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.

Let's Talk

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.

Let's Talk

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.

Let's Talk

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.

Let's Talk
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.

Let's Talk
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.)

Let's Talk
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.

Let's Talk
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.}

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

  1. Brianna says:

    I just had my second baby and have referenced this post so often in the past two months I almost have it memorized. My favorite tip is keeping pulled pork in the freezer because it can be used for lunch or dinner. It can go on a roll, or a tortilla, or a rice bowl. An easy meal I would add to the list is a roasted broccoli and pineapple rice bowl. I just start the rice cooker and toss frozen broccoli and pineapple on a cookie sheet to roast. Then mix it together with soy sauce and sriracha. A fried egg can add some protein and I keep all the ingredients on hand

  2. Alisa says:

    What part of the grocery store has the fig butter?

    • Mel says:

      I’ve found it at Trader Joes and on Amazon (there’s been a variation of fig jam at my regular grocery store, too, in the jam aisle, although it isn’t labeled “fig butter”)

  3. Jacelyn says:

    What kind of flathead do you use from Costco? Is it a specific brand/from the bakery?

  4. Megan says:

    I have a question regarding your panini press. Do you use it as much as a griddle? Is there overlap? I have wanted a panani press for awhile but didn’t know if I would find my griddle does many of the same things. I have a griddle that I use for quesadillas, grilled cheese, pancakes, flat breads etc. I use it all the time. Bottom line, do you have distinct uses for both griddle and panini press to justify having both. Thanks for your insights 🙂

    • Mel says:

      Hi Megan, I use both – griddle and panini press. My panini press isn’t big enough to use for the other things I often make on the griddle but we make paninis so often that the panini press is worth it (it’s what we make grilled cheese on, too). Having said that, if you love your griddle, I’m pretty sure it does what a panini press would do, especially if you press the sandwiches down with a heavy lid or something like that while they cook.

  5. Lindsey says:

    I’m just a wee bit late reading this post, but “thank you!” Struggling through this first trimester of pregnancy with our third, and I have zilch desire to cook anything. Zero. Nada. So I was reading your blog today, hoping for some inspiration, and found this post…thank you so so much!!!

  6. Stephanie says:

    I’m finally getting around to comenting on this fantastic post. I also dread the daily dinner pressure, although a lot less since I found your blog! I had to tell you that I have made aunt Marilyn’s sausage potato skillet dinner at least two dozen times since this post and everyone loves it, even the picky one. Our favorite sausage is Trader Joes sun dried tomato and basil chicken sausage. Thanks for all you do!

  7. Stefanie says:

    Mel– I just have to say, I seriously love you! I frequent your blog and always end up with such a long list of recipes I want to try. (Everything I’ve made from here has been fantastic! Whenever I tell my husband I’m making a new recipe from Mel’s, he instantly trusts me that it will be wonderful :)) It’s one of those days… I’m a few days overdue on grocery shopping and the fridge is looking a little bare and dinnertime is fast approaching. I think I’m going to try the korean beef tonight! Thanks for all the ideas and suggestions and for being so real! I feel like you’re a long-time friend of mine and I just wanted to say thanks for all the time and effort you put in here! You’ve saved me more times than I can count with the dinnertime struggle!

  8. Sarah says:

    My fallback meal is oatmeal. Seriously – it is quick, easy and I feel good about eating it. We also eat a fair amount of popcorn for dinner too. But my kids never seem to think that that was dinner and always ask for a real dinner an hour later.

  9. Erin says:

    I love trader Joe’s black bean taquitos for crazy nights. I always have at least five packages in my freezer. Paired with their southwest chicken poppers (freezer too!) it’s an easy and fast dinner!

  10. Bridget says:

    I plan my meals one week at a time. I try to make one crockpot meal a week and throw in a few simple meals for the really hectic days. I try to prep anything I can in the morning. I have small children and my husband sometimes gets home late. Often I will feed my two youngest children a simplified version of dinner while I cook dinner for the rest of us. I too enjoy freezing items and keeping on hand certain ingredients that guarantee a tasty semi homemade dinner. My latest trick was setting out all the ingredients (non perishable) by my stove so that when I got home at night it was staring me in the face. Thanks again for keeping it real and helping me to put dinner on the table week after week!

  11. Renee says:

    This makes me feel so much better about some of the dinners we’ve had in the weeks since school started! These are some great ideas too, it’s always nice to have things to add to the quick & easy dinners list (and in a list outside my head, because I tend to forget them when I need them most!)

