Podcast discussion thread: Getting dinner on the table

Today's food themed Best of Both Worlds podcast is mostly about that common weeknight pain point: getting dinner on the table. Everyone is coming home from work, and daycare or aftercare, and everyone is tired and hungry, but someone has to get dinner on the table. (Or at least someone probably thinks she should get dinner on the table. The cultural narrative of mom-must-cook-family-dinner-nightly is pretty stubbornly out there.)

Consequently, a lot of women in particular experience a lot of stress thinking about weeknight dinners. It's often easier to resort to take-out, which can be fun, but can also be expensive and not-terribly-healthy when done nightly.

We pegged this episode off a great thread over at The Frugal Girl, in which a reader posed this exact question. The Frugal Girl's readers offered over 150 comments full of suggestions. The most helpful boil down to a few ideas:

Theme nights. This is "taco Tuesday" only expanded to include, say, pizza Friday, and sandwich night, and breakfast-for-dinner night, or pasta night, or make-your-own salad night, or whatever. The point is to have at least 2 nights per week when you know what you're having, so these items have automatically gone on the grocery list. Only having to think through 3 nights, instead of 5, feels much more doable. Or, heck, have theme nights all 5 nights!

Go simple. Sarah's family always has fish on Monday. There are many very very quick fish recipes. Throw a sauce on a piece of salmon, bake it in the oven, and throw one of those steam-in-the-bag bags of green beans in the microwave, and you have dinner in 20 minutes. Shrimp can be sautéed in butter or oil, and sprinkled with some sort of spice, then served with a side of veggies or a pre-made salad. Of course, there are many quick and easy dinner possibilities. Omelets. Pre-cooked chicken, beans, corn, tomatoes, and guac thrown on lettuce is a Southwest salad. Dinner need not be elaborate.

Use supermarket shortcuts. Speaking of pre-cooked chicken... Rotisserie chickens always taste good. There are a lot of pre-made items (I've been enjoying Oprah's soups - the new O That's Good line) that can heat up quick. A soup, pre-made salad, and a loaf of bread from the bakery is probably going to be cheaper and healthier than take-out, even if it is mostly prepared.

Try the Crock-Pot. If you're up relatively early with your kids in the morning, you might have some time to throw a few ingredients in a slow cooker. The upside of this is that you come home to some amazing aromas, which almost feels like someone else is cooking you dinner. And it's ready the second you walk in, while most other things will not be.

Share the load. There is no reason Mom needs to make dinner nightly. Any other adults in the house are likely capable of doing this task too. Or teen (or possibly even pre-teen) children can take it on a night or two a week. Sarah and I have both elected to outsource most during-the-week dinner prep precisely because it was an annoying pain point. If you do have a caregiver who is at your house during the day with some down time (longer naps, or when kids are in school or preschool) this can be a great option. Alternately, if you don't have young kids but do have a housekeeper who comes in twice a week, you might add on an hour or two and get dinner prep included. If he/she makes enough for two nights each time, and you eat leftovers, that covers 4 nights. Do pizza on Friday and you're done! Speaking of leftovers...

Eat leftovers. If you're making a batch of something, it's often easy enough to make double (or even triple) and eat it again later in the week. It doesn't have to be the exact same form. Extra hamburgers could become taco meat, or could become the protein mixed with tomato sauce and served with pasta.  Sarah's family has leftovers 2 times per week, so she's only planning 3 nights.

One word of caution on the cooking ahead front, though (and I consider this my public service announcement with this particular episode). Cooking on weekends doesn't necessarily save you time. When I was writing I Know How She Does It, I heard from a number of women who'd told me that they shopped on Saturday, and then spent Sunday afternoon cooking for the week. (Oddly enough, more than one told me that her mother had taught her that this is what working mothers *should* do. Oh, these narratives!) The problem with this is that while you might eat more elaborate meals during the week, which some people might consider a positive, you'll devote even more time to cooking. You'll turn what could be weekend leisure time into housework time. And then, during the week, you'll still need to heat up the dishes you cooked on the weekend. My experience is that people who cook ahead on the weekends tend to then use the time stuff is heating up in the oven to make side dishes. So they're still in the kitchen for as much time as they would be anyway. You might be better off just making simple stuff, rather than losing your weekend to cooking.

