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?