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Toddler Dinnertime vs. Parent Work Schedules

Toddler Dinnertime vs. Parent Work Schedules

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I just discovered your site and have been loving the toddler advice columns. (SO glad to know I’m not the only one whose toddler suddenly hates the high chair.) But I have a question that I didn’t see addressed anywhere else:

How do you avoid short-order cooking and eat as a family when you’re busy working parents?

I pick my daughter up from daycare after work and we get home around 5:15. She’s usually hungry right away and so I end up giving her foods that I can serve after a quick stint in the microwave–heating up frozen chicken, peas, cutting up some fruit, etc. I try to keep it healthy, but I’m “cooking” a separate meal for her. I could probably give her a snack and try to stretch her out some so I could make a meal, but it’s so hard to cook and take care of her at the same time. (She is one year old, learning to walk, and going through major separation anxiety.)

Plus, even if I could cook the family meal before she wanted to eat, it would just be me and her. My husband doesn’t get home from work until 7:30, and she goes to bed around 7. Do I eat with her and make my husband eat by himself? Do I eat both times? And seriously, HOW do I cook while chasing after a toddler?

Concerned Cook

Relax. She’s one. What you’re doing is fine. You’re doing just fine.

There will be a time when yes, it’ll be GREAT if you can swing a couple meals as a family together each week — could just be on the weekends, or maybe your husband can swing a little flextime to get out of work earlier on say, Wednesdays. And there will be a time when cooking a meal won’t be such a multi-tasking nightmare  — when she’s old enough to entertain herself with toys for more than five minutes, when she’s old enough to safely be alone in the next room over without risking a trip to the ER, when she’s able to contribute and help with basic food prep tasks like pouring, stirring, etc.

Now is just…not that time. And that’s okay! Please don’t stress over this one. Not now, not yet.

She’s still mastering eating solid foods in general right now, and still on a very different sleep/awake/eat schedule than the rest of the family. So it’s really perfectly acceptable to make a separate meal for a one-year-old. As long as you are presenting her with a variety of flavors and textures and introducing new foods on a semi-regular basis, you have nothing to worry about.

What Does “Short-Order Cooking” Look Like?

The whole “short-order cooking” thing is a problem when you’re making a separate meal for a child who is simply refusing to eat the meal you’ve already prepared. And that could be a meal you’ve made for the family OR a meal you’ve made just for them! They reject Food A so Mom immediately rushes to offer Food B (and then C, D, etc.) as an alternative: “Oh, you don’t like the chicken with rice and vegetables? Oh, okay, let me get that spaghetti that you liked from the other night. Still no? Okay, here’s some pizza.”

Eventually, Mom gets pretty sick of this (I mean, who wouldn’t?) and stops even trying to offer Food A, and figures maybe it’ll be easier if she just makes the pizza/macaroni/nuggets from the get-go and avoids the dinnertime battle altogether.

THAT’S the type of short-ordering cooking that puts your toddler in charge of dinner, and believe me, you do not want a toddler in charge of dinner. Either yours or their own. Because yeah, they’ll eventually start rejecting more and more foods, even ones that were previously on the “acceptable” list, until you’ve got a child living on plain buttered noodles 24/7.

But that’s not what you’re doing! Stop focusing (for now, because it is what it is, schedule-wise) on the fact that you’re making her a separate meal and instead treat her meal like you would treat a meal as a family. Not necessarily in terms of WHAT you’re making and the preparation, but in your EXPECTATIONS. You will offer her a variety of foods, prepared in a way that is accessible and safe for her. And she will eat what you put in front of her. Maybe not all of it, but that’s not your responsibility. Any food that goes uneaten will not be replaced by something else, and any food that goes uneaten will not be turned into a “EAT IT EAT IT EAT IT” battle of wills and/or “CLEAN YOUR PLATE YOUNG LADY” portion size policing.

If you are concerned that her meals are too repetitive or falling into a flavor/texture rut, that’s another thing. Try re-offering foods that she’s rejected in the past, even if they’re still “easy” or microwaveable. Pledge to buy at least one new food for her at the grocery store each week. (And this could be as simple as beans instead of peas, ham instead of chicken, or an unusual flavor of frozen veggie burger.)

(My toddlers all loved an Indian-spiced veggie burger from Trader Joe’s. And guess what cuisine they absolutely LOVE to this day? VICTORY FROM THE FROZEN FOOD AISLE.)

