making extra and freezing for quick meals. I love the recipes on http://www.iowagirleats.com. She is a mom to a 2 year old with another on the way and she has fabulous recipes. I also like recipes from Laura Fuentes of http://www.momables.com. Prepping veggies, etc. and making a meal plan that includes a leftover night (or 2 ) is very helpful. I try to do that on Sunday to make my week a little less crazy.

Alicia @ Turquoise Grace says · 09.30.16

I have 3 boys! Pretty much the only cooking I do these days is in the crockpot, which I either prep during the morning or naptime, depending on what I’m able to accomplish when or which recipe I’m using!

Michelle says · 09.30.16

I have to ask where did you get those measuring spoons? Are just too cute!

Kristine says · 09.30.16

Crockpot!! I use mine at least 2 times a week, and like you mentioned..make large meals in anticipation of leftovers. I also get together with friends occasionally and we each bring ingredients to make a freezer meal. So we each end up with a few different freezer meals to take home.

sarah Chavis says · 09.30.16

I know exactly what you mean when it comes to preparing food when you have toddlers! Prepare work definitely makes things easier. I was able to cook more and prepare less when my daughter was a baby. Then when she became mobile it became a lot tricker.

I shared my blog today a really easy lunch idea. If you have leftover rice and vegetables from the night before OR if you just buy frozen rice and vegetables. It’s very versatile.

And you can make it a side dish if you want as well to a meal.

I didn’t mean to advertise my blog on your site, I just thought I could give you another recipe that is quick and good.

BTW: You rock the bangs!

Rebecca says · 09.30.16

If the kids are getting really grumpy around dinner time I will throw out a plate of fresh, cut up veggies for them to snack on. If they are actually hungry they will eat them (and i don’t care if they fill up on veggies before dinner) and if they aren’t then they will go find something else to do most of the time! I know some mom’s just buy a veggie tray at the grocery store each week to make it easy.

Kate says · 10.01.16

I love this idea!!

Kim says · 09.30.16

I have three boys (ages 9, 5, and 14 months) and a husband who is never home before 7:00. The boys are starving between 5-5:30 each night, especially the baby. This is what works for us. I feed the boys leftovers from the night before between 5-5:30. Then once they are full and happy, I prepare dinner for my husband and I making sure to have enough leftovers for the next night and maybe even a lunch for one of us. I have found this keeps the boys happy and allows my husband and I to eat together without grumpy children. When we are eating we usually have the boys come sit with us to talk about their day and what not, and usually my older two are already ready for another snack at that time. It’s a win-win! They get to eat when they’re starving, I have time to feed the baby, and we still all come together for family time at the table!! Of course I don’t cook every night, but on the nights I do this works the best for us! Good luck!!

Jessica says · 09.30.16

I have a 3 year old, 2 year old, and a 1 week old. My boys are usually up from naps/quiet time around 3:30-4:00. I let them watch some tv (for the first time that day) after snacks around 4:30. That enables me to prep and have dinner ready to throw in the oven around 5-5:30. I meal plan on Sunday’s so I know exactly what I’m eating each day and what goes into prepping each day.

Victoria says · 09.30.16

I’m not sure what your dinner time may be, but could you possibly alter it to accommodate Luke and David’s schedule a little better? I get off work at 4:30 and after I’ve picked up my 9 year old and 7 month old, it’s about 5:00 by the time we get home. My 9 year old is usually fine until dinner, if not she has a quick snack when we get home. My 7 month old, on the other hand, usually gets a sippy cup right away and then is perfectly content entertaining herself with toys after that. So between her drinking her sippy cup and then being able to self entertain, I can always count on a for sure an hour or hour and a half time slot to quickly pick things up around the house and prep for dinner.
Maybe you could give Luke a later snack instead of right after nap and move your dinner a little later than normal? Or do his snack at usual time and then make dinner a little earlier? Just a thought!

Marisa says · 10.01.16

This was the first thing that popped in my head, and seems so obvious to me now that my kids are older (12 and 9). When they were little, I was very strict with our routines because it seemed to make everything smoother…except when it didn’t, and then it just made me crazy and stressed! Over time, I have learned that flexibility is everything. If Luke needs attention from 4:45-5:30, start dinner prep at 5:30. Or let Justin take over with Luke when he gets home and prep then. Play with it, and you’ll figure out the right balance.