  12. Melanie B says:

    Thanks for all the quick ideas! Until soccer/football season is over we are living off of quick and easy. Love the muffin video with you and Cam! Now that I’m kinda in your neck of the woods, you are always welcome to come to Seattle! Seriously.

  13. Rebecca says:

    if you can see it coming, the crock-pot is your best friend. Even if you’ve just fallen off the wagon, lost your mojo, whatever. It’s a great way to get back in the groove. That or delegate dinner to the upper elementary kiddos and let the chips (doritos, more than likely) fall where they may:)

  14. Mickelle says:

    love this post. thanks for giving real life examples!!

  15. Emily says:

    I keep chicken patties in the freezer at all times. The ones from Foster Farms at Costco are actually pretty good! My kids don’t mind chicken patty sandwiches or sometimes I’ll slice up a few and throw them into a salad. Sometimes we’ll do malibu chicken from Sizzlers by adding ham and swiss cheese. Chicken patties are a lifesaver!

    Quesadillas too of course. We buy the uncooked tortillas from Costco and we’ll do just plain cheese or I’ll throw in some pepperoni and left over pizza sauce and call them pizza quesadillas.

    If I have a lot of little leftovers like veggies, leftover meat from another meal, tiny bit of cheese, extra produce from the co-op basket, etc, I’ll make a quiche to use it all up. Everyone loves a pie crust with eggs (I use the press-in pie crust from Betty Crocker, I mix it all up in the pie plate and press it into place. Love it!).

    I keep a four-pack of bacon from Costco in the freezer at all times. It thaws quickly and I cook it in the oven to reduce mess from frying. When in doubt, serve bacon with anything, and everyone is happy!

    The thought of being in charge of what five people are going to eat in this world on a daily basis is daunting. One day at a time, I guess…

  16. Jamie says:

    Me and 3 of my friends were all tired of the dinner rush and chaos. So we decided to start a dinner group. We each take a night (mom-thurs) to make dinner and bring it to the other families. We can bring it right at dinner time hot and ready to go or earlier in the day and we pop it in the oven when it works for us. We each have families of 7-8 so it is a lot of people to feed but we love it! Because it is just one weeknight a week that we have to cook everyone gives it a good effort without stressing out. Luckily I have amazing cooks for friends too:) It really is the best solution and I highly recommend it!!

  17. Kate says:

    Your family is so cute! Your daughter looks so much like you! Thanks for the tips. It seems safe to say we all feel better knowing this about you.

  18. Kim in MD says:

    I love to cook and entertain, but I agree about the nightly dinners. I cook dinner almost every night, and during the summer we eat a lot of salad with some sort of protein. As we get into the cooler Fall months I will enjoy making lots of soups and stews and freezing them for easy meals.

  19. Jweed says:

    You have a gift, my friend. fabulous post!

  20. Lisa says:

    I don’t know if you are anything like me, but 2015 or not, having my husband cook a meal or two every week would quite possibly stress me out more than be helpful! He would use up ingredients I had planned for other things, or use a freezer meal I had cooked for a particular date. In order to avoid that I would have to run through all the items I had pre-purchased for future meals, or label everything. Or he would have to do his own shopping, which would be ridiculous. I guess he could cook the night before days I had already planned to go to the store, but I usually determine shopping dates by sales, not by a regular schedule. Anyway, I like to cook and prefer to just make a menu plan and prepare for dinner best I can! Love your website for the way it helps me with that!

  21. Michele says:

    I loved this post!! I use some of these ideas but you gave me more! I can’t wait to try that sausage and cabbage meal, sounds delicious. One thing I always have on hand is the tortelloni from Costco and pesto. It cooks in 3 minutes from FROZEN then I just pour some pesto over it and serve it with steamed broccoli or some other vegetable. Super easy and I know my kids will eat it.

  22. Jennifer Young says:

    Hi Mel,
    Two things:
    1, thank you so much for this eye-opening post, I am so happy to just know that I’m not alone in thinking about dinner all day and finally getting there and still having no (or very little) idea what I’m going to serve that my two little cuties will eat!! I’m sure I’ll think of this literally every time I am frantically trying to get through the supermarket or my pantry before picking up the kids.
    2, thank you so much for the ideas!! I used the chicken sausage one tonight by buying flavored chicken sausage from my local store’s meat department and adding all the ingredients you recommended – it took me 20 minutes and was fantastic! Fast, healthy options are always appreciated and welcome, thank you!!
    By the way, I just have to tell you that I rely on your site so much it’s my homepage.
    Thanks for your inspiration and realistic solutions, as always.

