5 Tips for Baking in Bulk… With Toddlers

posted by Andrea | 06/4/2013

5 tips for baking in bulk with toddlers

Over the past couple of years, I’ve shared many pictures, recipes, and tips for cooking/baking in bulk in attempts to keep our freezer stocked.

I guess freezer cooking is kind of my “thing”. I’m obsessed with trying to make all my recipes freezer-friendly because I know how much time and money I save by cooking/baking in bulk, and then freezing smaller portions for later.

I think anyone who’s ever pulled a frozen casserole or container of cookies out of the freezer as a last-minute “oh shoot, I forgot to make dinner/dessert/a snack” will agree that a well-stocked freezer can be a life-saver!

I rely on my freezer almost every day for full meals, baked goods, pre-portioned ingredients, or even to bring a meal to a friend. And while it does help that I have a good size deep freezer in our basement, you can still fit a decent amount of food in a smaller freezer — and I promise, it will still be worth your time!

However, whenever I mention my freezer cooking/baking sessions, I always get a handful of questions asking how I do it with a toddler (or any number of small children).

The truth is, it took me a really long time to figure this out myself! After Nora was born — and after I realized she refused to take naps and wanted to be held for most of the day — I started to panic thinking I would never, ever have enough time to continue my beloved freezer cooking and baking.

In the beginning, I did most of my cooking and baking in the evenings when Dave was home. Then we hired a college girl to come one day a week so I could focus on blogging and housework — so I did some baking and cooking while she was here.

However, over time, I slowly got better and more efficient with my freezer cooking and taught myself how to do it without help and with Nora in tow.

Obviously, my tips won’t work for everyone and every situation, but these are the simple steps I use when I’m cooking and baking in bulk… while entertaining Nora.

1. I make a list.

You knew this was coming didn’t you :) I can’t help it… I love my lists!

Whenever I’m gearing up for a couple hours of cooking or baking, I carefully list out all the recipes I want to make, and then glance over the necessary ingredients. If I need to buy anything, I’ll add it to my grocery list. If I just went grocery shopping and don’t have the item in the house, then I’ll most likely scratch that recipe and find another one instead.

2. I plan ahead.

Another no-brainer if I’m going to have a productive time in the kitchen…

Each night before I go to bed, I quickly glance at my list for the next day and if it includes any freezer cooking or baking, I make sure I have everything I need to get started. This might require me to defrost a few items from the freezer, washing a particular baking pan, or doing a little prep work while Nora is in bed so I don’t have to do it the following day.

Also, I usually try to make recipes with similar ingredients on the same day — so I might make 3 chicken dishes, 3 pasta dishes, or 3 varieties of chocolate desserts at a time. This allows me to combine pre-work and it also saves on dishes (I make all 3 chocolate desserts in the same bowl).

3. I do a little at a time.

For those of you picturing me spending all day in the kitchen resulting in hundreds of dirty dishes and 30 fully prepared meals — let me reassure you, that is NOT accurate at all!

As I’ve mentioned before, I usually only cook 2 or 3 meals per week – and no, that doesn’t mean we go out to eat 4 or 5 times a week. It simply means that 2 or 3 times a week, I make a double or triple batch of soup, pasta, casserole, cookies, cake, etc. and freeze anything we won’t eat in the next few days.

This allows me to do a little freezer cooking/baking at a time and only requires about 1 hour in the kitchen. Since I usually only make one or two different recipes at a time, a double or triple batch doesn’t take much longer than a single batch — but I get so much more “return on my investment”.

4. I make it fun for Nora.

For the most part, Nora really likes watching me in the kitchen. She’s learning the names of many fruits and vegetables — and she likes to play with food.

So she sits in her highchair, watching me and playing with some cut up fruits and veggies (or chocolate chips). She shouts out the names of ingredients as I add them and sometimes I even let her help — she’s a pro at snapping beans now!

If she’s acting uninterested, I let her down and she can look at books, watch a movie, color, or play with any of her toys in the living room — I usually work from the kitchen island so I can see her (almost) anywhere she goes!

As Nora gets older, the process of entertaining her while I work in the kitchen gets easier. For those of you with infants, it probably seems impossible right now — I know, because I thought the same thing last year at this time. It might be impossible right now (and for a while yet), but either they will become more independent or you will simply get better at multi-tasking and working with their schedule.

