It’s 5:30 – pick-up time at daycare. I am – quickly – learning about the kids’ day from their teachers, collecting their things, and trying to ward off melt downs. Why so quickly? Because, with or without the meltdowns, I know the kids are hungry. And if they’re not absolutely STARVING now, they will be by the time we get home. In the car, the dinner menu is socialized with the kids to avoid a huge “I don’t like that!” meltdown at the table. (I’ve noticed that it’s helpful to do this when they are buckled up and stationary.) Luckily, the 2 year old lets her 5 year old brother do most of the what’s-for-dinner whining.
But the real challenge lays ahead. At home, my goal is to make a tasty and healthy dinner as quickly as possible. And to keep the kids from turning so hangry they won’t eat a bite of it. If I’m really on top of my game, I can get dinner done in 30 minutes. Most of the time, though, I’m looking at 40 – 45 minutes.
I’ve tried strategies to be more efficient; most of them don’t work for me. For example:
- Meal plan & prep on Sunday. My husband and I both work during the week. Our weekends are spent with our kids and catching up on sleep. The last thing I’m motivated to do on Sunday is meal prep for the coming week. I’m lucky if I make it to the grocery store and have a general idea of upcoming meals.
- Freezer meals. I make some freezer meals, but opportunistically. If I’m making a time consuming casserole, I’ll double the recipe & put one in the freezer for later. Or I’ll buy an extra big package of meat, use some, and marinate the rest in the freezer. My biggest challenge in using a frozen casserole is remembering to take it out of the freezer the night before.
- Crock pot meals. I’ll use the crock pot on days I work from home. But when I go to the office, I don’t have enough time in the morning to put it together and my day is too long for even the most forgiving of crock-pot recipes. By the time we get home, dinner is a soggy, overcooked, unappetizing mess.
So, what strategies work for me? It’s not rocket science, but here are a few that I use:
- Set up the meal for quick cooking. For example, I’ll use boneless, smaller chicken pieces that will cook quicker than a whole chicken or bone-in pieces. If I want roasted potatoes, I’ll cut them up into inch-size pieces in order to speed cooking.
- Choose dishes you can cook at the same time. So, if your oven isn’t large enough to cook a meatloaf and roast the potatoes at the same time, make boiled potatoes instead.
- Sequence your cooking. Start each dish so they are (mostly) finished at the same time. Start prepping the items that will take the longest first. I usually focus on the carbohydrates and protein. If I want to marinate the chicken strips before sauteing them, I’ll immediately get them marinating. Rice is always started dishes early; once it’s done, it can rest off the heat just fine until we’re ready to eat. Similarly, put a pot of water on to boil first. I may wait to add the pasta, but at least the water will be ready. And potatoes always get priority cooking treatment. Veggies are almost always last, since they cook pretty quickly.
Even under the best of circumstances, I still need to do something to quell the rumblings in the two little people’s bellies. Or distract them. So, here’s what I do:
- Get them something to eat. It seems obvious, but it took me a while to come to terms with this. You spend time making a homemade meal; the last thing you want is for your kids’ appetites to be ruined. The key, I’ve found, is WHAT to eat. I give them options that, if they do ruin their appetites, I won’t mind (so much). They are welcome to eat any of the raw veggies I’m prepping for dinner. They can also grab a cheese stick out of the fridge. This is their typical choice and I love it. They can get it on their own and since neither are big fans of meat it helps them get enough protein.
- Distract them. The older one is now big enough to chew gum. Giving him a stick to chew on the way home from school has cut the hangry whining by at least 80%. Once we’re home, a short TV show is just the thing I need to keep them out of trouble until dinner is ready. TV has it’s place in our home and this is it.
If you need some new dinner ideas, here are a handful of quick dishes that are proven winners in our household.
- Tacos (preferably on Tuesday, since the kids LOVE to say “It’s Taco Tuesday!”). Leftover taco meat is usually used later on in a taco casserole.
- Teriyaki chicken. I use a store bought marinade to make life a little easier. This is one of the few meat proteins the kids will eat seconds of.
- Macaroni and cheese. If time is very short or I’m exhausted, the boxed version will do the trick. But really, homemade doesn’t take more than 30 minutes, we all like it better, and I usually have leftovers for lunches.
- Chopped cucumber and tomato salad. Sometimes I had chopped peppers. Olive oil, lemon juice/vinegar, S&P go on the table so we can all season it ourselves. (If I have half a lemon, the kids LOVE squeezing the juice on themselves.) The kids eat this salad up.
- Quesadillas. I can turn these babies out faster than Ming Ming can say “This is se-wious!”. Add some veggie sticks and you’ve got a meal. The adult version has sauted veggies and black beans in the quesadilla.
- Pasta with garlic, cannellini beans, parmesan cheese, and a smidgen of red pepper flakes. I often don’t serve a separate protein with this meal — just a nice veggie. The kids love the cannellini beans, which always amazes me.
What are some of your proven winners?