  23. Jaylene Mosley says:

    Great post and I couldn’t agree more with you! I love to cook but trying to get a decent dinner on the table every night especially when I work can be exhausting. I really appreciate your fast and easy meal solutions as well as your already done menus. I turn to them often for dinner solutions. Thank you!!!

  24. Shar says:

    I use so many of your recipes all ready, but on crazy nights, I revert to paninis, mini meatball subs with spaghetti or pizza sauce & mozzarella or a grilled chicken and romaine salad. When we grill, I will throw an extra chicken breast or two on the grill & cut it into strips & freeze it. I also like to buy the tiny tomatoes at Costco–toss them in a bit of olive oil & balsamic vinegar, spread them on a baking pan & throw them in the oven at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, turning them once (you just need the tomatoes to pop open–then take them out.) Cool the tomatoes a bit, chop up some romaine lettuce, add your thawed grilled chicken, tomatoes & some parmesan or mozzarella cheese & you have dinner!

  25. I agree. I love to cook, I love to bake, but dinner every night can be a grind and it can become stressful. I am definitely a meal planner. As much as possible, I try to plan two meals that have enough leftovers for a second dinner and one meal that doesn’t. I figure that gets me through Thursday and by the end of the week, I’m either making something easy or we’re taking a break and going out. I try to plan it so leftover night is the night when it’s extra crazy around here. Our go to easy meal is pasta with steamed vegetables. My fave is broccoli with angel hair, olive oil, garlic and lots of freshly grated romano cheese. Steam the veg in the microwave and boil the pasta; takes little effort and little time. I also freeze cooked rice and marinated thin chicken breasts, either cooked or not. The rice gets quickly heated in the microwave with a little water and it tastes freshly made. The chicken either gets a quick reheat if it’s already cooked, or I throw it on the grill or quickly saute it. Thin chicken cooks faster. Steam up some frozen veg and we’re good to go. Those are just a few things we do to “make it through the night” 🙂

  26. Kathleen says:

    Gah, thank you for this post! You are such a rock star – it makes me feel better to know I’m in such good company. 🙂 I’ve got a 3 year old & a 1 year old (pregnant with the 3rd, all boys so far, just like some of my favorite food bloggers, wink, wink) and there are some weeks where I can totally have a week of homemade, nutritious balanced meals. And then other weeks, where I feel like I’m phoning it in! I too love cooking, but the steadiness of day-in, day out demands can make it feel draining. Seriously, thank goodness for food bloggers like yourself. MKC is one of my first go-to’s when I’m struggling.

  27. Amanda says:

    I don’t think you listed it, but chili Mac comes together crazy fast too.

  28. Jackie says:

    A variation of your aunt’s dinner is some kind of sausages sautéed, then add cabbage and onion, and finish off with Dijon mustard and a little balsamic vinegar. My family doesn’t necessarily love it but it’s a great option for leftover lunches for me! Especially topped with a fried egg…yum!

    One of my new favorite ways to cook is sheet pan dinners…I use my pampered chef stoneware and roast veggies and meat together…so easy! Chicken fajitas come together really quick like that too.

  29. Lauren says:

    Love all these ideas- we also do breakfast for dinner, quesadillas or grilled cheese with fresh veggie sides on busy nights. If I remember to do it, we often have crock-pot meals on the busiest nights so we can just walk in and scoop up dinner. And I second the idea of having the kids help. My four-yr-old sets the forks or spoons, and the older ones pour drinks, grate cheese, get ingredients out for me, etc. And then there is always the occasional emergency pizza night 😉

  30. Lorraine says:

    Lots of great ideas. I have been making chili in the crockpot from garden tomatoes and freezing it. I also freeze sloppy joe and taco meat. Great for Sunday night dinners, too, if we’ve had a big lunch.

  31. Trisha says:

    Love the ideas! Most of our meals from the freezer that make dinner fast come from your recipes actually (burritos, marinara, bbq sauce, rolls, etc). We also keep wheat tortillas in freezer and often do wraps, breakfast tacos, or even peanut butter/honey/banana/wheat germ. We also do wheat English Muffins with Canadian Bacon, scrambled eggs, and cheese.