It might not be the ideal or most productive freezer-cooking situation, but eventually, you’ll find something that works… I promise :)

5. I prepare the recipes in advance and bake them all at one time.

I think out of all my tips, this is the one that saved my sanity the most… let me explain.

I had cookies in the oven for 8 minutes and decided to go change Nora’s diaper. But it was a nasty diaper and required more time than I was originally planning — including a complete outfit change and a mini temper tantrum. Then I got side tracked cleaning up her room — until I heard a faint buzzing noise. I ran to the kitchen to discover my slightly over-crunchy cookies. Annoying!

I had a lasagna in the oven for 1 hour and I could tell that Nora was tired but she just wouldn’t take a nap, so I decided to lay down with her to see if that would help. I ended up falling asleep with her — and although I never turn down extra sleep, my lasagna suffered. Annoying!

If you can relate to those types of situations, then you might want to try this concept.

Basically, I prepare all my recipes throughout the day (while caring for and entertaining Nora). But I don’t bake anything until Dave is home or until another adult is around.

So by mid afternoon, I might have a casserole for dinner, a bunch of cookie dough, a double batch of pancake batter, and 3 dozen muffins ready and waiting in the refrigerator. Then once Dave arrives home and takes over Nora duty, I flip pancakes, scoop cookie dough, and shuffle things in and out of the oven without too many distractions.

If your child regularly takes a long nap, you could do the baking during that time as well.

baked goods

So that’s it — these are the tips that have helped me continue baking and cooking in bulk, keeping our freezer stocked, and saving a whole bunch of time in the kitchen — all with Nora tagging along for the fun!

And like I mentioned above, these exact tips probably won’t work perfectly for you. But use them, try them, tweak them, and see if some of them might help you find your new freezer-cooking, baking-in-bulk-with-toddlers groove.

It took me a few months to get back in the groove after Nora was born, and I’m sure things will eventually change again — but then I’ll change my ways and come up with a new plan to keep our freezer stocked.

And then soon enough, I’ll put Nora to work and she can be a real kitchen helper — instead of just getting into mischief!

Do you have any other tips to add to my list?

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25 comments

  1. Erin

    06/04/2013

    I love freezer cooking. I have a very tiny kitchen and extremely limited freezer space. I don’t have the extra pans or space to freeze things in the pans. My solution is to line the baking dish with parchment/foil and freeze. Once frozen, I remove it from the pan, wrap it, put it in a ziplock bag, and place it back in the freezer. When it is time to use, I simply remove the wrapping and place it back into the original pan.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Yes, erin — I do the exact same thing most of the time. here’s the post I wrote about my space-saving freezer tips.

    [Reply]

  2. Evie

    06/04/2013

    I’d never even thought of preparing things through the day, saving them up, and baking them all in one block of time later in the day. Living in Florida, one of the things that keeps me from doing much baking is the heat…..but using your system keeps the extra heat out of the kitchen through the hottest part of the day; by baking time the air will be cooler so the AC won’t have to work so hard keeping us comfortable. Brilliant!

    I wanted to tell you guys about how I use my food processor essentially once a month to prepare freezer packs to save time and money (fewer tempting trips to the store) throughout the whole month. Except for milk and a few other things I might run out of, I do my complete grocery shopping near the beginning of every month.

    For food processing, I buy (for two people) 5 pounds of carrots (usually baby carrots on sale because they’re already peeled), 2 big bunches of celery,6 pounds of yellow onions, 6 or 8 green peppers, 10 or 12 jalapeno peppers, a cabbage or two, and a couple butternut squash. I stand at the food processor and fine chop each type of veggie. I put them in freezer bags, spread out in about a 3/4″ layer in the bag, using as many bags as it takes and labeling the bags as I go along. Then I lay the freezer bags flat on a baking tray in the freezer, so that when they are solid I can stand them up in a basket and flip through them to easily find what I need.

    I cook Italian food much of the time, and it’s wonderful to know I’ve got all the ingredients for my soffrito or battuto (see http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/04/how-to-make-battuto-italian-cooking-aromatics-carrots-celery-garlic.html), and it’s great to just put my olive oil and garlic in the pan and break off good sized chunks of the veggies I need and toss them in, too! Actually, last month I prepared a huge batch of the complete soffrito and flat-froze bags of that! Having it already prepared was great, but I didn’t like that it added wait-to-cool-down time to my freezer routine, and I think this month I will just freeze the raw ingredients as usual and cook them as I need them.