Christy says · 09.30.16

I have 4 little ones (ages 2, 3, 6, 7). I always make sure to have a supply of fruits and/ or vegetables for the kids to snack on while I am preparing supper. This helps ALOT! Don’t worry too much if they fill up on it. It’s fruits and vegetables!!

Amber says · 10.01.16

I feel like you were writing about my kids and my struggles. These are great suggestions. I love being in the kitchen but hate the stress of cooking with little ones when they are having a tough time. I have turned to making large batches of things like spaghetti sauce and pulled pork and then freezing portions for one meal for our family for a later date. We prefer this to eating a big batch of chili three times in one week.

Deb Perry says · 10.01.16

My best friend that I use at least 3-4 times a week is my George Foreman indoor grill. From grilled ham-n-cheese, chicken quesadillas, bacon that never burns , chicken breasts, brats, burgers that only take about 5 minutes. After I am done I put it in the sink and hose it down on the grill side even though you are not suppose to. I have had it for 3 years and no issues on the way I clean it.

Sydni says · 10.02.16

My husband is the king of leftovers. He’s just as resourceful as Justin, it sounds like. When I was away for 6 weeks this summer, he only bought groceries TWICE. All he did was use up what we had in the freezer, fridge, and pantry all that time. I was so impressed! It really helps us save money 🙂

Katherine says · 10.02.16

We love leftovers here too! But recently I’ve found that using a slow cooker for certain things is just amazing. I use the Americas Test Kitchen recipe books (love the healthy one) because I know the recipes will never be bland and blah. Doing a little prep and popping it into the cooker in the morning is just so much easier than trying to cook when I’m tired and hungry…

Also, I highly recommend the cuisinart 6.5qt programmable cooker – it’s lead-free, beautiful, works well, and if you have to run out or are late getting home, it just switches over to warm for several hours 🙂

Abby says · 10.02.16

Remember to chop the entire onion or grate all the cheese is very helpful. I prep what I can during nap time. I would encourage you to use your slow cooker! Then you don’t have to be in the kitchen much while Luke is a bit fussy. Have you tried any of Pioneer Woman’s 16 minute meals?

Caty says · 10.03.16

Since having my daughter, planning ahead for meals is key. My favorite tip is to cook a whole 3 lb bag of chicken breasts in my crockpot on low all at once. It saves a ton of time when it comes time to cook dinner and I can get 3-4 meals out of one bag of chicken. I also will cook 2-3 lbs of ground beef at once too and use it for a few meals also.

Angela says · 10.03.16

I’ve been using the Fresh20 meal planning service for about two years now. You purchase 20 fresh ingredients, do some prep on Sunday, and then mix and match them into different meals all week long. For example, you might roast a chicken on Monday and serve with potatoes and green beans, save half and incorporate it into a salad on Wednesday night. By Friday, there’s very little prep left to be done. Some side benefits are that it makes grocery trips more efficient, and there’s less waste because there’s a plan for all the ingredients. They also do a good job using seasonal ingredients so it keeps cost down.

This plan is simple enough that I was able to begin making fresh homemade meals again less than one week postpartum after delivering my baby last month.

I also second the crock pot freezer meal recommendations that many of your readers mentioned-awesome for weekends and fall/winter stews, roasts, and tougher grains like barley

Janna says · 10.03.16

I struggle with wasting too much cooking each night. I work out of the home so I don’t get that many hours on the weekdays with my 14 month old. I am a big believer in meal planning, and I try to theme our food so I can use common ingredients (Mexican week, Greek). One key for me is that I don’t plan for every night, I build in 1-2 days each week that are flexible so we can eat out, eat leftovers. If we eat in those nights we eat things that we typically keep on hand like soups, sandwiches, veggie burgers and simple salads. We get Plated (meal service) delivered mid week and I typically make those meals on Thursday and Friday nights, when our supplies are running low and my desire to order takeout is high.

