It is hard to cook when you have kids underfoot. No doubt about that. Which is why I try to get the bulk of my prep and cooking done when the girls are napping or otherwise occupied. I also take advantage of foods that cook themselves with minimal intervention, like rice and pasta. Once you have the rice or pasta going, you have plenty of time to whip the rest of the meal into shape.
If you think about it, rice takes about 20 minutes to cook (brown rice, about 45 minutes). During that time you can easily steam some fish or stir-fry some veggies. Pasta water takes about 10 or 15 minutes to come to a boil, and then it's a further 8-10 minutes to cook (dried) pasta. You can make a luscious pasta sauce in less than that amount of time and grate your cheese, too. (I will provide recipes for all of this.)
Another time saver for me is planning my meals in advance. I usually plan out what I am going to cook on the weekend and then grocery shop for the main ingredients. I like to buy fresh veggies daily when possible, so when I do the big shopping, I am mainly buying the protein or grain components of the meal. Knowing what I am going to cook is a huge time saver.
The weekend, when you might have help around, is the time to do things like:
- wash and spin dry all your lettuce, wrap gently in paper towels, and place them in plastic bags
- make a big batch of salad dressing
- cook a sauce, stew, or hearty spaghetti sauce to eat one night, and freeze half for another
- throw a cut up chicken in a bag with some lemon zest and juice, garlic, and olive oil and toss it in the freezer to use later in the week
- roast a chicken or pork loin to use throughout the week
- boil up some hard boiled eggs and use them for breakfast, snacks, sandwiches, and salads
Typical meal preparation for me during the week day (depending on what I am cooking) looks something like this:
- prep salad and vegetable while children are napping (Trim asparagus, string the beans, or snap sugar peas, etc. Place lettuce and other ingredients in salad bowl and refrigerate until dinner.)
- prep main dish (marinate meats or cut up a chicken etc.) or make the pasta sauce
- turn on rice pot (mine—a Zojirushi—will keep rice at the perfect temperature for hours, even days.)
- fill pasta pot with water and let it hang out on stove until it's ready to be turned on
- empty dishwasher and wash up dishes so clean-up after dinner is easier
Again, I have been seriously cooking meals for my family since I was 14, and different things for myself even before that. I have had a lot of practice so I can whip out my prep in about 15 minutes and then have the rest of the naptime for other things. If you are out of practice or if your kids don't nap then I understand that this technique might not work for you. In this case I would say, practice cooking something from scratch everyday and it will get easier. Try to find times to prep your meals when your children are occupied. It might take all day to get dinner prepped and ready, but that, too, will get easier once you find your groove.