  32. I love this post! It’s so, so true, loving to cook does NOT equal loving to make dinner every.single.night! Pita pizzas are a favorite around here for a quick dinner – or leftover (or quickly microwaved) baked potatoes diced up and panfried with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of cheddar cheese (and possibly a side of scrambled eggs). :o)

  33. Jordyn says:

    What a great post! I feel like I am constantly planning what every member of my family is going to eat every minute of the day; it’s exhausting and overwhelming! I, too, plan menus, although I do mine weekly, and I look at the schedule for the upcoming week so I can plan dinner accordingly. I would say my slow cooker is a life saver; I use it at least once a week. If we have a night that everyone is going in different directions, I love that I can put dinner on in the morning and keep it warm at dinnertime when everyone needs to eat at different times. It’s also helpful because my husband can’t cook, so if I have a late meeting, I will put dinner on in the morning and he can dish it out for the kids in the evening.

  34. Christine says:

    I’m big on breakfast for dinner. I keep a loaf of homemade cinnamon swirl bread in the freezer (made with white whole wheat flour) and then let that defrost in the morning then use it to make french toast. I also make a bunch of scrambled eggs or omelets with veggies and then serve with fruit. It’s really fast and everyone likes it and the French toast with the homemade bread is hearty enough that it is nice for dinner!

  35. Tami says:

    I just have to say that if it weren’t for my crockpot and Mel we would eat at Chick-Fil-a every single night.

  36. Valerie says:

    Dinner time is always the crankiest time of day for my little kids. My saving grace right now is that my husband is in grad school in the evenings and often home during the day so I will make lunch our big meal for the day when the kids are happy and before he goes off to school and then for dinner I slap together some pb&js or crackers and cheese with some fruit on the side. I love getting our veggies in through smoothies too.

  37. Melanie says:

    Thanks for this post, Mel! I agree, the hours from 4-6 are tough (it happens to be 4:00 right now in MN, and I have a naked 2-year-old running around with a bloody lip being chased by his 5-year-old sister, both screaming.) I don’t have a Panini maker, and I would love to have one…but my gigantic farmhouse kitchen is already packed to the gills with “stuff”, so I’ll probably just stick to my griddle. With that said, my favorite quick meal is grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Or French toast with fruit. I love the sausage idea with cabbage and potatoes. And I am totally going to do popcorn and smoothie night–love that idea! I work 2 days a week, and probably once every month or two I cave in and grab a pizza on my way home as well. We just did cereal-for-supper for the first time about a month ago, and my kids thought it was the greatest day in the world. Hahaha. Tonight, I have no excuses, and I am working on an Eggplant Parmesan. I have been craving it for a long time, so I have decided that the chaos will be worth it! I agree, menu planning is a total life-saver and is what has made a difference in our eating more than anything else. Have a great weekend!

  38. Marcie says:

    Great post! I’m glad I am not the only one who struggles with dinner time and all of my kid’s different schedules. I’m so happy to see we’re not the only one who resorts to popcorn on crazy nights! Any time my husband is working late or out of town it’s popcorn, pickles and cheese for dinner 🙂

  39. Tana C says:

    Great post! I love to cook and seem to over complicate things. I find that simple dinners are the most enjoyable nights. Tonight making bacon, lettuce, tomato sandwiches with egg and avocado. thanks for your ideas!

  40. Laurie says:

    Standard “daddy’s not home for dinner” dinner at our house: popcorn and hotdogs, eaten with toothpicks on paper plates, so there’s not even any dishes to wash!

  41. Christyn Johnson says:

    on busy nights, I’ll use the crock pot- taco soup, Mexican chicken, whatever. We can dip tortilla chips in it, put it on a taco. Also, I keep a lot of pantry staples handy so I can make a quick dinner of rice and veg with a sausage from the freezer ( like you mentioned). Most nights i don’t want to cook, we eat leftovers from yesterday’s meal. Works well for us.

  42. Mel – I don’t know how you get home cooked dinner on the table as often as you do with 5 kiddos. It’s just me and my husband, and I am lucky to do it 3 days per week! Definitely, love Aidell’s sausages. And popcorn! – growing up we ate popcorn for dinner every Sunday night with a movie. It’s a favorite memory!

