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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Call for Recipes: Cooking During Difficult Times

Megan, a new mom returning to work this week, recently emailed me with a request that inspired today’s Call for Recipes. Megan emailed asking for dinner ideas for moms and dads with brand new babies. In Megan’s own words, “I am looking for ideas and suggestions on how you get dinner on the table during the week that’s easy and relatively healthy when we’re both back at work and I won’t be walking in the door until around six-ish and more interested in lavishing attention on A than spending a lot of time in the kitchen.”

call for recipes - cooking during difficult times | thisweekfordinner.comI was definitely in survival mode when this guy came along, but it sure was worth it! Look at that yummy face!

I think we all struggle with this on a fairly regular basis, but there are definitely seasons of life where it is more difficult than usual to get dinner on the table. Case in point: newborn baby. Also, sickness in the family, stressful work/school, the list goes on and on! We’ve all been there and we all go through these seasons.

Often during difficult times friends and family step up to the plate with meals. I wouldn’t have survived after Owen was born if people had not been so generous in this regard! But even with help, dinner doesn’t come every day and it doesn’t last forever.

Time to share ideas! What meals, recipes and/or strategies do you have around getting dinner cooked even when you’re stretched for time and/or energy? Please share your wisdom because Megan is right–sometimes (all the time?) you’d rather be cuddling with your new baby than slaving in the kitchen!

I’ll kick us off with a tip! Make sure your fridge and pantry are stocked up with basics so you don’t have to go to the store very often. That was key for me. Whether it was having cooked meals in the freezer at the ready or just a jar of sauce and a package of spaghetti in the cabinet, if I had supplies we didn’t starve and ate relatively well. One more piece of advice…don’t be afraid to ask for help!


  1. Baked ziti always works in a pinch. It cooks quickly, can be scaled to feed a few or an army, and makes for great cold or warm leftovers. Cold baked ziti at 3 a.m. after you get the kid to sleep is a cathartic thing.

    1 lb. cooked ziti, rigatoni or penne
    32 oz. prepared marinara
    1 lb. shredded mozzarella
    1/2 cup grated parmesan

    Preheat your oven to 400.

    Toss the pasta with just enough sauce to coat. Add a generous ladle of sauce to the bottom of a baking pan and spread it to coat. Add the half of the pasta and top with a layer of mozzarella and parmesan. Add the rest of the pasta and top with the remaining cheese. Tent the pan with foil.

    Add pan to the oven and reduce heat to 350. Bake 20-25 minutes, remove foil and bake five more minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

  2. 2

    I stocked my chest freezer with meals that were quick to put together and froze really well. (I did this all while preggy) Then we could let it thaw in the fridge during the day (sometimes even pulling it out the night before) and do a quick bake for dinner.
    I also second the “stock the basics” tip. One basic for me anymore is to keep a good supply of those steam-able veggie bags in my freezer. They heat up quickly and there is a huge variety. I also like using these frozen veggies when making quick meals.
    Oh, and love your crock pot!

  3. 3

    One recipe we use a lot (especially during winter) is Rainbow Chili.
    1 lb. ground meat cooked and drained (I would sometimes cook up batches and then freeze the cooked meat)
    1-2 cans diced or crushed tomatoes (have fun here if you can find ones already seasoned)
    1 can each of veggies of choice (here is the rainbow part)
    put all of this into your slow cooker (line the cooker for easy clean up) and set it on low for 6-8 hours. Then it will be piping hot when you are ready for it.

    TIP: I keep bags in my freezer of diced bell peppers and diced onion. These are great time savers in meals. little prep work in beginning, but saves time when making your meal. just add as much from the bag as you need.

    • ryvir

      That chopped peppers and onions idea is smart. It makes me mad how many have gone soft when I should have just chopped them up!

  4. 4

    Focus on meals that do all the work for you. Crock pot meals or roasts are great for that. The prep is short and the time is long, but you don’t have to be involved for most of it. This is obviously easier in the winter months than summer.

    For new babies I found that baby wearing can go a long way towards making a meal of moderate intensity while still getting the quality time in.

  5. 5
    Stephanie P.

    Buy a pressure cooker and some pressure cooker cookbooks, obviously faster than a slow cooker, but uses the same general one pot concept. You can do so many casseroles, main dishes, side dishes in less than an hour.