Unless you really enjoy the cooking. Then that's fine! But if you don't, well, best not to spend much more time on it than necessary.

How do you handle weeknight dinners? Do you do taco Tuesday, or such things?



View Comments

  • We use a meal ingredients delivery service- 4 meals per week generally covers us for leftovers & lunches as well. I realised the other day we've been using the service for almost three year now! I love not having to think about what we eat, having the right ingredients etc. Our nanny frequently preps ingredients or cooks ahead during nap times which shortens prep time. I was also thrilled to discover the sports club my daughter signed up in winter for puts on meals for the juniors after training. This means I can feed the kids at 6pm at the clubhouse (and maybe have a glass of wine & chat to other parents or order an adult meal). I shall be strongly encouraging her to sign up again next year!

  • Thanks for this episode Laura and Sarah, I really enjoyed it! I started listening just before the van arrived with my weekly groceries, and finished listening while cooking a huge vat of chilli con carne! There are so many wonderful suggestions here, I totally agree with. The themed nights (we always have pizza on a rug in the living room watching a film on Saturdays) work well for us, as does cooking huge quantities of something lovely then freezing portions that only take a few minutes to reheat another day. I haven't physically gone to the shops for a big weekly shop for years, now if we go it will be a more pleasant quick dash for some extra treat we fancy, which is fine. I'd like to pass on one extra suggestion that has worked brilliantly for my sister-in-law. All of her family either work at or attend schools, so they saved themselves a load of time and stress by changing their mindset about what time of day a hot meal "ought" to happen. Each of them had access to a cafeteria with a good choice of hot meals, so lunch became the main meal for all of them, and then they just had a light sandwich/egg type evening meal every weeknight. That meant they only spent 5 to 10 minutes on food prep in the evening, but could still all sit and eat together as a family when that suited them.

  • The meal delivery kits always seemed silly to me. At $8-12 per person and 30-45 min prep it never seemed like a good deal with all the packaging etc. I can order thai food (fairly healthy) for $10-14 per person with delivery (NYC) and have leftovers. Most weeks we do a combination of: -WF frozen pizza with a simple salad -mac and cheese + a vegetable -breakfast for dinner (eggs, waffles, toast) -chicken nuggets (frozen) with sweet potato fries -pasta with sausage and a vegetable -farm share veggies in the slow cooker Weekends we typically order out or sometimes have a large late lunch (2-3 pm) so the kids get a snack before bed. When we had just one child we did make your own pizza Fridays (buy the dough) which I'd like to get back to.

    • Totally agree, on the meal delivery. I can buy cooked or ready-to-cook food at Costco (among other places) that requires no prep and costs less (and that's true even given that I limit myself to things that contain only "real" ingredients, in a Michael Pollan sense). I do not get the appeal of Blue Apron, etc. Also, in my world, a meal that requires 30 minutes of prep time/cooking is a meal that involves a lot of work and takes too long, not a little/quick.

      • For my family, the meal delivery works because it out sources the bit we don't like (thinking about what to eat, shopping) and leaves us with the parts we do (cooking and lots of novelty in food). And we often outsource the prep. It avoids arguments about what to eat, ensures we eat LOTS of fresh veggies and has added some great meals to our repertoire (who knew we liked fish curry?) For us it avoids food waste too - I am the kind of person who buys random stuff "because it looks interesting" and then can't figure out what to do with it. And I say "we" because my husband is equally invested in novelty and freshness - but is crap at shopping the fridge to make a meal. But anyone can follow a step by step recipe card. I keep the best ones too, that become easy family standards. So yeah - that's why it works for us.

        • Makes sense. I don't like to cook, and my family's not big on novelty, so no real pluses for me/us, but sounds better for what you're looking for!

  • I love your blog and have enjoyed several of the podcasts so far, but I this last one really missed the mark for me. Listening to a meal planning/food on the table discussion from two people who, for the most part, do not actually get food on the table was not particularly enjoyable. It seemed particularly limited because you and Laura have such similar home situations that, I think, are pretty atypical. I hope in the future you'll think about getting a guest for topics like this (maybe one of the bloggers you listed, for example?) because this episode really turned me off from listening to future podcasts.