  43. Melanie says:

    If anyone is looking for another quick idea. One of my kids’ favorites is ground turkey over rice with peas and cheese. I make a chicken sauce from broth ( I use better than bullion) and milk with a couple spices and mix it with the turkey. The flavor a really go together. Insanely easy, kinda healthy 🙂

  44. jane says:

    Oh Mel, you seem like such a great wife and mom, but we are not in the 1950’s anymore, and women shouldn’t be expected to have such a load. You work just as hard, or harder, then your husband. Ask him if he is willing to make dinner a couple nights of week, say tues and thurs. and he can get your boys involved, and you get those nights off. You seem exhausted. I don’t know how you do it.

  45. Emily M. says:

    A HUGE shout out for Korean Beef and Rice. It is easy and yummy and we love it. THANK YOU!!

  46. Laura Oler says:

    We seem to always have one day that is extra crazy, so I try to plan ahead for that meal by trying to have enough leftovers or putting something in the crockpots not the morning. But we also do quesadillas or sandwiches, eggs, or spaghetti for quick meals.

  47. Michelle says:

    I don’t really have anything new to add to all of the above excellent suggestions. But I will echo meal planning really does help. I have four children – one now grown, one in college, two in high school. But I still carry on the habits formed early on. I print out our week’s schedule on Sunday and plan out the dinners. If we are driving to activities, attending sporting events, otherwise committed when I would cook, I plan an easy meal – crockpot, leftovers from the freezer, and the all time favorite when the kids were little: breakfast for dinner. On days not so busy (so rare!) I plan a dinner that requires effort. If I know my husband will be home to help I might plan something he can grill while I do the rest. I love meals like homemade spaghetti, jambalaya, chili, soups that make twice as much as our family needs. I freeze the leftover half to use on a crazy day. Sometimes, while the kids are at school, I do the prep that I can do ahead of time: salad, chopping ingredients. Because we have a kitchen island and a dinner table, I have the luxury of setting the table way ahead of time if needed. And, as the kids got older, I asked the least busy child to help set the table, pour drinks, feed the dog. And still, some nights, I am so tired when I sit down to eat dinner I let out an audible sigh of relief.

  48. Sarah says:

    Both my husband and I work so that time between when we get home and when we eat is so hectic and it is always a balancing act between avoiding a hunger meltdown (both husband and almost five year old son have serious hangry issues) and not letting my son eat so much snack that he does not eat dinner. I really try to keep it to healthy snacks (veggies or fruit) so I don’t feel too bad if he has more snack than dinner.

    I meal plan every week, but I include one take out night and at least one night of either a (mainly) freezer meal or something really simple like a big salad. I also try to balance the meals so that if I’m making a hands-on/complicated side, I’ll serve it with a really simple protein like grilled chicken and vice versa.

    For awhile I was really good about pre-prepping/cooking as much as possible on the weekends, and hopefully will get back to that over the winter.

  49. YES. Dinner has been, at times, stressful (and really late) Between homeschooling middle-schoolers and the daily farm chores sometimes I just don’t get what I needed for dinner defrosted. I do keep your meatballs in the freezer and dinner rolls. With chickens we are never out of eggs so breakfast is my go to easy dinner.

  50. Cheryl says:

    Truly great post! We are all filled with strength and struggle; not just at dinnertime either. Some nights, getting a great dinner on the table is a strength…other times, a real struggle. And you know what? That’s ok. Thanks Mel.

  51. Heather says:

    Mel! You are awesome. Last year I started meal planning before school started. I fell off the wagon in the spring but back on it again this year. It’s a life saver – with hockey on Tues, THurs, dance M, W, F – I put the meal on the calendar and EVERYONE knows what we are having. If you don’t like it, you have to try it but then can have left overs that you make yourself. It’s such a struggle and I only have 2 kids! Thank you for the post — I love your website. We had that chopped salad with the sweet Italian dressing last night and you are right – always a HUGE hit.

  52. I love that cabbage/potato/sausage idea, will definitely be trying that!

    Don’t have kids, but sometimes I get home late from work and the last thing I want to do is stand in front of a stove for more than 30 seconds. Enter eggs, frozen Amy’s meals, or turkey sandwiches. Ina Garten would be so ashamed…

  53. Helen says:

    Thanks … Lots of great ideas !!

  54. Shannon says:

    I do a lot of crockpot meals, especially in the winter. I don’t get home until almost 6:00 and the last thing I want to do is make a meal from scratch as soon as I walk in the door! The house smells awesome when I walk in the door and all I have to do is make a quick side of some sort and done and done! Handy freezer staple like chicken breasts you can cook from frozen are handy too.

