Highly competitive cooking shows are for amateurs. Don't get me wrong, I love to watch them. The frantic chopping, amazing equipment, ongoing pressure, and endless pantry are a site to behold and I love every minute. But come on guys, if you really want a food challenge, try preparing a holiday meal for your family and friends with young children at your heels. You think coming up with 3 recipes in an hour is tough? Try braising while nursing. Searing while soothing. Cooking while supervising.
I watch the Iron Chefs and laugh. Need a last minute chopped onion? Right away sir say the sous chefs who hurry to dice or mince a shallot, leek, or other variety on hand. In my house, I have to find the damn onion, clean the board, cut it up, and throw it in hoping it's not too late, all to the melody of "Mom!!!", "Mommy!!!", "He took my toy!!!", or just plain screaming from the baby. If attention is not paid, band-aid emergencies pile up. The floor gets covered with toys, and not the big ones - oh no, the little things that cause me to slip, trip, and fall. Thomas trains. Blocks. Small hairclips. Try cooking in a loud obstacle course. Where at the end of the show, it's not Jeffrey Steingarten doing the judging; it's your mother-in law - so it better be good.
Beyond all that, you're not just making dinner, you're making memories which will outlast the big event. The smell of my Nana's stuffed cabbage does not just make my mouth water; it makes me long to see her, to ask if I put in enough brown sugar, to show her how I am doing. My Mother's mushroom barley brings back memories of our kitchen with my Grand-Mother, who loved to eat the cooked onions and mushrooms and taught me to enjoy the whole as well as the parts. The warmth of a happy kitchen are some of my best childhood memories. I'd like to pass that on to my children.
Not to brag, but one year I piped, baked, and filled a full meringue tart with one hand while carrying my 3 month old son with the left. It was fabulous, and I felt like a combination of next Food Network Star and Supernanny. Here are a few tips and tricks that have worked for me.
Play with your food. I try to buy extra fruits and vegetables to keep the kids distracted. What you say? Yes, even if they won't eat them, they will play with them, especially if they see them in mass quantity. When my daughter was two, I made lemons into currency and would bargain. "If you eat your Cheerios, you can have two lemons" Worked like a charm.
Get crafty. Another technique is to make art projects. For Rosh Hashanah we go apple picking and come home with bushels of apples. I cut them in half and let the kids use them as stamps. Get a big piece of posterboard, some paint, and let them have at it. Accept the mess - it's worth it if you get 15 minutes to focus on what you're doing. You can even use the result as a decoration.
Enlist the troops. Kids like to help in the kitchen. Give them age appropriate tasks. Let babies play with old pots and pans. Toddlers can help stir, put the dishes in the machine, put candles in the candle sticks, and find ingredients from the pantry. They also may like to use their own kitchen toys - give them some whole foods to use as ingredients. Older kids can actually help do some prep, measure, read from the cookbooks, and set the table. And everyone loves to taste. Solicit opinions whenever possible. Let them lick the bowls to their heart's content.
Think ahead. If you can, try to have holiday appropriate activities for kids on hand during the meal. Get extras, and use them for emergency activities while in the kitchen. Some ideas include tattoos (always a hit - get frog ones for Passover), coloring books, stickers, oragami for older kids, gardening projects, etc.
The more the merrier. It helps having other adults on hand in the kitchen. Invite friends and family over. If they have kids it turns into a big playdate. You can share the responsibility for cooking and watching the kids, as well as the results. This works especially well with things cooked best in quantity like brisket or gefilte fish.
Mary Poppins got it right; "In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job's a game." I call it the spoon full of sugar school of cooking. Kids get excited when they see the drama in the home kitchen stadium. Manage them well, and you will be rewarded.