    I’m also a huge fan of America’s Test Kitchen books, they have several you can borrow from your library geared towards quicker meals, their newest, The Quick Family cookbook has a lot of great recipes.

    Prep ahead when you can, if you chop an onion for dinner, chop two and bag the other one to use the next day. Organize a shelf in your fridge by meals so everything is in sight when you need to grab it. Plan meals with leftovers that can be turned into new meals; roast a chicken Monday, chicken salad Tuesday, etc. Make extra so leftovers can be frozen.

    And, the general idea if this very site, pre-plan your meals. When you take the time to figure out what you want to eat during the week, make grocery lists, and get the shopping done, the “what do we eat for dinner” question is already answered and that saves so much time itself.

  6. 6

    Trader Joe’s and Costco frozen sections saved me post-babies. There’s hardly any prep.. Then just buy fresh bread, veggie, or fruit to go along side. Also, it’s okay to keep meals really simple. Like I would do a Costco lasagna (fed us more than one meal), some bread, steam some broccoli or cut up fresh fruit.

    Scrambled eggs, or breakfast for dinner is good and quick too. And comforting.

  7. 7

    I buy a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store about once a week. I microwave a few potatoes to cook them about half way and then throw them in the oven to crisp up with the chicken (covered) for 20-30 minutes. You can also roast some broccoli or green beans tossed with OO and S&P at the same time.

    Rachel sandwiches are yummy and quick. Turkey, swiss, Russian dressing, and some cole slaw and heat them on a grill pan.

    Pasta salads or potato salads are good to have on hand for a simple side. You can throw a bunch of marinated chicken breasts on the grill with some veggies and dinner is ready quickly. I always make enough of this for two dinners and I usually freeze some chicken too so I can have it on a salad at a later date (same goes for steak).

  8. I second the Trader Joe’s comment. We lived next door to one when our kids were really small and it was a lifesaver. Their fresh pizza dough was one of our go-tos. We could open that, a bag of their shredded cheese, and a can of marinara sauce, plus whatever veggies looked good. We’d have a pizza in the oven in 15 minutes and it even sort of felt like we were still cooking. Plus, make a second one and eat that for lunch the next day.

  9. 9

    no real recipes but some tips:

    It didn’t say if you were vegetarian or not so I’m going with you eat meat?? I don’t but I do a few of these tips so I don’t have to be cooking meat all the time.

    Cook up your meals (meats, sides that can be made ahead of time on the weekend assemble them and they are ready to go) use frozen veggies in the steam bags heat up your meal and bam dinner in under 20 mins.

    Crockpot almost any recipe can be made in the crockpot.

    Grill on Sunday a bunch of stuff and eat on it for days.

    Salads are great for the summer. Make up a big salad (both greens/veggies and fruit) add meat and your done

  10. 10

    Chicken Spaghetti is always a hit with my family. Very quick and easy.

    Boil however much spaghetti your family will eat. Slice some boneless, skinless chicken breasts into strips and saute in olive oil until almost cooked through. Add 1 or 2 sliced red or green peppers and saute until softened, but still crunchy, and chicken is cooked through. Add in a cup or so of Italian dressing (I use Kraft Zesty Italian), cover and simmer for about 5 minutes. Serve over spaghetti and sprinkle with parmesan. I usually mix some dressing in with the spaghetti to add a little more flavor. Tasty with salad and garlic bread. It’s good reheated, too.

    Good luck!!

  11. 11
    Kim from PA

    Congrats to Megan & her husband on their new baby!

    One of my favorite “go to” ingredients is shrimp. I keep a bag of frozen, deveined shrimp on hand at all times. I grab a handful, thaw them quickly under running water, and add them to pasta or brown rice along with some veggies for a delicious, healthy meal. Perfect for stir frys, tacos, fajitas, and quesadillas too.

    My other favorite quick meal (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) is scrambled eggs with grainy toast. You can add fruit or even broccoli on the side. Nutritious, tasty, and fast!

    Making a big pot of your favorite soup is an option too. Freeze it in one quart containers. On a busy night, just pop the frozen soup into a pot, put the lid on, turn the burner to medium, slice some whole grain bread, and spend time cuddling until the soup is hot.