Toddler Dinner Prep Advice

We’re fortunate enough to have a family schedule that allows for most weeknight meals together, but I still use Sunday afternoons as a kid-friendly meal-prep time (like I did back when I was making baby food to portion and freeze for the week). I bake lunchbox-friendly mini-muffins, a week’s worth of sunbutter-and-jelly sandwiches, prep a bunch of little healthy yogurt smoothies, pancakes, etc. Toddler dinner prep can be done the same way. Make a big batch of veggies when your husband is around to watch her, then portion in containers/bags and freeze them. (This way you can offer more “complicated” veggies that take longer to cook like beets or sweet potatoes, without always defaulting to the bag of frozen peas or processed puffs/fries that often add a ton of extra salt and sugar.) You can get creative and whip up your own meatballs, fish cakes, veggie patties — all things that really don’t take much time, can be done in big ol’ batches, and freeze and reheat in a snap during the week.

I know this all probably sounds like the LAST thing you want to spend your weekend doing, and if you really can’t or just don’t want to, that’s okay too! Just sharing what I’ve done and honestly find pretty relaxing and VERY satisfying, knowing how much time I’ve saved myself while also making foods for my kids that are wholesome, healthy, delicious…and convenient as all heck, later in our super-busy week.

Family Dinner Prep Advice

Finally, for when you DO want to sit down and eat with her (or are able to score a rare and wonderful meal with all three of you), I have two final words: Slowwwwww Coooker. Make the meal the night BEFORE, after she goes to bed. Throw everything in the slow cooker. (If you don’t have one, I’d recommend a programmable one with a delayed start, to avoid the dreaded “Oh crap I left for work and forgot to turn the slow cooker on.”) Then you can eat with her and model the “you eat what the grown-ups eat” expectation without having to actually cook and care for her at the same time. When our boys were younger, we did slow cooker meals at least two or even three times a week. (At most, I’d need to whip up some rice or pasta, while the cooker usually took care of both our protein and the vegetables.) Plus: You’ll end up with great leftovers you can nuke for her the next day.

Photo source: Depositphotos/AChubykin


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About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Shelly

    October 10, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    This is such great advice. Also gratifying to hear this is exactly what i’m doing/have done. (Mine is now 2 and a half), same daycare/spouse scenario. If you’re into it, I can offer some practical examples. In general, I tried to share at least one of the foods I was offering, eg sliced apples for both of us. My go to favourite was cooked rice (made yesterday), avocado, and random left over vege. (Grated carrot, grated cheese, sliced tomatoes etc), tuna/salmon for extra protein if needed. Chuck a bit of mayo/sly sauce/dressing on and call it a food bowl. She gets what you get (mostly) and lots of talk over what the food is and what we’re eating. For me, it worked to put familiar foods on her plates (rice/cheese) and allow looks/pokes/tastes of new food off my plate. Oh yeah, avocados are green, I’m eating it. Usually by the end of the meal she would be sneaking bits off my plate. (and yeah, this is cool for a 1 yr old, now she’s two and a half we’re a bit more into reinforcing the your plate/my plate concept.

    Then when my other half was home, I would just eat a bit more, if my plate was scavenged heavily. The goal here is modelling food exposures, not enforcing manners. I just did “food stays on your plate”. Okay, I’ll stop talking now 🙂

  • Tiffany

    October 10, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    Yeeessss to the crockpot!
    Also, what about her eating the leftovers you had the night before with the hubs? Ie: You had spaghetti Monday night; Tuesday she has spaghetti, you have soup; Tuesday she has soup, you have chicken; Wednesday she has chicken etc…

    • Ros

      October 10, 2017 at 7:46 pm

      I was just gonna suggest that! It sounds like a reasonably low-effort way to ensure variety.

      Also, practical suggestion: when my oldest was about about a year old and suuuuuper clingy, tucking her onto my back in the Ergo worked really well to get 5 minutes of 2-handed kitchen work. Bonus time achieved by tucking back bits of carrots/cheese/whatever I was chopping.

  • Jenna

    October 11, 2017 at 1:34 am

    This is all great advice! My question — IS there a slow cooker with a delayed start?? I have looked for one but have not found one and I keep seeing indications that it doesn’t exist because having meat out at room temperature for several hours would be a food safety hazard. Which….is a good point. But I’d still love a delayed start option on a slow cooker for things that can be at room temperature for a few hours before the cooking starts!

