Moms and cookbook authors Cynthia Stevens Graubart and Catherine Fliegel understand how tough it can be to get food on the table when you've got a baby on the hip. Here, they discuss how to make post-baby life easier through some simple pre-baby kitchen prep work, how to keep on cookin' using great-tasting and easy-to-prepare-while-holding-a-baby recipes, as well as how to get older kids involved in fun and learning in the kitchen.
AmericanBaby.com: What kind of meal advice do you both wish you had received before becoming new moms?
All I wanted was to take care of my baby, but at the end of it all, you still have to prepare a meal, you still have to do the laundry, you still have to clean the house. And while the vacuuming and the laundry can wait, a family's got to eat. I knew how to cook, I cooked regularly for my husband, felt comfortable in my kitchen -- you know, had my whole stash of kitchen and equipment and everything and knew how to use it. I was armed and dangerous. And yet, with a baby thrown into the mix, it became nearly impossible. Surely someone should have come up with some pointers or someone should have prepared me in childbirth class about how challenging and difficult this was going to be.
AB: When a couple is expecting a baby within a few months, what would you recommend they do in the kitchen to prepare for the baby's arrival?
Cynthia: Really the key to success is being prepared, particularly for those early weeks at home when you should be spending all of your time bonding with your baby and taking care of yourself. Expectant parents should stock their freezer with some fabulous meals that they can just take out and defrost and reheat, so that dinnertime is not a challenge. It is a lifesaver to do that; it takes an incredible amount of stress off of whoever is the usual dinner cook -- but also anybody who happens to be around -- if you're lucky enough to have your mom or other help. It is really nice to not have to worry about dinner.
Cynthia: In terms of preparing in the kitchen, we recommend not only stocking your freezer with prepared meals, but stocking up in general. You're going to want to learn to grocery shop just once a week, because it's a challenge.
Cynthia: Learn to make a weekly grocery list. Keep a running list on the fridge of items that you've run out of. Do keep a good pantry stock. And there are items like frozen chopped onions, for example, that you can keep in the freezer. They're invaluable. You don't have to take the time to get out the cutting board and the knife, and dirty up the surface and chop an onion, which does take two hands.
Catherine: It will be all you can handle when you have a baby.
AB: For expectant parents who never really learned how to cook and are accustomed to take-out or delivery food options, where would you recommend they start?
Catherine: I think that so many couples take pregnancy and the expectation of adding to their family as a time to shift to healthier eating habits. They want to set a good example from the very beginning with their baby -- and those rituals start early, so there's no better time than before you have the baby to get our book, The One-Armed Cook (Meredith Books, 2004), so that you can start experimenting with some of these quick and easy recipes.
You might even want to put something like a slow cooker on your baby shower gift registry because it will see you through so many difficult times, and is probably far more valuable than, say, a baby wipes warmer or anything like that.
AB: You mentioned the value of a slow cooker and it seems like there are quite a few items that would come in handy in an ideal world. Is there a short list of equipment that you would recommend people having on hand in terms of being able to prepare most dishes?
Cynthia: Yes, here are some of the items that we use and recommend to parents:
Catherine: Even something as simple and inexpensive as kitchen shears -- it doesn't have to be anything fancy, but you will find yourself using it for so many reasons in the kitchen -- from opening packages of cereal boxes, to the top of the bag of shredded cheese, to snipping herbs. I even cut meat with it. If you find yourself holding the baby while you are doing meal preparation, these will help you accomplish those things one-handedly.
AB: In the book, you have some really terrific timelines in terms of preparing specific meals or for specific occasions. Can you give me a general timeline of how people should go about preparing their kitchen and their pantry, as well as preparing meals? How far out before the baby is born should parents think about this?
Catherine: I think what is most important for people to recognize is that it is never too late to get started. So, if someone is reading this after already having their baby, you can still get organized in your kitchen.
Cynthia: If you were getting started about two months before you're due in terms of preparing dinners for your freezer...
Catherine: That is when you're nesting anyway. You are starting to get your nest ready for baby and use that energy.
Cynthia: You have that urge, so try not to spend all the time preparing the nursery and spend some time in the kitchen preparing some meals. Use freezer-safe packaging for your food and label, label, label everything because it all looks the same color brown after it's been frozen. And I promise you that you will not remember what you put in that package. About two months ahead is a good time to get started. Then in case your baby does come early, you are all set.
Catherine: I think my son was about 10 years old when I finally got organized and I think that's where the book has so much value. Cynthia is the one who had 20 frozen cooked meals in her freezer and I have always been a by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, so both strategies work.
AB: What would you say new parents should expect of themselves in the first few weeks in terms of what they can manage? Should they, if possible, plan on having everything frozen?
Cynthia: You know, you want to freeze what you can before your due date. Take as much off your to-do list and prepare as many things, in all aspects of your life, that you can do ahead, by all means. Those first few weeks at home are so precious, you'll never get them back. They are magical and exhausting and the bonding with your baby is all you should be thinking about. That and taking care of yourself, too -- eating well and resting and napping when the baby naps and that sort of thing.
This brings up another point, which is if people offer to help you, say you would like them to bring a meal. You don't need people to watch the baby, you need people to cook and do laundry. Everybody wants to take care of the baby, but the nitty-gritty is that you really need help around the house so that you can relax and spend that time bonding with your baby.
AB: When parents are more able to get in the kitchen after those first few weeks, how often should they aim to cook?
Cynthia: I would say that in my current life I cook dinner three or four nights a week and I almost never cook something that I am not cooking as a double batch. A lot of recipes serve four to six. Go ahead and make the entire recipe and before you even serve it on the table, take out half and prepare it for the freezer to eat next week. It won't be a leftover and you will have planned for a second meal. If you're constantly replenishing your freezer stock, cook half the week and eat out of your freezer stock half the week.