  12. 12

    I do like the crock pot, as well as stir fry. I keep a bottle of stir fry sauce in the frig. Just heat up some veggies (Our local Kroger has an Asian blend of veggies pre-chopped in the freezer section) and make some instant rice. I think you could add some meat if you wanted.

  13. 13
    Lynn BB

    One of our favorite quick meals is to have chicken fajitas made with the Fronterra Grill fajita sauce (comes in a pouch). The flavor is great and you just need to stir fry the chicken strips and then add the sauce and serve with tortillas, cheese and other toppings.

  14. Three things… prep a couple meals on Sunday to bake on weeknights (like lasagna, enchilada filling, stuffed shells) which helps keep the kitchen clean too. Use your crockpot (my favorite is BBQ pulled chicken). And cook in bulk (cook a lot of chicken at once to use in multiple meals). And then substitute any side dishes for salads (they are quick and cool for the summer).

  15. 15
    Molly S

    There are so many great tips already! For me, it was about keeping it simple. No need for complicated recipes. Grilled chicken and steamed broccoli with a side of rice is a meal I make almost once a week. Stir fry chicken or pork with fresh veggies always takes me less than 30 minutes. I can throw it together even when I don’t get home from work until 5:30 or 6:00. Another great tip I learned was to cut up all my veggies on the weekends, portion them out and store them in ziplocks. Really cuts down on prep time during the week.

    Keep it simple, take lots of calm breaths, and enjoy your family!

  16. 16
    Denise NH

    Congratulations Megan’s! Meal planning, grocery shopping & advanced prep are keys to getting dinner on the table. I also found by perusing the Internet, a lot of my local resteraunts had catering menus. By purchasing some of these items I was able to freeze thaw and cook when needed. I had them wrap meat separate from sides along with pans of enchiladas or pasta.

  17. Mazel tov, Megan!

    A friend pointed out this post to me, since it’s right up my alley–I wrote my cookbook, Parents Need to Eat Too, specifically for time-starved new parents. Some thoughts: Keep your pantry stocked with easy-to-use, quick-cooking items like canned beans & tuna, quinoa, rolls of prepared polenta, couscous, and canned tomatoes since shopping for fresh food (and using it before it spoils) is challenging. If you don’t already have one, get yourself a slow cooker (aka the new parent’s best friend). They’re terrific in summer, since they don’t heat up the kitchen. Break up more complicated recipes into brief stages, to do while your baby naps (I call this Nap-Friendly Cooking). And when you do have time to cook, double the recipe and freeze half.

    Oh, and most of all: Don’t worry about making things perfect. Pretty much any homemade dinner is better than greasy takeout, right?

  18. I just had a baby two weeks ago and meals from friends and family have just run out. In fact, I went to the grocery store for the first time in what feels like months. I’m feeding a family of 5 (plus baby, so I have to eat extra hearty and healthy) so not having meals is not an option. I like to roast an assortment of veggies tossed with a little olive oil and taco seasoning. It’s great on tortillas, or in a salad, or as a side to chicken, steak, etc. I do some crockpot meals…it’s nice once it’s done, but to me it takes a lot of planning to have a crockpot meal. There is however one particular crockpot meal that requires no browning of the meat, or chopping of veggies. Check out the BBQ Chicken Tacos by 80% 20%. Again, this is great on tortillas and then on top of a salad as leftovers. It probably freezes great too, we just never have too many leftovers at my house. 🙂 Congrats, and someone mentioned baby wearing….I have to agree. The Moby wrap has saved dinner time and sanity many a times for me.

  19. 19
    laura in San Diego

    Crock-pot teriyaki chicken..we ate this once a week when I had my second then 3 yr old loved it with rice and both my girls (4 and 7 now) love it.

    ***Add boneless skinless chicken to a crock pot and set on low for 5 hours.
    10 min before serving add desired amount of teriyaki sauce (we love the white and blue label from Trader Joe’s) serve with rice and mixed veg…Kids love the flavor and tenderness of the chicken!

    ****also have done same chicken by throwing in bbq sauce, any sauce/marinade you like!

  20. 20

    Being realistic can save some sanity.