  55. Helen says:

    Great post filled with great ideas … Keeping it real brings people together, all the great comments prove we all need to know we’re not alone !! English muffins have recently become a staple item for my freezer … Same concept as what you have suggested. We make English muffin pizzas, ham, egg and cheese sandwiches, or toast them and load them with peanut butter, jelly, honey, Nutella, or broil a slice of cheese on them. A side of fruit or veggies and call it dinner. I also like to do baked potatoes and bake a whole bunch at a time… The crock pot works great for baking potatoes too (wrap them in foil and let them steam on low all day) . Then top them with whatever you like or have on hand. I use the leftover potatoes in soups etc… or just slice them up and make fried (Dutch oven style ) I cook a few slices of bacon or ham add some onion, seasonings and top with some cheese and the whole meal is right in the pan and ready to go. Since the potatoes are pre cooked they just have to heat up. I also do something similar with leftover rice…just add veggies and meat .. Scrambled eggs if you like .. fried rice is ready to go. Thanks for doing this post, it got me thinking about some quick things I haven’t done in awhile .. My sanity thanks you !!

  56. KT says:

    The reality: Kids don’t remember what they ate this morning let alone last week. Let it go and realize that NO ONE is perfect. We all do the best we can. If cereal is the only option–make it fun and make it a memory! When you have the time to make it–make fun and make it a memory! That is what lasts–the memories of being together. Not what is on the menu! I appreciated your post! No one is alone in this and no mama guilt if it happens! 🙂

  57. Sara says:

    How creepy does this sound? I feel obliged to post since last night I had a dream that you came to a Stake Talent Show that I am partially in charge of and I was completely star-struck and happy. You might not know this, but we are best friends. You sit at my kitchen table and talk me through recipes while I do them, and I feel like I know you. Then last night, I remembered that it is a one-sided relationship…but hey! I’m not complaining! Thank you for all the work you put in to make our lives so much easier. Please don’t block me for my creepiness. On to the topic of your post…(*clears throat) When I had my first child, dinner stressed me out more than anything else. I would stress ALL day long trying to figure out what to do for dinner. I would procrastinate all day and then by the time my husband came home, I would be a ball of nerves and have a break down and STILL not have any dinner made. The single most life changing thing for dinner time for me is what you already said: having a meal plan. The stress of deciding is taken away, I already have ALL the ingredients, and in some rare but beautiful circumstances, I even have some of the steps prepped (frozen shredded chicken, dough in the fridge etc.). So flash forward to my second kid, and I was up and around cooking for my family while they were here to help ME. It was stress relieving for me to cook and them to entertain my kids…oh how far I’ve come. It does help that I have this website up my sleeve and they think I’m an amazing cook because of your recipes…

  58. Caroline says:

    You mention in the freezer section that you can defrost things in 10-15 minutes, what is your favorite quick defrost method?

    • Mel says:

      Hi Caroline – if it’s a precooked something (like spaghetti sauce or BBQ pork), I run warm water over the bag or container until the food will release easily and then I get it into a skillet and cook on low (usually covered to help steam it a bit) until it is defrosted and warm. It doesn’t take long at all. Occasionally I’ll use the microwave to speed up the process but like to “finish” the cooking on the stove.

  59. Jenny says:

    Thanks for the tips! I like to cook too, but I’m horrible at making dinner while helping kids with homework and keeping them on task, making sure (or just nagging about) that the piano is being practiced, etc. all in the short time we have at home in between sports and other activities. I have a few things that I try to do. 1 – I plan and post my menu on my blog every week. Posting it makes me actually plan it and I’ve done it pretty regularly since 2008, so it’s a habit I don’t want to stop doing. 2 – Try to have dinner prepped or cooked before the kids walk in the door after school. Sometimes I cook it before hand and we just warm it up at dinner (or at 7:30 after soccer practice) or I pop it in the oven while I’m helping with homework. 3 – Or if worst comes to worst, then we just have oatmeal or cold cereal for dinner. We used to have pancakes, but we had them for dinner so often that my kids are tired of them.

    P.S. When do you teach your kids piano? I’ve taught my kids (and other kids too) piano for 6 years and still struggle to have a consistent lesson each week.

    • Diane says:

      Just thought I’d pipe in and say that I teach my kids piano too. The only thing that works for me is piggybacking their lessons with my other students’ lessons. If it’s right after another student, I’m already at the piano so it’s easier to do it. I tried teaching just my kids but too often we would forget their lesson or have an excuse not to do it. Now I just treat their lessons like I would any other student. Sometimes it’s tempting to schedule something during their time but I’ve pretty much stuck to it. It has helped me a ton with consistency!

