by Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD
When you have young children (especially more than one), getting dinner ready can be a real challenge. No matter when kids nap or what kind of snack they eat at 3 p.m., they all seem to get voraciously hungry, super tired, and very crabby in that precious window of the day I like to call “Happy Hour.” Although it’s usually much less than an hour, the time before dinner has unique challenges that can use some proactive solutions.
Although Pinterest-inspired parents will have plenty more creative ideas, these are 10 of my favorites to keep kids independently engaged while making dinner.
0 to 2 year olds
- Put your child in an Ergo or Baby Bjorn carrier while you make dinner.
- Play uplifting or calming music.
- Keep a pack and play in your kitchen so your child can be near you (and you can play peekaboo or talk to your child about what you are cooking).
1 to 2 year olds
Novel Boxes – In and Out
- Give your baby/toddler a box of tea bags, a box of band aids, a box with oatmeal packets, or some other box that can close (rotate them).
- Give your baby a martini shaker with 3 to 4 parts to put together and take apart again. (It is Happy Hour, after all).
Happy Hour Toy Bin
- Keep a separate bin of toys stashed away that baby can play with only during this time.
- Give your tot do-a-dot markers and some paper (in their high chair). (These are also fun to put in and take out of the box).
- Give your tot a long, skinny plastic bottle to fill with Cheerios.
- Cut a hole in a margarine container for your child to fill with Cheerios.
- Give your child the Cheerios book (to put Cheerios in the little circle holes that are tire wheels, apples, etc.)
3 to 4 year olds
- Have your child sort Goldfish colors crackers into four piles (these do not have artificial colors).
- Have your child sort your coins from your money cup.
- Have your child sort 4 different types of cereal/raisins and then eat them as a pre-dinner snack when they are finished.
- Give your child a special “appetizer” drink like water with frozen strawberries or blueberries in it with a curly straw.
- Give your child veggies with cream cheese, dressing, or hummus to eat while you make dinner.
Dress Up and Felt
- Buy a packet of colored felt. Cut out the pieces so your child can change the seasons to summer, winter, spring, and fall.
For example, cut out:
Summer: pond of blue felt; green tree, brown house; person; yellow sun
Winter: white icicles to put on the house, white pond (to cover the pond with snow); sled hill; sled; snowman; snowman hat and arms and face
Spring: black clouds, lightning bolt; umbrella; rain boots and jacket for the person
Fall: orange top to cover the tree; orange pile of leaves; rake; kite; pumpkin; apples to put on the tree; bucket to put the apples in; ladder for the person to reach the apples
- Give your child dress-up Joey or dress-up Nina (Melissa and Doug).
- Give your child large block beads and a shoelace type string to make a necklace.
- Give your child penne type pasta to string on beads.
- Have your child print family names on notecards and decorate them with stickers to make “place cards” for dinner.
- Have your child set the table with plates, utensils, cups, and napkins.
- Have your child scrub vegetables or arrange food (such as chicken nuggets) on all the plates by using tongs.
- Have your child spray (with a plastic spray bottle from the dollar store) the table and wipe it down.
- Have your child count out 4 carrots (or another food) for each person’s plate.
If you can bring the happy back into Happy Hour, the rest of the evening can go a little smoother. Instead of feeling stress rumble around you, you may actually enjoy the process of preparing and sharing your family meal.
Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD, mom to three, is a psychotherapist for individuals and couples in Chicago’s western suburbs. She specializes in counseling for parents of babies and young children. www.erinleyba.com or firstname.lastname@example.org To follow this blog by e mail, click the follow button on the left.