    I also buy monthly four or five bunches of bananas, usually the way marked down “rejects” that look banged up but are 99% find on the inside. Then I peel them one by one and slice them into freezer bags, again shoving them into a 3/4″ layer per bag, freezing them flat, and then storing them standing up in a basket. The bananas discolor slightly in the freezer, but they taste wonderful in our oatmeal and work great in recipes just the same.

    I wish I had a free standing deep freeze, but I just have the top freezer on my fridge to use. Still, using my food processor, flat freezing, and stand-up basket storage make the most of the freezer space I do have!

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  3. wilma

    06/04/2013

    I’d love some advice on the types of meals that freeze/don’t freeze well. I have some success with freezing, but find that some things just don’t taste that great once frozen…and my husband/children notice.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Hey Wilma — I think you’re looking for this post about freezable foods :)

    [Reply]

    wilma Reply:

    EXACTLY what i was looking for–thanks so much!!!!

    [Reply]

  4. Jen

    06/04/2013

    I would love to know where/how you find deals on aluminum pans and do you find that foods freeze okay in them? I like to use aluminum but they are getting expensive! Also, I see in the freezer picture that you have some things frozen in “real” 9×13 pans with lids? Do you put saran wrap or anything else over them first? Do you keep enough “real pans” around to allow for freezing items in them? I don’t have enough storage (or interest!) in having so many “real pans” just for use freezing things! Would love to hear your thoughts!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    I get my aluminum pans from Gordon Foods (they are usually $0.50 or less!). And yes, I do freeze in my regular pans too — if it’s something we’re going to eat very soon. Here’s an entire post I wrote about space-saving freezer tips.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Check your local grocery store for a $1 section. I spent big bucks on aluminum pans in the foil aisle and then realized there’s an amazing dollar section. Some are in 2-packs for a $1. Of course, dollar stores might have them too.

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  5. Organize 365

    06/04/2013

    I love your last point about baking when another adult is home.

    I have given up my cooking duties to my husband. My multitasking – child rearing results in many burned meals!

    I am really enjoying NOT being the cook, but when I go back, I may just be the prep queen.

    :)
    Lisa

    [Reply]

  6. Heart and Haven

    06/04/2013

    My kids are a bit older (5 & 6), but they’ve been helping prepare meals for a few years now. They like to pull up a chair to the kitchen counter, wash their hands w/soap & water (1st thing!), and help with whatever tasks we give them. Whether it’s measuring out “x” ingredient in a measuring cup to add to the mixing bowl, stirring something in the pot on the stove. Their favorite is when all the ingredients for shake & bake chicken are placed in a ziplock bag, and their job is to shake, shake, shake :-)

    My other tip (especially during days they aren’t interested in helping) is to find times of the day that is their “downtime”, where I can put on a movie for them while they relax. I find it’s too difficult to focus on prep-work when little ones have too much pent up energy!

    My last resort is working on bulk cooking either when they go to bed @ 8 pm, or on the weekends when hubby is home to help.

    Your other tips are great to maximize time when you have a bit of time for freezer/bulk cooking! :-)

    [Reply]

  7. Karen

    06/04/2013

    I have an awesome 4 month old daughter and I was afraid I would never be able to cook again. I’m a big fan of cooking from scratch and that seemed next to impossible with a newborn. Freezer cooking and my slow cooker have saved me! I do many of the things that you do. I also take advantage of her training seat. She loves to sit and watch me cook in the kitchen – granted I do a lot of dancing and singing to keep her entertained – but I find that I can get a decent amount done during her chair time. Sometimes it gets broken up during the day – chopping veggies in the morning, prepping rice at lunch and then actually cooking during her nap.

    [Reply]

  8. Katie

    06/04/2013

    Great post! I recently checked out a freezer meal cookbook from the library because it is something I have always wanted to try out. It seemed too intimidating and the recipes listed didn’t appeal to our family. I think organization is the key (especially with two littles). Thanks for the tips. Do you have a favorite site, book, or past blog post where you get most of your freezer-friendly recipes?

    [Reply]

  9. Crystal

    06/04/2013

    The ladies and I from our church often do a ‘Big Cook’, where we each make one recipe multiplied by however many of us are involved, plus one. Then we all switch meals, so that if there are 10 of us, we each come away with 10 different meals to freeze. The ‘plus one’ we each do, we put into the church freezer so if someone has some hardship, there are 10 meals ready to go! I just wish I could get into the swing of things on my own too! Haha!

