Kids in the Kitchen

Just yesterday, I was speaking with a woman who works at the gas station, and she said that a friend of hers was already worried about her kids being home full-time because of the quarantine because her children ate so much! Would it be like this the whole time?! Since we are living through a unique situation right now, keeping your kids from eating your quarantine supply of food in a week when it needs to last longer is going to be pretty important to a lot of you.

This situation doesn’t change much for my family, so I thought I’d offer some advice as a full-time stay-at-home, homeschooling, mother of six. We do a bulk shopping trip once a month so I don’t have to take 6 kids grocery shopping more than I need to, we have learned how to “ration” that out for a month, and I’ve learned to deal with the whole kids-wanting-to-eat-all-the-time thing.

A few years ago, my kids were really beginning to drive me up the wall. I suddenly had 4 kids able to ask me for food ALL DAY LONG. And the baby at the time could ask for milk and crackers. Counting snacks, I was getting asked for food about 50-60 times a day. No joke. I began to despise the question “Can I have something to eat?” and bristle at the words “I’m hungry!” Now, my oldest was 7 or 8 at that time, so you can imagine that the younger kids didn’t really get why I was so cranky about these requests. To me, I’m thinking, “I’ll feed you! You always get fed! Why must you pester me!!!”

The other thing that really started to get to me was that they’d hover around me like a bee on a flower, waiting to be fed. “Mom, is the food ready?” “Mom, can I help?” And I’d be so frustrated I’d just bark back, “NO!” I didn’t want help because it slowed me down and made the whining for food last longer. And I’d have children in tears because I let one child help, but not another. “It’s not fair!” they’d cry out. I didn’t want anybody to help me, and I was beginning to not want to feed anybody. And none of that takes into consideration just how much food I had to prepare every single day and how much time it took up.

Now, I’ve never been one to prepare separate meals for each child. The only time they might have a choice is if we’re eating up leftovers. So I never dealt with the “short-order cook” thing, and that was probably my one saving grace in all of this.

Finally, I got wise. We implemented meal times (not that we weren’t already doing that, but I taught the kids what the clocks looked like when it was time to eat ) to help them to stop asking for food all of the time. This was the first step in the right direction. I started noticing that even though I was giving appropriate sized portions at meals, at dinner time, the kids would often just poke at their food and have leftovers, so we cut out a consistent snack time. We still keep fruits, nuts, or pretzels on hand as a snack, but they still don’t eat them daily, and definitely not more than once a day, usually between breakfast and lunch.

The requests for food dropped significantly with only the youngest kids continuing to ask for food from time to time because they just didn’t know better. The final change we made was kids being allowed in the kitchen. I didn’t want to keep the kids totally out of the kitchen. I wanted them to learn how to cook, but I didn’t need a bunch of people bickering and whining about who would help or not being able to. And I needed to have the ability to say, “Sorry, nobody is going to help today,” without it turning into total wailing and moaning.

The solution was really simple. Every kid old enough would be assigned a day of the week to help in the kitchen. Miss Lady works Mondays, Peanut on Tuesdays, Doodles on Wednesdays, and Pumpkin on Fridays. E helps me out from time to time on different days of the week, either with a sibling or with me. They could really do most of the work for breakfast and lunch themselves, and they’d help me make supper.

We started simple with breakfast. Learn to pour bowls of cereal for your siblings and yourself, pour the milk, and try to clean up after yourself. I worked by their side to help them master this. We moved on to oatmeal… they measured ingredients into a bowl, and I heated up the water and poured it in. They stirred and served. Lunch was a whole lot of pb and j at first. A simple lunch (albeit, messy) that they could pretty easily make without help.

We got rid of our microwave a couple of years ago, so all heating of food happens on the stove or in the oven. I didn’t let the kids use the oven/stove at all at first. They might help stir a pot if they were big enough, but that was it. The more they got comfortable with different tasks, the more tasks I allowed them to do. They started getting more involved in cooking supper. Rather than just putting ingredients into a pot, they could chop or peel a carrot. I started to let them turn on the oven, and eventually turn on the burners. (We have a gas stove, so we had to go over extra safety rules and precautions.) At first, just the oldest was allowed to do those things, but now the older three are all capable of this.

Today my kids (especially the oldest three…11, 9, and 8) are able to do quite a bit in the kitchen. They’ll use the toaster for bagels and sandwiches, they know how to make hard boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, sunny side up, over easy. They make pancakes frequently, they can do spaghetti without any help from me, they made tacos for lunch last week, and I didn’t do anything, and there are many other things they can do, either completely alone, or with help from each other. And three years in, they still love it. Nobody complains about making meals, they offer to help one another, and my life got a lot easier.

I taught the kids how to read recipes. They sometimes ask if they can bake muffins or cookies or try a new recipe for supper, and for the most part, they can do it without my help. Sometimes I’ll be in charge of prepping things that need to be cut or that I’m not comfortable with them doing yet, or I’ll answer their questions about what a recipe is instructing. Sometimes I tell them to figure it out on their own so that they can troubleshoot… While I don’t want ingredients to go to waste, it’s also good for them to fail once in awhile so that they can understand the importance of being thorough and following directions, not just reading the ingredients. And when something does fail and they don’t know what to do, sometimes we’re able to salvage their attempt and turn it into something new.