    • Sarah, I want to express a similar thought but also an encouragement. I listened to the podcast episode on outsourcing with my mouth dropped open almost the whole time, because the thought of a nanny handling so many household and childcare tasks is just something my household will never be able to do. I was daydreaming about how different my life would be, professionally and personally, if we could truly outsource all those things, but it will never happen. To be honest, I almost unsubscribed to the podcast because it just felt so out of my experience. I think it is great that the hosts were up front about what is handled by their nannies, but it's just a whole different world. In some ways, I do wish for more recommendations and tips for middling ground - situations in which women are professionals, highly credentialed and experienced (even as highly credentialed as one can be in their field), but their fields don't pay that well. There's even the angle that many fields have reduced administrative support so women (and men) in these fields and at these compensation levels are actually handling more tasks and less able to delegate at work, let alone home. But it has been helpful for me to hear the overall advice, to really think through what will truly save time and not just shift it around. So, the overall gist of the perspectives is helpful, and I find it fruitful to do some thinking on my own. Maybe someone needs to start a podcast about being very middle income, being a professional, and being a working parent. :-)

      • Thanks H. I do think that yes, there are going to be differences in how Laura and I manage things. That said, I subscribe to many podcasts of SAHMs and still enjoy getting ideas from them, even if my situation is not the same. Sometimes it's just interesting (to me) to hear how others do things -- almost in a voyeuristic way. This episode wasn't meant to be us talking as experts, but just as we handle things from day to day. I'm absolutely okay if that's not for everyone, but I found it a voice previously missing from the podcast-sphere.

      • Thanks H. I do think that yes, there are going to be differences in how Laura and I manage things. That said, I subscribe to many podcasts of SAHMs and still enjoy getting ideas from them, even if my situation is not the same. Sometimes it's just interesting (to me) to hear how others do things -- almost in a voyeuristic way. This episode wasn't meant to be us talking as experts, but just as we handle things from day to day. I'm absolutely okay if that's not for everyone, but I found it a voice previously missing from the podcast-sphere.

    • @Sarah - thanks for your comment! I agree that our lives are not completely typical. On the other hand, I did get dinner on the table pretty much every night for years, so it's not like I have no experience with this. There have been a great many Crock Pot, pizza, breakfast-for-dinner, etc. nights in my life. I decided about a year and half ago that I was finding it more stressful than I wanted, so I took the opportunity to get it off my plate, as it were.

  • While a fan of other PodCasts, like the above reader I found this one not so helpful nor interesting, but for a different reason. Um...the things discussed bordered on common sense. Leftovers? theme nights? Anyone who's given some *serious* thought about this topic would have heard of those suggestions. Another was the assumption that we can all eat anything. I'm surprised to find that there is no discussion here about the challenge of putting dinner on a table with young children - it can be a toddler who can't quite chew crust and a 3-year old who can only digest cooked veggies. This could pass alright for a busy couple on the fly but for a family with young children? I'm not so sure. I'm on the same boat that I want to save time, but perhaps due to my cultural background I place more value on a good meal, with higher expectations of what a meal consists of. I think it would have been more helpful if the podcast did the research and featured more creative ideas on the topic of feeding kids rather than cutting time in the kitchen.

    • Hmm - I've always given young children (other than the 12m and younger set) the same stuff as bigger, just cut up more. Actually my kids have been far more picky as they've gotten older - Annabel at 15 months would have eaten literally anything! . I absolutely can see how many people value the family dinner. Sometimes I wish that could work for us, but it doesn't. I think that in general, the 'normal' thing to do is to have fam dinner so our approach is one different (but alternate) one.