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  10. Daphne

    06/05/2013

    To prevent those moments when everything happens at once, I put my son down in a baby safe place (pack n play, crib, behind baby gate, etc) for that extra 10 seconds I need to get something out of the oven. Sometimes, I’ll even let him “air out” naked and clean up any mishaps if need be later. If he cries, it’s minor because I don’t try to squeeze in anything extra, but simply remove whatever was in the oven and get back to him – I’ll go back afterwards to turn off the oven or anything extra.

    Baking is something I love, so I was able to figure out a safe way to manage it with a baby, getting those few extra seconds to put something in or out of the oven without worrying about him. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a consistently napping son, too, so I guess I lucked out with that one.

    As for falling asleep with food in the oven, that is just one of those “grr” moments in life!

    [Reply]

  11. Brooke

    06/05/2013

    I’m shocked that one word didn’t make your list: Babywearing! I keep my 1-year-old on my back in an Ergo carrier (built-in exercise for me!), and my 3-year-old helps dump, mix, and rinse dishes.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    haha — you wouldn’t be so shocked if you knew Nora at all :) I’ve tried 4 or 5 different baby-wearing tools but Nora hated every single one of them. I wasn’t too fond of them either — especially when I’m trying to move around in the kitchen. Nora is really really tall (like 98%) so at this point, it would literally be impossible for me to wear her because her limbs are so long, she’d mess everything up as I was making it!

    [Reply]

    Brooke Reply:

    Gotcha! Well, maybe my comment will help somebody with a short-limbed baby. :)

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    yes… I’ve heard of more people who ‘wear’ their kids while doing house work. I always wondered how that would work… but you’re right, maybe with a short-limbed non-squirmy baby :)

    [Reply]

  12. Jennifer

    06/05/2013

    Thanks for the post! Some very simple pointers that I hadn’t thought of– and I freezer cook often. I used to be able to wear my son in the kitchen, but he’s way too big now. I can’t see my hands in front of me. :) I often start something and get my husband to finish it off when the little one is tired of watching me and wants me to hold/play with him. It’s fun trying to see how much I can get accomplished before my time is up.

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  13. Jennifer

    06/05/2013

    Forgot I have a tip to share. I have a few little learning activities (things I made like a Pom Pom sorter) I only give my son in his high chair and I rotate them so he has something different to do each night. It keeps him stimulated and occupied for a little bit longer when he’s tired of watching me.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Jennifer — here are a bunch more ideas for “busy bags” — those little activities that can keep your son occupied. They are life savers over here in the Dekker house!!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Reply:

    Oh, thanks!!

    [Reply]

  14. Diana

    06/14/2013

    I’ve had the same learning curve and do many of the same things with my 17 mo old! :) But I should definitely add list making to my tools–don’t know why I haven’t thought of it before because I make lists all the time for other things!

    If I’m chopping potatoes, sometimes I scoop them into a little bowl as I chop each potato and my little guy puts them into the big pot. Makes an extra bowl to wash, but it keeps him busy! He likes trying to help me stir, so we take turns. If it’s bread dough, I give him a tiny piece to “knead.” Or if it’s snack time, I take advantage of his being in the high chair to get something done :)

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  15. Teneisha

    07/23/2013

    I had 2 kids 16 months apart. We started by them having a cabinet where I put lots of mixing bowls for them. They liked crawling in and out, playing with their bowls and pretending to cook. I would shake in things like garlic powder, salt or pepper and let them stir with their plastic spoons. When they got bored, I let them mix in a “new” ingredient (like flour, etc.). I always chose a dry spice or substance that I could easily sweep up afterwards. It allowed my boys to learn to taste different flavors and understand how seasonings influence dishes. Some days, for variety’s sake, I showed them how to turn the bowls over and play them like drums as I played my music .

    Today, they are 6 and 7 and still love to help in the kitchen. The difference is that now they can break eggs, stir, make soups, pour pancakes, cut vegetables with a chopping tool and make great food. The love to eat almost everything and now come up with their own recipe ideas! They love to cook, love to eat and are not afraid to try new foods. I look back on all those times I swept up the floor after they “cooked” and I smile. It was difficult then, but I hoped I was doing something worthwhile. Now I see it was definitely worth it.

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