Preparing and cooking dinner every night can be a real struggle, whether you’re a working mom or a stay-at-home mom with little ones. For most working parents, by the time you get home it’s already past 6 pm, and the thought of making a healthy dinner (that the kids will actually eat) can be overwhelming. If you’re at home with a baby, you’re busy trying to get him ready for bed during the 6-7 pm hour so preparing dinner is almost impossible. By the time the baby is put to bed, you’re probably too exhausted to even think about making dinner. The obvious temptation is to just buy dinner, but surviving on pick-ups and delivery can be costly and less healthy.
So how does one manage to cook dinner for the family during the week? Here are 10 tips to help you survive the weeknight dinner challenge:
1. Meal planning is key
Planning ahead and having a schedule is the key to weeknight dinner survival. Make sure to choose a few meals to prepare for the week and shop for those ingredients on the weekends. If you skip this step, you will inevitably end up eating out more often. I usually buy three proteins (chicken, fish, pork/beef) that I plan on serving during the week and buy enough veggies to go with it. For the carb portion, I usually make rice (in my rice cooker that I can program the night before to be ready for dinner the next day), couscous, oven roasted potatoes or pasta. Because grocery shopping with two whiny kids is so much fun (read my sarcasm here), I’ve started experimenting with on-line grocery shopping like AmazonFresh. I order items I need after the kids go to bed and my groceries arrive during my specified date/time. The perishable items are packed with ice packs so that they stay fresh.
2. Get help
Have your partner/relative watch your children once a week for about 1-2 hours and prep dinners for the whole week. Wash and cut up veggies, marinate meats, make sauces so that dinner prep is as efficient as possible during the weeknight rush.
3. Prep earlier in the day
If you’re at home, you can try preparing food earlier in the day, and then reheat for dinner. Try prepping and cooking during your baby’s nap time(s) because you may have more energy earlier in the day.
4. Crock pot meals
Learn to make a few recipes and prep ahead. You will be rewarded with a hot and yummy meal for dinner. Here’s my easy and delicious chicken chili. Make a huge batch so you’ll have leftovers.
If I’m short on time, I throw a jar of salsa or BBQ sauce over some chicken breast and cook 5 hours on low.
5. Instant Pot Pressure Cooker
I haven’t used a pressure cooker but my mom uses an Instant Pot pressure cooker to make soups and broths, yogurt, stews, rice and vegetables. Pot roast can be cooked in 35 minutes, pasta, rice, and chicken in 10 minutes, and steam broccoli in 2 minutes. It takes a fraction of the time to cook a regular crockpot recipe and you can have a meal ready in just minutes.
6. Try a meal kit delivery service like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Gobble, and Sun Basket.
I’ve been using Blue Apron once a month for about six months now. Their meals are always delicious and I’ve learned new ways to prepare foods and added new ingredients to my cooking repertoire. Blue Apron has come out with quick meals that take 25-30 minutes to prepare. These 30-minute meals are more suited for the weeknights than their usual, more involved meals, but are still delicious. My work colleague uses Gobble and really likes it because the meal kits typically take 15-20 minutes to prepare in a single pot. Sun Basket and Hello Fresh are other meal delivery service I’m interested in trying out.
7. Take advantage of Costco and Trader Joes
Costco was a lifesaver when my son was a baby. They have lots of pre-prepared items, like rotisserie chicken, quinoa salads, and soups, as well as items you can heat up in the oven like lasagnas and pizzas.
Trader Joe’s also has a bounty of ready-made meals. For example, they have a meat bolognese sauce that I toss with my pasta. Add a bag of salad and you’ve got a quick, easy meal.
8. Prepare simple meals and use the same ingredients for other meals
Your oven is your best friend: I cut up vegetables like zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, and toss with olive oil and sea salt and pepper – and bake at 375 degrees for 25-35 minutes. For things that take longer (like potatoes and Brussel sprouts), I heat the veggies in the microwave for 3-4 minutes, then broil or bake on high for 10-15 minutes for that nice oven-roasted color and flavor. Use the remaining cut up veggies for a future salad, stir fry or soup.
I’m a fan of whole rotisserie chickens and salad kits. Costco sells a tasty Asian salad kit that I like to doctor up with rotisserie chicken. I shred the remaining chicken to be used for tacos, chicken wraps, and pasta salads. Once most of the meat is used up, I remove the chicken skin and toss the rest of the chicken in a crock pot filled with water. A few hours later, I have a pot of delicious home-made chicken broth that can be used to make chicken noodle soup.
9. Wear your baby / entertain your kids while you cook
Put your baby somewhere safe like bouncy chair while you cook. For clingy babies, you can try wearing your baby on your back. For older kids, set them up with a project or a toy that you reserve only for special occasions.
10. Make enough leftovers for the next day
Make extra food so that you’ll have leftovers for lunch the next day or use the leftovers to make a different recipe. For example, if you have extra grilled chicken, you can use it for a salad or chicken wrap or soup the next day.
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