I called it "Crazy Hour." Every weekday around 4:30 p.m., I faced the toughest challenge of my day. As I hurried about the kitchen preparing the evening meal, every tick of my infant son’s wind-up swing reminded me that I was on a countdown to potential domestic disaster.

I knew he would only tolerate the swing for so long before demanding a spoon-fed supper. And mealtime for my little man was simply not negotiable; when he decided it was time to eat, dinner preparations for the rest of the family would have to be put on hold . . . even if I had promised to have supper ready by 6 p.m. this time for sure . . . even if the church meeting started at 7 p.m. sharp . . . and even if my other two children were, in their own ways, stymieing my attempts to keep the meal preparations moving forward.

In the next room, increasingly shrill demands from my five-year-old daughter suggested that fatigue induced by an afternoon at kindergarten was taking its toll.

"I don’t want the blue dress-up shoes. I want the ones that came with my Belle dress. I need you to find them." I knew I had, at most, another five minutes before I would have to join the search for the "correct" shoes – or risk an emotional outburst that would delay mealtime indefinitely.

But leaving my listless middle child to himself in the kitchen was precarious – and not just because there was pasta boiling on the stove. David was transitioning out of afternoon naps, and at this time of day, he could fall asleep just about anywhere. If that happened, I could be sure midnight would find me bleary-eyed and exhausted, entertaining a wide-awake preschooler.

Creative solutions for Crazy Hour

I had been in the habit of relieving some of the stress of Crazy Hour by popping in a video to entertain the two older children. But now that David was starting to skip his naps, TV was off-limits in the late afternoon; it could send him off to sleep as effectively as a warm blanket and a rocking chair.

Truth be told, I was missing the kids’ TV time just as much as they were. Clearly I needed to come up with some creative ways to engage them during Crazy Hour.

Letting them help me cook was out of the question, since there was little they could do that didn’t require two small children wielding sharp knives. Over time, however, I found that Joanna and David could "help" with supper in a number of other ways – ways that enriched our family’s mealtime together and required only minimal supervision.

Here are some of the ideas I used with my kids, as well as some new ones that you might want to try with your family:

  1. Talking microphone – Our kids often squabbled at the kitchen table over "air-time." One child continually dominated the conversation then complained about frequent interruptions by their frustrated sibling. Finally, one Crazy Hour, I had each child decorate pretend "microphones" made from saran wrap rolls. At mealtime, we passed around one of the microphones to emphasize the importance of taking turns to speak. Decorating new microphones for a special event or a new season of the year became a popular Crazy Hour activity.

  2. Centre of attention – On other occasions, the kids prepared special centrepieces for the dinner table that required no glue, scissors or paint. Instead, the "art medium" was Lego® bricks, blocks or figurines from their toy sets. The kids enjoyed being the "centre of attention" during mealtime as they explained the intricacies of their unique creations.

  3. Book browser’s corner – A children’s portable tape player and a selection of read-along books were among the best purchases I ever bought for my kids. Long before they could read, Joanna and David loved to cozy up in a corner of the kitchen and listen to audio stories while following along in the book. At dinnertime, we’d have fun trying to recite some of their favourite stories word for word.

  4. Evening family news – Invite your children to record a radio-style news broadcast about the events of the day, or let them invent a sensational news story. Then play it back for the family during suppertime for your very own "Evening News" broadcast – one you’ll never forget.

  5. Wish-list menu – Encourage your kids to write down or draw their ideal menu for the next week (you might want to mention that ice cream for a main course isn’t the best idea!). This activity helps younger children learn the days of the week, and hopefully you’ll pick up some ideas you can incorporate into your meal plan, too.

  6. Kids’ cookbook – My children’s instructions for preparing simple dishes like popcorn, toast and applesauce were often hilarious and Grandma loved receiving these "recipes" in birthday and Mother’s Day cards. Have your child record their own recipes using an audio recorder, or have an older sibling help them write down their culinary inspirations. The resulting spellings can make these recipes even more endearing.

  7. Napkin folding – If you have older children at home who can assist younger ones, keep an eye out for good books or websites that use clear, step-by-step illustrations to show kids how to fold napkins into fun shapes. Most napkin-folding instructions work fine with paper napkins, although you may find it helpful to use paper clips to hold some folds together.

  8. Hold, please – When my children were very small, I quickly learned to let the answering machine do its job, so I could do mine. In later years, with the benefit of caller ID, I allowed the kids to answer calls from Daddy and relay messages from friends during Crazy Hour. It turned out to be a great opportunity to tutor them in proper telephone etiquette.

Although I now work outside the home and am on-call round the clock for my three teens, few days are as gruelling as those I experienced as a young mom. But as I look back, I realize my children’s early years were also a precious gift. In a surprisingly short period of time, my husband and I were no longer the only ones influencing our kids’ lives and decisions. I’m thankful for the opportunities we had to lay foundations that would help our children build a love for God and for each other . . . even during Crazy Hour.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2008 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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