I absolutely love to cook, but knowing how to keep a toddler busy while cooking is an art that I never quite mastered. I usually resorted to only meal-prepping during nap times or using the TV as a distraction while I attempted to pull dinner together when my kids were little. Now that my kids are older, I can cook more than I could when they had to be constantly entertained, but I'm also aware of a few more tricks and tips than I was back then.
When you're cooking, but your toddler is begging for you to play with them, your attention seems like it has to be two places at once. It's a tug-of-war that can feel like a no-win situation — either you ignore your toddler and focus on finishing up that nutritious meal you know they need, or skip out on cooking and attend only to your kid. For budding home chefs and those tired of pizza, the struggle is real.
It doesn't have to be that way. You can entertain your toddler and cook up a delicious meal at the same time. It just takes a little bit of patience and preparation. These nine tips for keeping your toddler busy while you're cooking are from real moms and childcare experts, and they'll help entertain your toddler and give you more time to focus on your food.
1. Have A Dance Party
"Put on toddler music and have a dance party," Jenn Simms, a career nanny and doula based in Austin, Texas tells Romper. "Sometimes I do put on the TV — let's be honest — but a lot of times a dance party works just as well."
If you can stand to listen to "Baby Shark" on repeat, Simms says that having a dance party with some fun music can entertain toddlers while you're trying to put a meal together. You can let them burn off some extra energy and have a little fun listening to their their favorite jams all while keeping them out of your hair in the kitchen.
2. Make A Busy Box
My aunt used to let her youngest play in a plastic tub full of lentils with his construction toys on their counter using a learning tower while she cooked. It helped keep him entertained because he loved to scoop up the lentils with his trucks, but she says that measuring cups and spoons are also tools kids can use to play in a busy box as well.
She also cautions that after some trial-and-error, lentils are the best filler for a busy box for toddlers. "I read somewhere when my big kids were little to use rice," mom of three, April McCormick, says. "Do not use rice. It bounces everywhere. The lentils were great."
3. Give Them A Helpful Task To Complete
"Sometimes I give them something to do to help me. One of the boys I nanny is 3, and I have him get his table and chair out that he eats on for me to keep him occupied while I make his food. He can set the table, choose what bowls or spoons he wants to use for his meal, things like that," Simms tells Romper.
Mom of two boys ages 1 and 3, Amanda Wakefield says she lets her boys help her regularly while she cooks. "Kids are great for pointless tasks like moving vegetables from one bowl to the next, sorting, etc," she tells Romper. "One of my friends would have her kids stick dry spaghetti noodles through the holes in a colander." Further proof that your toddler's "help" doesn't have to be overly involved.
4. Give Them An Activity To Do Next To You
When your toddler pulls on your pant leg (or worse — wraps their entire body around your leg) while you attempt to chop up veggies, it can be extremely irritating. "Sometimes when they're bothering you, they just want to be close to you, so I'll give them something to do next to me," Simms tells Romper.
This might take a bit of prep work or multitasking on your part, but it will be well worth it to have your toddler happy and busy while you cook. "We can do a puzzle or a coloring page together while I'm cooking. They can look at books or build a tower next to me," Simms suggests. "Busy work like colored straws into colored holes in a box has worked for me too."
5. Let Them "Cook," Too
"If you're baking or something more extensive, you can give them a little bit of dough like they do at restaurants," Simms tells Romper. "They just want to feel like they're also helping, so I give little tasks to let them feel like they're helping. Give them a little bowl of veggies of their own to stir. They can press the buttons to turn on the stove. They also want to learn, and they're learning all of the time. Even if it slows you down, having them help and describing it to them is helpful."
Although this isn't necessarily keeping your toddler completely out of your way, it will keep them busy enough to allow you to cook without having to take your attention away from chopping, stirring, or sautéing to entertain them. Plus, they're learning, so when they get a little older they'll be prepared to help in ways that are actually helpful.
6. Let Them "Finger Paint" In A High Chair
If your toddler will tolerate sitting in a high chair or booster seat and you don't mind a bit of a mess, mom and owner of the in-home daycare Crissy's Care in Lawrenceville, Georgia, Crissy Hardin, says that this tactic worked when her own kids were toddlers and she needed to keep them occupied while she cooked. "With my own girls when they were toddlers and I needed to be in the kitchen cooking, I used to strip them down and put them in a high chair with a little mustard and a little ketchup on the tray they could 'finger paint' with and a few goldfish to snack on. They had fun and were within reach the whole time," Hardin tells Romper.
7. Cooking Time = Clean-Up Time
"With my in-home childcare, I have a routine in place. I tell the toddlers it is clean-up time, and they know they are about to get lunch, so while they clean up the room I quickly make their lunches," Hardin tells Romper. "It's almost a race at this point, and they have fun because I put music on so they can get crazy with it."
If your toddler is resistant to cleaning up, making it a game and a fun activity while you cook like Hardin could be just the trick.
8. Utilize Your Tupperware Drawer/Cabinet
This might be the only piece of advice I have saved up from when my kids were toddlers. Letting them wreak havoc with kitchen supplies like spatulas or plastic food storage containers can be a life saver while you're trying to cook. My own boys did this a time or two when they were little. (See photo evidence above.)
Christian Patterson, mom to 2-year-old Elliot, tells Romper that allowing her daughter to play with items in the kitchen that her daughter doesn't otherwise get to play with helps to keep her occupied when she is cooking. "I'll also let her get in the Tupperware drawer and stack them up/take the tops on and off," she says. This tactic can actually keep a toddler occupied for quite some time.
9. Pull Out Special Toys
Patterson tells Romper that she keeps specific toys in the kitchen for when it's time to occupy her daughter. "I'll let her play with Play-Doh while she's sitting at the bar. She knows I keep her Play-Doh and Play-Doh toys in the kitchen for when I'm cooking," she says. "I also have some letter magnets and a magnet toy that sings to her on the fridge that she likes to play with."
You can reserve a special toy that your child is only allowed to play with while you cook to help keep toddlers entertained while cooking. This could be anything from special markers and paper to a handheld game they can play that they don't otherwise have access to.
"For making breakfast, I usually pull out the doodle pads that they only get to play with once a day and I call out shapes to draw while I make the food," Hardin tells Romper. "They don't always actually draw the shapes, but they always get very excited to show me their 'artwork.' It keeps them busy and makes it special so they don't get bored."