Possibly one of the most important aspects of teaching your kids to work in the kitchen is getting them to clean up after themselves. Don’t do it for them. If they walk away without cleaning up, call them back and supervise the cleanup. If you don’t have time to supervise, just make sure they do the job, not you. Make sure they know the importance of putting eggs and milk back into the fridge, why we don’t leave the open jar of jelly out on the counter, why it’s important to clean up spills… And if they don’t do the clean up and it requires a lot of reminders from you, make sure they aren’t eating again until the first mess is cleaned up. Have them rinse dishes, or wash them, or put them in the dishwasher. Teach them to clean up their spots at the table or wherever they eat, and be consistent with enforcing the rules.

But drawing back to my opening story, followed by my comment about kids wanting to eat all the time or asking for food constantly, I have some more advice: Budget your food.

Shopping for a month of groceries at a time is nothing new to me. Between homeschooling and having a large family, I do not want to go shopping frequently. I plan ahead and make one big sweep of it. But I need to be sure that the kids won’t just go and sneak all of the crackers that I bought or only eat tacos for three days and complain that we ran out or that they don’t like what we have left.

Having a meal plan will help you budget your food. If you’ve already done your quarantine shopping, using the food you have, come up with a meal plan. Figure a day for eating up leftovers once a week or more if you always end up with extras at a meal. Space out spaghetti to once a week. Rotate through breakfast options, being sure to include things that aren’t their favorites, just to make sure you don’t end up with the same boring food, day after day. (My kids always regret when they make the choice to skip the meal plan and eat something they like only to be stuck eating oatmeal for 5 days at the end of the month. They like oatmeal, but they don’t want to eat it every day!)

You don’t need to have your kids in a panic, but let them know that you are not sure when the next time you will go shopping is, so you need to make what you have last. Remember that your kids don’t eat all day in school, and they don’t need to at home, either. Get them involved with you in the kitchen so that they aren’t always asking you for things. And have them help you come up with a meal plan so that you aren’t running out of supplies before you can afford your next shopping trip. Let them know that you’ll be doing things a little differently while school is out, and stress how important it is to be respectful of the needs of the rest of the family. Most kids will understand on some level and step up and do their part.

If you are still worried about having your kids eat you out of house and home during this time, and it’s maybe causing you concern about your food budget, I’d suggest you closely examine the way that you shop. For years, any time I needed to adjust our budget, I’d look to our food budget to see how we could save money. Buying supplies to make our own oatmeal is a lot cheaper than buying boxes of packets. Making your own bread is really inexpensive. Homemade pizza (from scratch) is easy to make and doesn’t break the bank. Eggs are a great breakfast, and they don’t cost much. You can dress them up by adding other ingredients. Pancakes made from scratch are easy to make, and inexpensive, especially if you buy your ingredients in bulk. And bulk pancake mix is really not that expensive, either.

I started cooking from scratch out of frugality. We used to eat a LOT of convenience foods, but it was so expensive. Eventually we started to care more about how healthy our food was, but frugality really drove us down this path. When I saw that the frozen pizza aisle was wiped clean the other day, and that the boxed foods were all gone, I wondered how it would affect people if they couldn’t find that stuff anymore. If ever there was a time to learn to cook from scratch, it’s now.

If you are a family that eats out a lot, consider changing that. I realize that right now, locally anyway, people are only able to do take-out, delivery, or drive-thru. But that’s still expensive. I almost always feel guilty for eating out… it costs so much more than making food ourselves, and with a lot of it, we prefer the versions we make at home, better. Of course, that’s not true of everything, but it is of a lot of things. I appreciate what the restaurants do for us, and if you feel like you need to continue to support them with your purchases during this time, then by all means, please do so. But if you feel like you might have to make some financial changes as “insurance,” it’s something to seriously consider.

And if I didn’t give you enough food for thought, you should go over to Pinterest and look up new recipes, how to cook with ingredients you have on hand, how to get the kids involved in the kitchen, how to make homemade versions of snacks, or how to save money on food. There is more than enough information on there to get you through the next few weeks or more!

Remember, as the parent, you are in charge. You set the rules, you establish the consequences of not following those rules and follow through. No video games if you sneak food. You miss the next meal if you don’t get your chores done or have a bad attitude (and I don’t mean starve your kids… just give them motivation to get their act together). I think you’ll find that if you get your kids involved and explain at least some of the situation to them, they’ll be pretty helpful and be more understanding than you’d expect.

And remember what I said the other day… We can see this situation as dismal and bleak and sad, or we can spin it into a positive. Teaching your kids how to budget, meal plan, or cook, are all wonderful learning experiences for just about any child!



  • Susan Casper

    Thanks for taking a growing problem, and not just working toward a solution, but making it seem sort of–I don’t know–invigorating! Attitude makes such a difference during difficult times–and yours is inspiring.

  • Trudy

    Very good Danielle! I see you took a few things with you from growing up! I know we didn’t need to implement all of these things, and I most certainly could have done much better in some areas, but every little bit of knowledge learned makes the next steps easier! And I really like some of the newer ones you came up with!

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