    • LISAatUND

      October 11, 2017 at 9:58 am

      We just got one that has a “keep warm” function that uses a built in meat thermometer to switch the temp once your main protein reaches “done” temperatures. So far we LOVE it.

  • Laura

    October 11, 2017 at 10:26 am

    I now have a 2yo and a newborn, but had the same conundrum when my oldest was freshly one and fully transitioning to table food and weaning from bottle. Like you, we’d get home from daycare around 5:15, and my husband doesn’t get home until 8pm or later.

    When my daughter was ready to eat what we were eating, I started eating dinner with her instead of him. Daycare feeds her an extra snack that I pack for her at 4:30, and that holds her over until dinnertime. We ate a 6 when she was 1, but eat at 6:30 now. Family dinners are important to us, but not possible as a whole family on weeknights. I think eating with 1 parent is a good solution for now. We get to practice good table manners, and eventually it will be a good time to reflect on the day, etc.

    Now that she’s older, the 2yo “helps” me cook dinner most nights, which keeps her happy while dinner is getting made. I let her dump ingredients in, stir stuff, sprinkle cheese, count stuff, etc.

    We do dinner leftovers for lunch the next day, so dinner cleanup includes packing the leftovers up for everyone’s lunches – saves time and mental energy.

  • Kristen

    October 11, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    A looong time ago, I asked on the Martha Stewart boards (I am old) if most people are OK with leaving the house with the slow cooker on. Most people freaked out that it was a fire hazard, and could lead to a very bad accident. Are we feeling better these days about leaving the house with it on?

    • Myriam

      October 16, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      I called my insurance company, and they did not deem leaving an oven on timer mode a fire hazard, much less a crock pot… It’s like asking to unplug your fridge every time you leave the house…

  • IrishCream

    October 11, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    When my kids were really little, my husband and I did split shifts. I’d get home from work at three, we’d wearily high-five and he’d head off to his job. Cooking dinner with a toddler and a colicky newborn was a no-go. We started doing most of our cooking on Sunday afternoons, making three or four recipes from scratch and then supplementing with some decent frozen food (Amy’s pizzas!) when we ran low by Friday. I couldn’t tell you exactly what we cooked, but they weren’t recipes that were meant to be frozen or to last a while in the fridge; we just picked stuff we’d normally eat that wouldn’t get mushy or gross after a day in the fridge.

    These days my kids can wait until 7 to eat and they’re low-maintenance elementary schoolers, but when I am super busy at work and can’t knock off and start cooking at five, I loooooove “The Make-Ahead Cook” by America’s Test Kitchen. Really great recipes and lots of variety, designed to be prepped 24 hours beforehand and cooked when you’re ready to eat. And yes, the good old slow cooker! Also fine once in a while…cereal for dinner. Life is hard, work is hard, parenting is hard, and you gotta give yourself a break sometimes!

  • Kelly Vallejo

    October 14, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    I see lots with agreeing to the Crock Pot, BUT I recently got an Instapot and I’m in love. It does all the work of a crock pot but in a fraction of the time. (If you want one that is.)

    I can pre prep meals (usually on Sundays) and then toss in the Instapot and it’s done about 45 minutes later.

    Although I’m still not sure if that helps with the timing issue. Maybe a snack before leaving day care? I usually did that with my toddler when I picked her up. She got a light snack to hold her over.

    Also… MINI MUFFINS! They can be pre baked, frozen and with tons of good stuff hidden in them.

  • TiffanyBaxendellBridge

    October 16, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    My son was nearly 4 before he could:
    – Wait until 6 or 6:30 to eat dinner
    – Enjoy sitting at the table with us
    – Be consistently willing to try what we were eating.
    – Entertain himself long enough that I could get food on the table.

    Heavens, do not beat yourself up over family dinner at age 1. If it’s important to you, it’ll happen eventually, but it might be a while before all the pieces of the schedule/ability to cook with a kid in the house/willingness to sit at the table all happen at the same time. And that’s okay!

    And +a million to both the crockpot and the Instant Pot. Both have been invaluable to our family in efforts to have dinner on the table at a reasonable hour.

  • Kristine

    October 23, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Everyone has great advice below but I just want to add that we bought my daughter a learning tower for her first birthday which has allowed her to “help” In the kitchen while we make dinner. I usually give her a task like move the chopped carrots (onions, tomatoes, whatever) from one bowl to another- so it is not always actual help but she feels like she is participating and loves being at counter height.