Catherine: And then also save some nights for one of our simple and quick soups with sandwiches or a salad with some leftover chicken or chicken you have grilled on the weekends for on top of it. Don't forget about the slow cooker, either.
Many times [when baby arrives] is the first time when couples start to create meals, or rituals surrounding mealtime. Those are habits that they want to start early with their children. I think that it is really intimidating -- which is why we put together these easy recipes. I cannot tell you how many have professed non-cooks have said, "Wow, I can really do this," because there are no fancy cooking skills required to complete these recipes. For someone just getting started, it is a great resource because it has so many what we call "quick gourmet" -- food that you would find in a restaurant with a bit of an uptown taste.
Cynthia: You however do want to keep a few of the take-out places in your speed-dialer because even the most prepared parent will have those days when the baby throws everything off schedule -- a teething baby, a baby with a cold or a fever or something. All plans may go out the window, so you cannot completely get away from it, nor should you. You deserve a break, too.
AB: When you're cooking with a baby or young children with you in the kitchen, what do you recommend parents do in terms of occupying them if you do need two hands or just want a break from holding baby?
Cynthia: You do want to make sure that when your attention is turned to the stove, your baby is safe. Portable play yards are fabulous because they're confined safe spaces. Also, a baby activity center is good. Once [the children] are sitting up, a high chair.
Catherine: There are so many pieces of equipment that can do double duty also, so you don't have to invest in every single item on the market that is going to keep baby contained and entertained at the same time. Try using your car seat and making sure your baby is properly restrained, while hanging some toys and changing them from time to time so that baby always has something new to look at.
Cynthia: Also, once your baby is crawling and toddling (and you have hopefully safety-proofed your kitchen), leave one low cabinet where you store your plastics. It is fabulously entertaining to a child to empty out the cabinet. They love to mimic what their parents are doing and that is something you already have. You may get tired of picking up, but it is definitely a source of entertainment.
Catherine: And before babies start toddling, I always like to empower new moms to never underestimate the power of you -- your voice, your face. I used to do this Julia Child shtick where I would talk to [my kids] like I was on a cooking show and they would be very entertained. They love to look at you and hear your voice because it makes them feel safe. As long as there is a safe distance away from them and where you're cooking, you can talk to them and look at them until they are more interested in other things around them. But in those early months especially, sing to them and talk to them; they love to hear your voice.
AB: How has cooking changed for the two of you since you were new moms? Do you feel that the idea of the one-armed cook still applies when you have older kids who do not need to be specifically restrained in the kitchen or attached to you?
Cynthia: I no longer cook with a baby on my hip, but I do cook with a martini in my hand and I find the recipes equally as useful as my one-armed method!
Catherine: And as our children have gotten older, we find ourselves taking them to baseball practice and horseback riding lessons and dancing lessons and soccer practice, etc. We're busier than when we were working full time. It becomes increasingly difficult to get that meal on the table as we are balancing and juggling schedules and all. So these quick and easy's are a great strategy for new moms, as well as moms of teens and even younger than that, too.
Cynthia: All of these strategies are lifelong. If you can take the time to be prepared, to learn to make a grocery list, to learn to plan to make the meals you want to cook that week, to put meals in your freezer, to keep your pantry stocked -- those are skills that you will need for the rest of your parenting life, so take the time now and learn what works for you. They will be skills you will use forever. Life only gets more complicated and busier as your children get older. The basic strategies that we teach and share with new parents are the same strategies that we use. I cannot tell you how long it has been since I have chopped an onion. I discovered frozen chopped onions and my life was changed.
Catherine: Oh, and canned diced tomatoes.
Cynthia: There are things that are time savers and shortcuts that don't sacrifice taste that are strategies you'll use.
AB: In terms of when you have older children, what do you recommend if you want to include them in your cooking?
Catherine: Start young, start them in the kitchen, and get them involved. Cooking is math and chemistry and art all mixed into one. There are wonderful lessons for children to learn in the kitchen. Get them as soon as they can step up to the counter on a step stool. They will feel so important helping you. As Cynthia said before, they love to mimic you, so give them age-appropriate tasks to do. All three of my children have developed their own specialties because they grew up in the kitchen. I am proud and impressed by what they are able to do in the kitchen. It is basic survival.
Cynthia: Usually if a parent is going to be resistant to that idea, it's because the kids are messy, but that is the only negative. They need to learn how to help clean up, too. My daughter could be entertained for an hour with the sink full of plastics and soapy water. Get over that and you will be giving your children a huge gift.
Catherine: Besides the mess, parents are also intimidated by the amount of time it takes. Working with a child is going to at least double the time it takes in the kitchen to prepare what you're doing. But there are so many valuable lessons, and it is just a wonderful time that my children still remember, like the first time we made cut-out cookies or the first time they helped me chop carrots with a plastic knife to throw into a soup. Plus, children are more likely to try new foods if they have helped in preparing the food. They can say, "I helped."
AB: Any last advice?
Cynthia: Don't let the image of a traditional home cook stop you from doing something. Go ahead and buy the refrigerated cookie dough if it means that you and your child are going to roll out the dough and cut the cookies or even just slice the cookies and bake them yourself. Don't feel guilty if you're not making the dough from scratch. It's better that you and your child are spending time in the kitchen and that the house smells than not doing it at all. Again, it stops kids from doing things, because they have an image of how it ought to be done. It is better to have that activity together than to not have it at all.
Catherine: This is most important (and I think that this helps with just cooking in general, especially for professed non-cooks), don't set yourself up for failure. Don't expect that everything will be perfect and that it is going to appear just as it did on the Food Network, or just as the picture in the cookbook looks. Again, it being perfect is not important, it is the effort and love that goes into it.
Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, February 2006.