    For example, cereal for dinner? Not something to happen daily but I know my mom did that a couple times when my youngest sister was born.

    Microwave burritos and some canned refried beans and spanish rice-a-roni totally counts as a meal, too.

    Overall, I’d say this kind of site where you plan out your meals helps the most.

  21. 21

    This is such a problem for me I hardly feel qualified to comment here but these are some tips I’ve found helpful when I actually implement them.

    1. As others have suggested try cooking meat in advance. I like to grill or broil a bunch of boneless skinless chicken breasts and then dice and freeze them. I can use them to whip up so many recipes from salads to casseroles and it really cuts the prep time.
    2. I like to keep stores of chopped onions, peppers, celery, and carrots in my freezer as well
    3. Find recipes that can easily be doubled and frozen for later
    4. Do as much prep work as you can the night before such as chopping. Some meals such as casseroles can be totally made ahead. For crock pot meals you can put all your ingredients together and then put the liner in the refrigerator so that your morning isn’t rushed and your meat can defrost.
    5. Have emergency meals on hand, like spaghetti for when things don’t go as planned. And yes, sometimes it’s ok just to have cereal or PBJ.

    Congrats with your little one and do be realistic. This is a huge adjustment for you and I don’t know any mom who doesn’t struggle with this from time to time.

  22. 22

    wow, great tips here! if this has been suggested already, i’m sorry, i haven’t read every comment…

    I try to get double/triple/quadruple duty out of a large meal. for example, if I have time on a sunday I’ll roast a large whole chicken. then shred some for fajitas the next night. save the legs to go w/ a couple of easy sides the next night. toss the bones in a ziplock and freeze, and take out to add to stock/soup the next weekend day that I have time/ambition to do it. granted you eat chicken 3 days in a row this way, but some weeks it saves my sanity.

  23. 23

    I haven’t read them all, so sorry if any of this is repetitive (But that just means its a really good idea, right???)

    Crockpot–the days I’ve already made dinner by 9 a.m. are awesome. We do roasts, chicken (parts or whole), beans, pork roasts for pulled pork. And then we can usually get a couple meals from it–first night just the meat/beans with rice or potatoes. then shred the leftovers for burritos or soups later in the week.

    Making BIG portions. That was you can have leftovers again that week and not have to cook one night (or have as many dishes to do).

    Pasta/Quinoa salads. Once again, the make ahead aspect is really the best part. You can make them over the weekend, or in the morning/evening before you plan to eat them and then just pull dinner from the fridge when you come home.

    Keep lots of frozen veggies on hand. Even in the summer, frozen veggies are usually faster to get on the table, and then you don’t end up skipping the vegetables to go with that pasta or meat you made because it’s going to take to long to chop and cook. Or you can buy fresh and just cut it all up at once and then cook them up through out the week or make salads with them.

  24. 24

    Just read the cereal for dinner comment and I totally second that. Cereal, quick sandwiches, whatever snack foods you can find in the pantry. Sometimes dinner doesn’t have to be hot/cooked/complex. My hubby isn’t a fan of cold dinner too often, but I still try to get away with it once or twice a week, and after a new baby, it’s just whatever gets us through!

  25. 25

    I’m going to suggest something completely different. Change your schedule a little. When you get home from work, take 30 minutes to spend with the baby. Then hand baby off and spend 20-30 minutes making dinner. I did this not only when my kids were babies, but all through the years that they wanted mommy time after work — pretty much the preschool years — until they couldn’t wait to get home to do something else! Then I took the time for me. 30 minutes to wind down and regroup. Yes, dinner was a little later but everyone was much more relaxed and happier.

    Do as much prep work as you can on the weekend. Chop vegetables and put them in baggies, cook grains. Make a roast chicken, beef or pork that you can make 2-3 meals from during the week. Slow cooker meals are also a lifesaver. So are soups and stews (which we all know are better a day or two after they’re made).

    I’m particularly fond of Katie Workman’s method for cooking brisket:

    There is so much that can be done with leftover roasts! Beyond that, quick cooking cuts of meat — boneless chicken breasts or thighs, pork chops, steaks, fish filets and shrimp are great for quick weeknight meals (especially if you remember to defrost them!). Make a quick salad or other vegetable dish, cook or reheat a grain or potatoes and you’re done.

