Let’s Talk: When There’s No Time {or Desire} To Make Dinner

When I’m talking to someone and they say something like: “I’m so jealous that you love to cook, it’s not fair” or “at least you like to make dinner – it’s the worst” or “can you teach me how to look forward to dinnertime?”

I always have a hard time not falling on the ground and laughing my head off. Or bursting into tears. Or laying on the nearest couch to share all my deep, dark feelings about dinnertime.

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The truth is: I love to cook. I do. And I dream about food. I really do.

But thinking of (and actually executing) dinner every single night for the rest of forever kind of makes me want to crawl in a hole somewhere and never emerge.

Dinnertime is hard.

Every family situation is different, but in our house with five kids going a lot of different directions, the general chaos of after-school homework and activities and piano practice/lessons (hold me), and in general, just a busy life with a few still-young kids that like to cling to my legs between the hours of 4 and 6, dinnertime is not always my most favorite time of the day.

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I’ve talked a lot about how I work hard to plan a menu. It keeps me as sane as possible (note: I’m not saying it keeps me completely sane, mind you) and definitely helps to get dinner on the table many nights.

If I’ve bought the ingredients and planned my day to get dinner prepped, ready, and made, chances are it’s going to happen more often than not.

But there are always those nights. You know the ones (pleeeeease tell me you know the ones) where even with the best laid plans, dinner is a major struggle. Sometimes I’m simply not in the mood for what I put on the menu plan two weeks before.

Other times, it’s me forgetting about a meeting or an extra soccer practice or getting involved in a project or burying into the kids’ homework with them and forgetting that hungry mouths need something to eat for dinner (including mine).

I mean, the list goes on.

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But the point of this post isn’t to continue complaining about how dinnertime is hard (although I do love to complain about it, as you can see); instead I want to share some of my strategies for what happens when the official dinner plans don’t, because at the end of the day, I want something yummy to eat even if it isn’t gourmet or on the official menu plan.

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There are a certain number of storebought/homemade foods I keep stocked because I know I have a fallback for hectic dinner nights. Here are a few of my go-to’s and how I use them for a semi-homemade dinner fix (as a quick note, I have more stores available to me now that we don’t live in the remote wilds of Northern Minnesota, but even when we’ve lived in really, really small towns, I would stock up on all of these things – and more – when I would do my large grocery store trips in the big city and keep everything in the freezer):

Aidell’s Chicken Sausages: I’m not affiliated with this company/product at all but man, we love these (I get mine at Costco). I keep the Pineapple & Bacon Chicken Sausages in the fridge/freezer constantly. I use them in real, live recipes of course, but many nights, we heat them up in a skillet and dip them in BBQ sauce for a quick dinner (served with fresh fruit/vegetables). Sometimes I roast them on a baking sheet with vegetables that need to be used up (broccoli, potatoes cut in small cubes, etc) and if you like really down-home foods, my Aunt Marilyn clued me into a great, fast dinner: throw chopped cabbage, thinly sliced potatoes, and some of these chicken sausages, sliced, into a large skillet with a little olive oil. Cook over medium heat for a few minutes letting the sausage brown a little, adding salt and pepper to taste (season well!). Pour in a bit of water, maybe 1/2 cup or so, cover the skillet and let it all steam until tender and flavorful, 10 or so minutes. We put a little shredded sharp cheddar cheese on top and it is muy delicioso (and so, so easy).

Bagels (Parmesan ones from Costco are our favorites): some nights it’s simply toasted bagels with cream cheese but bagels also make really great paninis* or hearty sandwiches and kind of takes an ordinary hurry-and-make-a-sandwich-for-dinner-night up a little notch.

Rustic crusty bread (or a storebought variety): speaking of paninis, I always have a loaf of the Rustic crusty bread, this Rosemary bread, and/or those soft Ciabatta-type rolls (again, I get them at Costco) in my freezer because I’ve learned that paninis might be the best thing to happen to scattered dinner plans. They can be customized according to your customers, which means I can keep it simple for the kids and still get a fabulous meal in my belly (my favorite panini – easy to keep everything on hand – is fig butter, green apple slices, swiss or Brie cheese, Dijon mustard and ham; heavenly, and it comes together in minutes)

Flatbread (from Costco or this homemade Greek pita flatbread): pizza, baby! Turn on the broiler, load up the flatbread (no need to even thaw if the flatbread has been in the freezer as long as the pieces can be separated) with desired toppings and broil for just a few minutes; besides classic pizza sauce/toppings, we also love to top this flatbread with scrambled eggs, ham and cheese (and broil) or a little olive oil, garlic powder and whatever cheese is in the fridge.

*We use our handy dandy panini press several times a week for paninis, grilled cheese, and sometimes french toast. I have the older Cuisinart model but it appears the newer, less expensive version is getting great reviews, too. Can’t recommend this appliance enough – I love it so very much.

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I freeze a lot of food – often, I’ll make a double batch of something just so I can stick half in the freezer for later. I have a whole list of meals on my blog that are freezable, but here are the ones I specifically keep in my freezer at all times for quick dinners (there are a lot of freezer meals wonderful for baking from frozen – but a 2-hour bake time doesn’t help us on crazy nights where we may have forgotten to start it on time, am I right?):

Homemade Spaghetti Sauce: dinner is just a pot of boiling noodles away (the sauce pulled straight from the freezer can be defrosted and warmed in 10-15 minutes)
BBQ Pork: this makes great quesadillas or quick sandwiches
Freezer Beef and Bean Burritos or these Super Bean Burritos: easiest dinner ever
Meatballs: I make extra of the meatballs from this recipe and keep them in the freezer; quickly defrosted and heated through and they can be served alone with fresh vegetables/fruit, with steamed rice, or on bread (toasted or broiled with cheese or lots of different types of sauces: spaghetti, curry, etc.)

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If you have a little more oomph in you and want to follow a recipe, here are a few of my fave recipes that need 20-minutes or less and use {mostly} pantry staples. And of course I have to give a quick shout-out (thanks to the comments who helped me remember!) that breakfast for dinner is a totally acceptable solution sometimes. Some of our favorite breakfasts-for-dinner are basic scrambled eggs + toast, waffles, pancakes (this make-ahead mix is awesome), and these rollup blender pancakes are always well-received.

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I look forward to dinner as much as anyone in this house. And because I love me a good meal, the thought of eating cold cereal for dinner makes me want to cry, but this wouldn’t be any sort of keepin’ it real, let’s talk post without a nod to the no-cook options. I try to utilize any of the above tips before resorting to this, but you know, sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. One of our favorite fallbacks in this category is popcorn (still using and loving this microwave popper for all our homemade popcorn needs) and smoothies.

Is dinnertime ever a stress at your house?

Please share (your stresses AND your solutions!).

{As always, this post is unsponsored and the few affiliate links above are to products I’ve bought myself and loved from Amazon.}