My baby doesn’t like to nap. Cat nap in a running car? Sure. Doze off in the carrier like a little kangaroo? Affirmative. But try to put him down in his crib during daylight hours and he screams “milk!” At least that's what I think he’s saying.
In an ideal world, the little guy would go down during the same invaluable two hour period as his big sister—between 2 and 4 pm—at which point I would go nuts on whatever it was I was assigned to cook that day. Alas, some days there’s no nap in sight. My solution? Strap the kid on and get to work.
Cooking with an especially large 8 ½ month old secured to your chest poses some challenges. You’d think that cooking through pregnancy, with a 40-pound beach ball protruding from the midsection, would condition one for this exercise but the particulars aren’t quite the same.
Here, some dos, don’ts, and safety tips to mind while cooking with a baby on the hip or strapped to your chest.
Set up your station
Preparedness is key, regardless of whether you’re cooking while wearing another human or not. Set your work space up for safety and efficiency: Use a non-slip cutting board or damp paper towel under your cutting board to keep it from scooting around while you chop. Move any unnecessary tools or ingredients or lingering dirty dishes out of the way. Go ahead and clear the decks and grab only what you need for the tasks at hand.
Choose the right equipment
Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Vision yourself moving gracefully through your cooking experience. Will you need a slotted spoon? A spatula? Anticipate your needs and keep tools within easy reach so you’re not lurching around hot pots to grab them out of the caddy. Also, extend your reach. I’m prone to grabbing whatever utensil is closest, be it a measuring spoon to taste a sauce or a toddler fork to beat pancake batter. But when you have an extra body to maneuver around it’s best to opt for longer tools. I use my 12-in tongs for most meals. Those, along with long-handled wooden spoons, spiders and ladles make reaching around the baby to the bottom of the pot or skillet a lot easier.
Avoid heavy lifting
Even the most wee babes nestled against your chest can throw off your center of gravity. Squatting and lifting—bend from the knees, not from the waist can be awkward. If you must use your heaviest-bottomed pot, your 12-inch cast iron pan, or your ten and a half pound power blender, go ahead and get it in position before you tuck in the little one.
Mise en place
If this is your first time hearing that fancy French phase, I like to translate it as “preliminary chopping.” If you can, do the bulk of your slicing and dicing before you put the baby on. Also, if you’re following a recipe, avoid those that call for lots and lots of knife work. A sliced onion, a couple of smashed garlic cloves, those are the kind of prep steps you’re looking for.
For me that means one less layer than usual. It warms up in an active kitchen anyway and if I’m wearing a human blanket I can overheat quickly. For babies that means covering what you can to avoid hot splatters. Keep little feet (and probably yours) covered with socks and make sure those chubby ankles aren't exposed. Also, I like to put on shoes. Even on a warm flip-flop day, once I put the big guy on I need extra support underfoot. Finally, be sure whatever carrier you use is snug, safe and comfortable for both of you. Check the manufacturer's instructions and safety tips and adjust accordingly.
Face them in
Even if your little cabbage is old enough to face out, I find that wearing a baby facing toward me limits distractions for them and makes it much easier for me to reach around their bodies. Plus, if they start kicking their arms and legs, they’ll head toward your body and not over the hot stove or cutting board.
Avoid high heat as much as you can. That doesn’t mean you’re restricted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but no-cook preparations aren’t a bad place to start. Pasta is easy but avoid a huge pot of boiling water if possible. Try couscous instead: its dump-and-steam-off-heat method couldn’t be easier. If buttered noodles for a big sibling are unavoidable, don’t try to drain that big pot in the sink. Instead, use a slotted spoon or tongs to transfer the noodles directly from pasta pot to warm sauce or a bowl for tossing. And no frying in scads of oil: keep hot fat to a minimum and remember, if seared anything is on the menu be sure to pat things dry to avoid sputters and lay items away from you when you add them to the skillet. As always, prepare for dismount: keep plates or bowls nearby and at the ready so you’re not making awkward reaches or especially loud noises right before you get the chance to eat something.
Wearing a baby while I cook isn’t a perfect solution but it has its benefits. The gentle rocking motion usually lulls the little guy to sleep and the good long snuggle keeps both of our bodies calm and relaxed.
The bottom line? Do your best to get organized, keep it simple, and don’t rush, which is pretty good parenting advice, in the kitchen and everywhere else.