Nicole says · 10.03.16

Try an Instant Pot! I have always loved my crock pot but using it still meant prepping first thing in the morning to allow the food the whole day to cook (and that was not always feasible for me). However, with the Instant Pot (an electric pressure cooker without all the scariness of the ones we remember from our childhoods), you can cook a full meal in less than an hour. Because it is cooked with pressure, whatever you cook comes out tender, never over-done, and you can cook almost anything in it. I cooked a TWO POUND meatloaf in it in less than 40 minutes!

Lindsay says · 10.04.16

I agree with a lot of your tips – especially prepping whenever you can! I work from home full time and my son goes to daycare, so if I have a five minute break in my day, I prep something for dinner! And if we have a lot of leftovers, it goes into the freezer so that it can come out as a full meal another day…

I am also all about the short cuts – especially jarred garlic. I peeled and chopped garlic for YEARS, then found the organic minced kind at my grocery store or Trader Joes version and they are both awesome. Taste just as good and a serious time saver, plus less smelly fingers haha…I’ll also do frozen veg when I can if it helps with washing, chopping, etc. and will work for the meal – like a sweet potato turkey chili – I get the sweet potato cubes from the freezer section at Target. So easy and just as good and healthy!

Tiffany says · 10.04.16

I have five little ones ages 8-1, I have had to learn to use my time wisley!? So I complete and prepare my meals during nap time. I sometimes go ahead and cook it then as well, but if it’s something I can just put together then throw in the oven in time to eat then I do. But prepping or completing as much as posssible at that time really does help! Also so I’m not in the kitchen all night cleaning up, we use paper plates during weeknights, it can get a little expensive, but it helps my sanity?

Stacy says · 10.04.16

This is the worst time at my house too. I have three kiddos…5, 4 and 2. It has been the most difficult time of day for 5.5 years ??. I, like you, try to do as much prep as I can early in the day. I often even have dinner cooked by the time the kids get up from their naps around 3:30. Yes, that means reheating, but it makes my life easier. I also try to cook big enough dinners that there are leftovers or freezer meals. I don’t love to cook, but I do it because it is what is best for my family. Eating out at that time of day isn’t so great either. I also try to use the crockpot as much as possible. I try to batch meats if possible when my husband is home or during naptimes. I do breasts in the crockpot and shred in the kitchen aide and freeze in 2 cup portions. I brown ground turkey and beef and freeze in lb portions. I batch cook spaghetti sauce and freeze in 2 cup portions.

Nicole says · 10.05.16

Hey Kate,

Maybe you’ve already discovered it but http://www.budgetbytes.com has some great simple recipes that are full of flavour. She tends to use simple ingredients you probably already have and tries to get you the best bang for your buck.

Easy oven fajitas, and the one pot pastas are quick and easy, and her chill mac is great for leftovers 🙂

Sara says · 10.17.16

I have one almost 3 year old but my husband and I both work shift work. He works midnights and I work a mix of 10 hour evenings and days. So our crockpot is our saviour. A lot of things I would normally cook in the oven I have found ways to do in our crock pot. My husband might have to make a side quickly but otherwise the hard part is usually done!

Jessica says · 10.25.16

I’m in the same boat- working from home with 2 kids, 21 month and 4 years old! I have found, like you said, mornings are the best! I make a crockpot meal several times a week because it’s a lot of food that can be lunches and dinners off and on throughout the week. I find that while my kids are eating breakfast or lunch, I can throw together a quick crockpot meal and then focus on them during witching hour! It’s also nice because everything stays warm so my kids can eat dinner earlier and my husband and I can eat a little later without feeling like we are eating reheated food. Pinterest is the best for crockpot-everything-recipes!

Gold Leaf Gourmet says · 11.30.16

An absolute life saver is a service we use called Gold Leaf Gourmet. You can subscribe and they send you DIY dessert kits. Easy to do, great fun to make them with the kids, and the portions are small so no one’s filling up on sweets. You can create beautiful high-end yet simple desserts in the comfort of your home. These quality ingredients are not available in stores and provide a wonderful culinary experience that you can proudly showcase at your next dinner party or event. Check them out: http://www.goldleafgourmet.com/

Emma says · 01.06.17

You need to try an instant pot….an electric pressure cooker! life changing. easy. fun. delicious. start to finish meals quick that usually take all day in a crock pot, stove top, or oven. i find that any kind of meat in a crock pot sometimes has the same taste…”crock meat”. no such thing in an instant pot…check it out!