    • @JH - Thanks for your comment. I do know that cultural expectations can play a large role in culinary expectations. As one example, I spoke once with a group of professional women of southeast Asian backgrounds, and the average time in the kitchen was *massively* higher than what I might have expected, given their work profiles. When asked, people mentioned the expectation of homemade and rather elaborate dishes. It is not right or wrong, but it is good to at least be aware of it. My kids are reasonably picky too. The upside of this is that it makes food prep for them pretty easy. There's only so much they'll eat, so there's only so much I (or now G) will cook. Scrambled eggs, pasta, mac and cheese, quesadillas, pizza, grilled cheese, hot dogs, and a few other options as mains. So then we add a lot of fruits and veggies on the side and they do great on the fruit and tolerate the veggies and they all seem to be meeting their growth milestones, so I think we're OK. Food allergies would be a whole different game. I am very grateful to have been spared that.

      • I get this so much, as a southeast Asian woman (but currently resides in UK) most of my family food needs elaborate preparation. For me block cooking works so I just cook 3-4 mains in bulk once a week and I am thankful that my family (with twins and a baby) is not fussy of eating the same thing for a week(lol). But in the case of boredom we also do takeout or just buy ready to eat things at the supermarket. I talked more details about this food prep in https://phdblinks.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/phd-vs-home-chores-a-question-no-man-will-ever-ask/ just for information.

      • This is an interesting point. My cultural baggage is that dinner time is a time to teach about food and manners (my mother is French). While we have rotations, family dinner is a time to try to expand picky palates. I think this cuts both ways, I learned a lot of simple fast recipes from my mother, but I feel obligated to constantly introduce what is new or less favored. This can make dinner time stressful. This is not to say my kids never eat what they like--they do. But let's say this week's Quinoa pilaf and crusted fish recipes were not big favorites.I could let go of this idea, but it is easier said than done since it gets to the very core of what my idea of a family meal is!

    • I enjoyed this episode, although I think most of the suggestions fall into the categories of lowering your standards (e.g. very simple dinners) or outsourcing the task to others (whether a nanny, another family member, or takeout). Both are great strategies, in my opinion, and I use them a lot! The reality is that cooking takes work and time. There are shortcuts, for sure, but if eating amazing dinners with your family every night is your goal, you just need to make it a priority (potentially at the expense of other things - like work, personal time, or spending time with your family). I do think you have to be a “planner” to be successful in this area as a working parent or you will waste a lot of time running to the grocery store at the last minute, etc. A few things that work for my family with two little kids (1 and 3): 1) Always have “kids friendly” favorites that are healthy and quick in the fridge/freezer - Meatballs, Chicken nuggets, frozen veggies, string cheese, etc. so if they are starving upon arrival you can feed them quickly and the adults can eat later (we try to eat together most of the time, but we also have to be realistic) 2) Extra portions of things like grilled chicken and taco meat are no more effort and the leftovers are so nice 3) Have a meal plan every week and think about the reality of your week (for instance, I *never* plan on cooking anything complicated on Monday - I’m tired) 4) Takeout every Friday :) I love the idea of people sharing their favorite go-to recipes, too! Might be a topic for another day ;)

  • There are some options out there you didn't cover. One is a meal planning service that sends you a week of recipes and a shopping list. It's cheaper than a meal kit. Another I would have liked to hear about is hiring a personal chef. I see them advertised but am curious about the cost and how well it actually works. Maybe you could try one out and write it off as a business expense like you did with the personal shopper!

    • @Tonya - if we hadn't worked out our childcare situation to include meal prep, I was going to hire someone to come cook a few meals per week. I may in the future - stay tuned!

    • I had a coworker who did this (2 working parent family, kid around 4 when we spoke about this) and she said it was *extremely* cost effective compared to takeout or eating out because her chef would come over and prepare about 6 weeks' worth of lunches/dinners and put them in the freezer. They had some food allergies as well, so this way they had more control over the ingredients too.

  • I'm currently a SAHM, and one of the things driving me to look into getting back into the workforce is my hatred of the nightly dinner prep. I just can't stand it anymore! My husband has lightened my my load somewhat by buying bulk packages of chicken thighs and pork chops and freezing them in ziploc bags with marinade.

    • @Tonya - the pre-marinade sounds like a good start on dinner. Just cook the protein, add a veggie and you have dinner. I'm curious how exactly re-entering the workforce would get you out of the nightly dinner prep, though - because you'd then outsource it? (Thanks to having the extra salary?)

