Monday, April 25, 2011

Making Dinner Happen

Lately I've realized that I'm generally really tired by the end of the day. Maybe it's being pregnant, maybe it's chasing an active toddler or not getting enough sleep. It is probably a combination of all of these things. However, no matter the cause, the effects are getting bothersome. I haven't had the energy for blogging and even if I did I haven't had a lot of energy for doing neat things to blog about. The biggest effect though has been on dinner. I'm sure that any of you with young kids know how hard it can be to make dinner quickly with a toddler trying to get your attention or even when said toddler is "helping". My old solution was to either do some prep while A. was napping, or more often to just wait until DH got home and whip up dinner while he played with A. Since the two of them love spending time together this worked really well for a long time. However, now by the time DH is home from work I'm tired and just want to sit down and rest for a bit so we were eating more convenience foods or opting to eat out more often. On the surface these options are okay and they certainly still get us fed. However, they aren't great for the pocket book and it gets increasingly hard to combine eating out with eating healthy. This has been really bothering me lately because I feel like in some ways I am failing my family (gotta love that mommy guilt). Thankfully, I am working on some solutions. Since I figure I'm not the only one to run into this problem when life gets crazy I thought I'd share what I'm doing right now and ask for suggestions for improvement.

The first thing I'm working on is planning ahead. When I'm tired thinking comes harder for me so I tend to put it off hoping that it will be easier later. Unfortunately, before long I find that I'm in the 6pm time crunch and still don't know what to make and have to figure something out now because A. has to get to bed. In the past I've tried to plan a weekly meal plan, but something always comes up and throws off the schedule. I'm hoping to get to the point where I can have a weekly plan with enough flexibility to really work, but in the meantime I am focusing on having a plan before bed the night before. This goal is smaller and thus more obtainable which means I'm not failing at it nearly as often. DH and I will take a couple of minutes after A. goes to bed each night to look at what we have in the fridge and what needs to be used. Then I come up with a meal plan for the next day based on a combination of that and what the schedule is looking like. If I'm not sure of the next day I try to come up with a back-up plan too just in case and then pull anything I'll need that is currently frozen up into the fridge to start thawing.

The second thing I'm doing is to take advantage of A's nap to get dinner started. I don't have to have everything done, but if I have dinner started or even just have prepped ingredients by 4pm the whole evening seems to go smoother. I got this idea from this blog. It has a ton of tasty recipes that can be done in bits and pieces through out the day. Before I found it I had never thought of prepping a casserole in the morning when I had energy and sticking it in the fridge so that I could just pop it in the oven 40 minutes before dinner instead of trying to push through the end of day exhaustion.

Right now these are the two things I'm focusing on. An example of how it works would what we are doing tonight. Yesterday when I was digging through the freezer to grab out some frozen veggies to go with dinner I accidentally ripped the plastic on some ground beef. This made the dinner decision a little easier because I knew that if I left it in the freezer it would get freezer burn so I pulled up the meat. I realized that I had been craving Swedish meatballs for a while, but hadn't made them because they require you to have thawed ground beef (mine was always frozen) and the time to mix and shape the meatballs, brown them, make gravy and then simmer them. We've been on the go a lot and when you are getting home from a play date 30 minutes before dinner there just isn't time for that. Today we didn't have any plans, but I also finally realized I could use a small crock pot. This meant that after lunch I put A. down for her nap and then grabbed the (now thawed) meat from the fridge. I mixed and shaped the meatballs and then browned them in a skillet. Once they were brown I put them in the crock pot and then made gravy with the pan drippings, beef broth and some Marsala wine. I let it boil long enough to cook off the alcohol and then poured it over the meatballs in the crock pot. I set the already hot meatball mixture to low and it is now simmering away making the house smell nice. At that point I realized I really needed to sit down because my stupid ankles were starting to swell (this happened when I was pregnant with A. too, no amount of water, rest, salt, etc. ever helped much, but my blood pressure was always really low so no worries). While A. is playing this afternoon I'll wash and chop up some broccoli and throw it in the top of the steamer and put the whole thing in the fridge. That way, when DH is home we can hang out as a family for a little bit and then I can slip away to the kitchen to start some rice and boil water to steam the broccoli while he plays with A. If I'm really on top if it I'll have the water and rice measured and the pots on the stove so I just have to turn on burners, but we'll see. Worst case, if I do nothing else today, I can start some rice and put the last of the giant bin of salad on the table and call it good. We'll have a balanced, tasty meal and I don't have to feel bad for collapsing on the couch as soon as DH walks in the door because dinner will be busy making itself.

These are helping most days, but I'm still not getting a "good" dinner on the table every single night. I'd love to hear suggestions on how to improve this plan or any other tips for getting a healthy, tasty dinner on the table when you are exhausted at the end of the day. Please share.


  1. On days like today when I have as much motivation as my couch pillows, I go the salad route. Mixed lettuce, ham from Easter dinner, boiled
    easter eggs, leftover cheese, turkey and tomatoes. Gets rid of leftovers and is healthy. The crockpot is a dear friend, too. Put it on low in the morning and forget it most of the day. The ham bone from yeterday will go in it next day to flavor beans next week for beans and cornbread.


  2. In addition to a crock pot, a rice cooker is also very handy. In Japan everyone has one on the counter with hot sticky rice in it at all times. It's always perfectly made & you can find recipes for risotto, pilafs, puddings, etc. Plus you can add a steamer basket on top to cook veggies at the same time. Ah, the joys of modern technology.
    Also, we should do frozen dinner swaps like other moms did for the babies. Maybe everyone makes a few family-sized servings of one main dish so all we have to do is prepare the sides.
    BTW, you're doing a great job!

  3. Sounds like it's time to do a freezer meal exchange again!

  4. I have no experience on the Mommy front, but I do know exhaustion and never getting home before 7:30 pm. My main coping strategies are cooking in the morning (or at least prepping), and cooking a ton of something and freezing the rest immediately. Do this a few times and you will actually have a pretty solid variety of food for when you are to busy/fried to even buy groceries, let alone cook.

  5. Thanks for all the suggestions. The biggest problem I've found with the freezer meals is that I have to plan ahead to use them. I actually still have a couple from the last exchange because by the time I realize that I'm too tired to cook it is too late to cook one from frozen much less wait for one to thaw. If I'm smart I'll plan ahead to use them on days I know I'll be tired, but I'm still working up to that...I have the same problem with the crock pot. I'll tell myself on Monday that I should do some stuff in the crock pot on Wednesday and Friday since I know I'll be busy, but I will have forgotten by Tuesday. If you guys keep reminding me though, maybe I'll actually remember :)