  60. Mel says:

    Loving all the ideas, suggestions and camaraderie that comes knowing we aren’t alone in this dinner battle!

  61. Kelsey says:

    We do the Thai noodles, breakfast burritos, Korean beef and southwest chicken wraps on a fairly regular basis! I also keep frozen tilapia and salmon on hand (from Costco) for quick, healthy dinners. My family especially loves broiled fish tacos. Thanks for these great ideas, Mel! I need to check out those chicken sausages!

  62. Teri says:

    Ah yes, the witching hours!!! One thing that has helped us is to ramp up the after school snack. Four school age kids coming home at 3ish. At first I tried to skimp on the snack thinking, “I packed you a great lunch and I want you hungry for dinner.” But now that we are into sport season, dinner is often not until 7 or later. I’ve found that by basically giving them a second lunch (yes, they are Hobbits) after school, I have way fewer emotional melt-downs over missing cleats and spelling list. Plus they actually don’t ask about dinner until they eat, and by then they are really hungry again cause its been like 4 hours. So after-school “snacks” have become grilled cheese and apples, popcorn and shakes, nachos, even hot dogs and pretzels. I even made a “snack” space on the menu plan. I do sort of feel like I’m making four meals a day, (I do have the rule that any lunch box left-overs have to be finished first) but it seems to go over with a little less drama.

  63. Jocy says:

    Like you and a lot of the commenters, i have some food in the freezer, or we do breakfast. Sometimes i prepped things during thr day too, or like another lady said i just cook the whole thing earlier, it does help a lot! And of course there is the once in a while: take out 🙂
    We do the best we can for our families

  64. Erin says:

    Thanks for this post! I plan my dinnertime meals weekly, and try to plan for a flex day (when we will go out, etc) but my husband and I both work around the home so sometimes there are situations when we have to cook a hot lunch for others who are helping in the shop or yard (we farm, it isn’t that weird, but…) Lunch for 5+ grown adults and 3 kids takes a lot of work and even though it’s usually soup, it’s either something we had planned to have for dinner that week, or the clean up is such a disaster that I am over cooking for the day. The options for going out to eat around here are not that great, we are pretty remote so I usually have to pull something out of the freezer or make breakfast for dinner.
    My go to freezer meal that the kids LOVE are potstickers, sometimes I have them homemade, but we usually grab a bag or two when we get to Costco, and I make that with a quick fried brown rice. The kids are obsessed and I think it might be a more popular meal than something I make, but it’s easy and something we can all enjoy.

  65. Brianne says:

    I love to cook at my own convenience and when I can make and try fun, new recipes. Weekday dinners are super stressful and between sports, homework, and other activities even with a meal plan, I’m often overwhelmed from 3 pm to bedtime. During these hectic evenings, we eat a lot of crockpot meals, sandwiches/wraps, homemade pizza, breakfast for dinner, pasta, and burritos/tacos. My favorite easy and quick dinner is pesto. It is my kids’ favorite meal and it only takes 5 minutes to whip up the sauce. Thanks for making me feel a bit more sane. We also love the chicken sausage from Costco. Yum!

  66. Alicia says:

    We also love paninis (like, a lot!) for a quick last-minute dinner option. Homemade pesto (always in my fridge), turkey, grilled onions, and cheese is one of our faves. But I don’t have a panini press; I use my family-size George Foreman. It works great! My college-aged daughter declared she couldn’t go off to school without one, because we use ours so much. I bought both of ours, which were like-new, for super cheap used. I’d highly recommend the GF as a panini option!

  67. Jackie says:

    So needed! Thank you!

  68. Marisa says:

    Sometimes the thought of making dinner is more than I can handle so there are nights when I just don’t cook dinner and I have decided that it is ok. It is definitely the exception and not the norm. Everyone of course has to eat so we go for toast or cereal. Last night was one of those nights. My two daughters literally had a cut up hotdog and a chocolate shake that my husband brought home just in time for dinner :). I did put some fresh pineapple on the table but they didn’t touch it. Tonight, dinner will be fantastic and healthy. I am not sure what that will be, but I have all day to think about it. Thanks for your ideas.