  26. 26

    Thanks everyone- this is Megan. Some great ideas here!

  27. 27

    We had a new baby two years ago and are expecting another in a few weeks. Our first was pretty high-need and I couldn’t believe how hard it was just to get dinner on the table. Even as our first has gotten older I still hate to spend a lot of time on dinner because I’d rather be having family time. A few things over time that have been helpful for us:
    1. Adjusting our expectations, we used to love spending hours cooking dinner. Those recipes are now stored away for when the kids get older. It’s taken some time, but we’ve restocked our file with fast, easy, healthy recipes that work with our current lifestyle. One we like that can be made in a crockpot or on the stovetop is the chicken chili from It’s one of the few meals I’ve tried where you just dump a bunch of stuff in a pot with basically no prep and it still tastes great in the end. Yippee for that! I’m still hunting for more recipes like that.
    2. Making big batches of meal bases, like rice, and freezing them in meal sized portions. We’ve found that most grains freeze really well and then can be whipped out of the freezer to make a grain salad or add to a burrito or put on the side of a grilled pork chop at a moments notice. For us this was about saving both the time of cooking the grain that night, but maybe even more importantly, the time and perceived hassle of dirtying another pot.
    3. Sandwiches and breakfasts for dinner. Egg sandwiches, breakfast burritos, frittata and the like are all things we enjoy, feel pretty good about the health factor of and can whip up in 15 minutes or less. And I love leftover cold frittata as a sandwich filling the next day. We can also be fine and happy with the likes of tuna sammies, grilled cheese, BLTs and the like. Cold cereal or pb toast with fruit and yogurt can work for us when need be.
    4. Finding a way to make friends with leftovers. I know some people get creative with their leftovers and make a whole new meal from them, others just eat them again and again without complaint. We found we could eat something 2 maybe 3 times before we got sick of it, but we tried to make batches big enough that we could eat the dish a few times and also freeze a few individual portions for nights when we didn’t want to cook at all. This works great for things like lasagna, burritos, fajitas, soups, chili.

    Take care and best of luck!

  28. 28

    I am a mom of 5…so, been there done that! Congrats on your new baby.

    I agree with the majority of the comments, crock pots and roasts, breakfast for dinner and leftovers from the freezer. I don’t have new ideas, but a couple recipes.

    Pork shoulder (butt)used two ways-

    I take a nice sized pork shoulder (butt) season generously on all sides with salt, pepper garlic or my personal favorite sazon. I cut some cross marks in the fat and put in a dutch oven or roasting pan fat side up. Put in a pre-heated oven at 275â—‹ and cook for 2.5 to 3 hrs. Then crank up the oven at 425â—‹ for another hour. Meat should just almost fall apart. Serve with seasoned black beans and rice.

    Now, put leftovers in freezer or have the next day. I make Cubanos… I love ciabatta bread, so we take thin sliced deli ham, swiss, a pickle and mustard and use our Foreman grill to make Cuban sandwiches.

    • 2wellsmade5

      Well, my 3yo just submitted before I was ready. Anywho, the Cubans use the pork roast leftovers.

      A silly sounding meal is Taco Pizza. Ok, don’t look away yet!

      You need a can of tomato paste, 3/4 cup h2o and 1/2 pack taco spice. Mix these together. Brown ground beef, chicken or pork your choice and add remaining tacoe spice. Take your favorite premade pizza shell and top with this sauce and then a layer of refried beans, ground taco meat, cheese, lettuce shreds, diced tomatoes…and all the taco toppings you prefer.

      We also like a rotisserie chicken, Butoni pasta and sauce with a bagged salad. Very quick, under 15 minutes with the premade pasta. I love the mushroom ravioli one..actually I could probably list about 5 I love!

      Hope you find some helpful words among your fellow moms!

  29. What great tips! I’m due to have my baby this August and will definitely be stocking my kitchen with basics to limit store runs. I have also been researching frozen meals. Thanks for posting this, the other comments are filled with great ideas for a soon-to-be new mommy such as myself!

  30. I love these tips, we have 3 children and freezing meals seems to work for me, then on the day i usually defrost. Save’s me ages in preparation especially after a busy day at work.

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