7 screen-free ways to entertain your kids while you make dinner

Somehow that food has to get on the table—and the less whining the better!

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My son is four, which means my wife and I have prepared at least a few thousand meals for him. Why, then, does he whine, beg and cry for me to play with him every night while I’m trying to get dinner on the table? I imagine one day this torture will end—please tell me it will!—but until then, I need some solid strategies for keeping him entertained during dinner prep. I posted a plea on a couple of Facebook parenting groups and here’s what came back.

1. Get them to help you cook

This was the most common suggestion, and I was hopeful while reading one parent’s claim that “every time we involve her in cooking, she is magically fascinated, well behaved and proud.” Another parent recommended that using this tactic with picky eaters (a.k.a. every child) seems to make them more likely to try new foods. You can buy a “learning tower” (a stool-like structure that safely brings them up to the countertop) or just pull up a chair like I did.

I found that this can work beautifully—or not at all. My son was great at sprinkling toppings on a pizza. And the other day, he diligently stirred a frozen brick of soup in a pot on low heat for 20 minutes while I worked on a salad. But other times, he gets frustrated that he can’t do more. Trust me, a battle of wills is the last thing you want when there are knives and spices around.

Cooking with a small child involves a lot of deep breathing and silent cringing as mayhem ensues on the kitchen counter. But in what were some of my best parenting moments to date, I let him do more than he really can—and fail, drop and spill stuff all over. He is learning, after all, and I’m sure that one day the pay-off will come where he can cook dinner for me.

2. Use them as prep staff

If the above fails, here’s a brilliant idea that someone offered: “Give him food-prep tasks he would like that don’t need to relate to today’s meal. Have him cut a banana into slices for the freezer—five slices in each Ziploc—so you have some smoothie prep done. Or cook spaghetti and have him cut it up with kid scissors and put it into Ziploc bags to freeze for later.”

If only I was organized enough to take advantage of this. But maybe you are!

3. Trick them into thinking that they’re cooking

One parent gives their child small bowls of flour, salt and water and a bigger bowl to mix them all around in with a whisk and spoon. “It’s not the cleanest solution, but I find it buys a lot of time,” she reports. (I’ve had similar success with the salad spinner, some chopped-up broccoli and water.)

Another parent said, “We let the kids bake their own totally wacky inventions,” which reminds me of the time I gave my son a ketchup bottle and a glass of water and told him to “do science.” Did you know that a squirt of ketchup retains its shape in water rather than dissolves right away? We learned that—and I cooked dinner!

4. Role-play

A little girl in the kitchen rolling dough 8 tips for cooking with kidsThe kid wants to play, right? Turn cooking into play. One mom said her husband and daughter pretend to run a restaurant, including taking orders (from stuffies, I’m guessing) and dealing with special requests. The kid gets to use Curious Chef nylon knives, and both of them wear chef hats, with her daughter’s name embroidered on hers. “They’ve been doing it for years,” she says, “and they have their chef names that they still use every time, which helps her quickly get into role-play mode.”

5. Give them a vegetable to chew on

Ridiculous suggestion, right? But more than one person shared this idea, adding that it’s a snack that can be thought of as “part of dinner.” (The part they usually don’t eat, I would add.) I am happy to report—ecstatic beyond belief to report, in fact—that this works, at least sometimes.

A handful of times now, I’ve peeled a big carrot and passed it to him. Five or ten minutes of silence and chomping ensue, followed inexplicably by him playing on his own. Maybe he was just hangry? I don’t know, but I don’t care. I just give him the vegetable.

6. Distract them

One parent said they set up Play-Doh on the table nearby while they cook, while another suggested Kinetic Sand. Someone said their kid loves the colouring rolls from Ikea— 32 feet of colouring fun!

Books on tape have helped some, and I can confirm that audio stories seem to occupy the part of my son’s brain that would otherwise be whining. (A big winner for us has been the dozens of Robert Munsch stories read by the author that are available for free on his website.)

To be safe, I’d suggest doing all of the above at once.

7. Razzle and dazzle them

Maybe, just maybe, you can actually have one of those beautiful moments that you’ll talk about years later—all while you’re prepping dinner.

“Yesterday, we had a kitchen dance party,” one mom wrote. “My daughter helped cook for the first little bit and then she danced while we cooked and sang along to songs. Not sure I’d have the stamina to do that every night, but it sure was fun tonight!”

Read more:
6 ways to make family dinner happen
13 smooth recipes for picky eaters

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