  69. Lafayette says:

    Oh, Mel. Oh, Mel oh Mel. You spoke to me today. This is something that I have really been struggling with lately. My worst time of the day is between 4-6. I love to cook, but having small kids and a small house make it so hard. They cling to my legs and whine and cry I can literally NOT walk from the sink to the counter (nothing else will distract them, no toy, no movie, nothing). By the time husband comes home I am a mess of stress. And it doesn’t help that husband has a job where he sometimes comes home 20 or so minutes late (boss will ask him to stay and do something). It makes it hard to estimate when dinner should be warm, and keep kids from starving. I’m thinking of investing in one of those hospital “hot plates” at this point. Sometimes leaving something warm in the oven works, but it doesn’t work for everything.

    Honestly, I’m here looking for other answers, because I really don’t have any. Thanks for your post!

  70. Emilee says:

    Dinner time is definitely a stress, even though I like cooking. I’ve liked it less lately because I have a toddler trying to climb me while I’m making dinner. I’ve been trying to prep whatever I can for dinner during naptime (chop veggies, measure spices) so that it takes less time at actual dinner time. But on the nights when dinner just isn’t happening we “choose our own adventure.” Which for my kids usually just means a sandwich. Sadly, those are some of their favorite dinners. I like the panini idea, at least for me, to make the sandwich option a little more interesting.

  71. Kacy says:

    Thank you Mel! With 5 kids and soccer season in full swing (and the piano….) plus, like you, a three year old who just wants to cry/cling/help at dinner time, this post is so encouraging to me as well as practical for where we are today! Your recipes are some of my family’s favorites and thanks for posting this to help me sort through “what’s for dinner?” Some nights just need easy answers!

  72. Becky says:

    One of my go-to dinners when I don’t know what to make is breakfast for dinner. Either pancakes and bacon or scrambled eggs and ham. Both are really quick to make and my kids think having breakfast for dinner is a treat.

  73. Emily says:

    I love the ideas. You are definitely not the only one. Almost every Friday night we have popcorn and smoothies for our movie night. The kids love it.

  74. I’m going to get slapped for this, but before I had a baby, I was like ‘WHY does everything think it’s so hard to make dinner. Just carve out the time. If it matter to you, you do it.’ UGH. Now I get it. I so get it.
    I’ve been struggling with dinner. I had a great freezer stash, but a teeny part of me doesn’t believe freezer food is as nutritious, so I’ve been bad about replenishing it. I just pinned your freezable section, and I”m going to get on it soon!
    So, tips. I’m not sure I have any great tips (you’re the master), but what works for me is to start making dinner at 5pm no matter what. Yes it might be cold and have to be re-heated, but at least it will be made.

  75. Megan Lang says:

    I feel the same. I love to cook, but the timing of dinner is not conducive. Kiddos are getting cranky, hubby isn’t home yet, things are stressful. My biggest stresser though is the different taste preferences in the house. I get bummed when I put time into a meal that they won’t eat for various reasons. I work hard to find things I think will please everyone at the table, but at the end of the day if it’s a mac n cheese kind of night, then Annie’s Organic can rock my kitchen.

  76. Heather says:

    This was a great post. I, too, plan out my menus a month in advance, but we are only able to stay on schedule about 75-80% of the time. I especially liked the section about the different things you keep in your freezer. What can of freezer do you have? Do you have more than one? I would actually really like to see the inside of yours. (Sounds creepy) I feel like you put a lot of things in there, and I want to see how you keep it organized. Maybe you have already blogged about this, but if not, might be interesting!

  77. Sheila H. says:

    It is nice to know that I am not the only other mom that resorts to popcorn and smoothies. You listed great options and we use your Aunt’s idea but with brussel sprouts and put a fried egg on the plate. My other backup is oatmeal, which they love. Also, I will beg my husband to grab a salad and a rotisserie chicken on many of these nights.

  78. Sheila says:

    Great post! And I am really going to make you look good and even appear as a super mom (which you are). Sometimes I have been so rushed with no time between getting home from work and needing to leave and with just 2 kids, I resort to pepperoni rolls (homemade if that scores a point 🙂 ) quickly warmed in the oven. Then the kids eat them on the way to the event with some fresh fruit usually grapes/bananas. Thank you for these ideas. Tonight’s supper sounds a lot like your Aunt Marilyn’s recipe. The pineapple bacon chicken sausages with pasta, cabbage, fresh thyme, garlic, balsamic vinegar, half and half, and some Parmesan.

    Thank you for all these ideas. Just maybe I will be able to get dinner time together a little more efficiently and nutritionally. You are the best!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *