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How to avoid cooking at dinnertime … and still eat homemade meals

Chili – One of our dinner-hour lifesavers.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I don’t cook at dinnertime because there are two little munchkins in my house who  don’t allow my husband or me the luxury of disappearing into the kitchen for 20 to 30 minutes in the early evening to cook a basic meal from start to finish.

But we don’t want to eat salty take-out food every night, and I don’t want our grocery bill to balloon from adding night after night of pre-prepared or frozen entrees to my shopping list.

So we cook in the bits and pieces of free time we find (mornings, weekends, nap times). If I have five minutes, I can chop an onion. If I get 15 to 20 minutes a little later, I can use it to make a pot of soup.

It’s not just kids that make it hard to cook a meal night after night. Toward the end of the day, dogs need to be walked, mail needs to be sorted, bills need to be paid, calls need to be returned and your feet might just need to be propped up on your coffee table after a long day at work.

That’s why it’s good to have an arsenal of meals that can easily be cooked up to the final step, then simply heated in the oven or on the stovetop. In my house, this is how we cook every night right now.

Here are my main criteria for these meals:

1 – Prep time is no longer than 30, maybe 40 minutes. Preferably shorter.

2 – The meal can be made ahead and held to the point that all the cook needs to do at dinnertime is bake it in an oven or heat it on the stovetop (and maybe throw some rice in a rice cooker, but we really don’t have time to boil water for pasta here – hot burners require babysitting).

3 – Bonus points if it makes enough food for two nights!

Of course, slow-cooker meals are ready-made for this purpose. But I’ve found that a lot of slow-cooker recipes require too many prep steps (dirtying saute pans, etc) to be truly accessible to the time-crunched cook, and when I was working in an office I always found that many of the slow cooker recipes I wanted to make required cooking times that were far shorter than my workday. So I am not yet a slow cooker junkie, though I may well become one as my no-cooking-at-dinnertime habit grows.

Lately, my favorite candidates for this kind of eating are:

Pizza – I know I’ve written a lot in this space about homemade pizza, but it needs to be said: If you are not yet making pizza at home, you are missing out on a super easy weeknight meal that can be as healthy as you want it to be, and can be a budget saver by putting to use all those odd leftover ingredients in your fridge.

I used to be a big stickler for not assembling the pizza until I was ready to pre-heat the oven and bake it. I thought having all that sauce and all those weighty toppings on top of raw dough would make it too gooey to bake up crisp. Well, if you use this dough recipe, you can assemble your pizza several hours ahead of time. Just pop it in the fridge with a sheet of wax paper over it until you’re ready to preheat your oven and you’ll only be 11 minutes away from a great meal. A drizzle of olive oil on the dough before any sauce goes down will help it bake up crisper.

Chili and soup – These are both meals that actually taste better after they’ve spent a day or so in the fridge, and most recipes for chili and soup are really easy to double, so you can make enough to keep yourself from cooking for nights to come.

I usually plan ahead for chili, but a good soup can be improvised with the following in your pantry: onions, chicken broth, canned tomatoes, canned beans, pasta (keep frozen tortellini on-hand for a special treat), rice and other grains. Throw in any greens or other chopped vegetables that might be nearing their expiration in your fridge.

Baked dishes – Italian dishes like lasagna and baked ziti always come to mind in this category, but consider adapting these dishes to other cuisines.

A favorite in our house is quesadilla pie, which consists of layering four burrito-sized flour tortillas in a pie dish, with quesadilla toppings (cheese, black beans, salsa, chopped vegetables, cooked chicken or beef, spices) between each tortilla layer. The mix of toppings varies depending on what’s in the fridge, but the pie bakes for 45 minutes at 350, and then it’s a gooey, layered treat that’s sort of like a Tex-Mex version of lasagna.

Curries, etc. – I never thought of making curries and similar “sauce-and-meat-over-rice” dishes very far ahead of time before I had to, but it turns out they hold up great if pre-cooked (stir-fry doesn’t lend itself to this quite as well, it’s much better served fresh from the skillet).

The tricky part here is remembering to start your rice cooker in time to have rice ready for dinner time (freeze your leftover rice to use next time).

When I am lacking inspiration and just need some help from the store, I really like McCormick’s “Recipe Inspirations” Chicken Tikka Masala spice mix. It’s a package of pre-measured spices and a recipe that makes a pretty decent dish. I don’t usually go in for a lot of pre-packaged stuff, but somehow having someone else measure all the spices makes putting together a meal that much more peaceful these days.

So that’s a taste of how we’re managing to avoid takeout and highly processed food in this house at a very busy time.

What are your favorite solutions for making the dinner hour run smoothly?

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