      • Going back to the work will likely help me reduce my kitchen duty because 1) it gives me a mental pass to lower my expectations of what constitutes a "good dinner", ie embracing sandwich night or hot dogs, 2) my husband is likely to step up and cook more (he loves to cook but gets home after 7). 3) I'll have less time to agonize about it (I often procrastinate about dinnner from 5-7pm) and 4) it's easier to justify and pay for outsourcing (likely hiring a nanny who can prep ingredients)

  • I agree with a few of the comments above about the most recent episode not being my favorite. It seems that both you and Sarah solve a lot of typical "working mom" issues by having you nanny take care of them. I have zero judgment for that approach and it makes sense you are talking about what has worked for you but it just doesn't apply to my life (we could afford a nanny but have chosen to go a day care route for other reasons). I agree that I am looking forward to hearing from some guests who might have different perspectives and solutions for these types of issues! The one aspect of Sarah's situation I would have liked to have heard about more is how she thinks about the cost of her nanny with two kids who are also in school large chunks of the day. That approach, which sounds extremely appealing in a lot of ways, is definitively one of the more expensive options and sounds a lot like more having a part time house keeper + part time nanny situation. It doesn't seem to me that most of my friends who have gone the nanny route expect them to do anything beyond caring for the kids so it seems like this is a sort of unusual situation (IMO) but maybe I'm wrong. Also, I was hoping to hear more discussion on planning meals for young kids! Maybe you guys have incredible eaters but my struggle is not to get *something* on the table but to figure out the balance between providing food that will actually get eaten and food that stretches the palate and is reasonably nutritious. It seems to be an area people approach in a LOT of different ways and I'm nosy enough to be curious even though I think we have a decent approach right now. Maybe another episode (or a question for future guests?)

    • It's absolutely more expensive. In fact, it's our biggest expense. That said: - our nanny would only want to work full time, and we love her - we're having another baby, so we would need someone full time anyway - my 3.5 year old's "school" has 8373 days off per year it seems and doesn't sync up with my kindergartener's calendar - as Laura said, neither of us have the kind of jobs where we can just not go into work if a child unexpectedly gets sick. We need that layer of backup. - we figured out that everyone can win (including our nanny!) by figuring out this hybrid situation. our lives are easier, she has plenty to do (she still get some downtime :) ), etc.

    • @Irene - we could definitely do a question on picky eaters. Mine are not that great. Some are better than others. But I do think there is hope. When I was growing up, my little brother basically only ate pizza. I went out for Szechuan food with him the other night, and he said the reason he liked it, vs. other varieties of Asian food, was the special tingly spice (the Szechuan pepper, I believe) that is a core part of the cuisine. My palate was being educated by my little brother -- who only ate pizza! On the PT nanny/PT housekeeper, maybe Sarah can chime in. But I think it's partly that they've only recently had both kids in school all day, school only covers 180 days a year (some of which could be half days), they sometimes need weekend hours, and they know they are having a third kid shortly, which means they will need during-the-day care again. And in such a situation if you want to keep the same person, you can't just cut hours for a while and figure the person would be OK with it.

  • I do a lot of my cooking on weekends, and when done right it can really cut down on weeknight cooking time. I will often cook something that doesn't require a lot for side dishes (stir fry, stews, hearty soups, chili), and then all I need to do is microwave it on a weeknight. Many of these things also freeze well, which is good for creating a store of easily reheated meals for lunches and dinners.

    • @Solitary Diner - I think cooking up a big vat of something on the weekend (that you also eat for that weekend night's dinner) can save you time during the week. What I saw on time logs was the actual cooking of multiple meals -- not to be consumed on Sunday -- that would be thawed during the week to use as mains. So much more work than just simple dinners, or using supermarket shortcuts, like rotisserie chicken.

  • I love your PSA about weekend cooking not always saving time. That is one of the reasons I don't do it. Also because of the amount of time planning for it would take me. For me simple meals and supermarket shortcuts are way easier (plus I actually enjoy being in the kitchen most nights).