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Working mom needs some cooking inspiration

I'm a working mom, and I've found that I'm in a total cooking rut lately. Or, as my husband puts it, I've lost my cooking mojo.

I basically have 30 minutes or less from the time I walk through the door to get dinner on the table (or meltdown city ...). This means, either very simple recipes, or a lot of pre-prep the night before.

My daughter is a pretty good eater and will at least try most things (even if she doesn't like everything), though heat-spicy stuff she won't. Family favorites are roast chicken, chicken soup, peanut soba noodles, enchiladas, pasta (of course!), roasted sausage with peppers, tofu stir fry ...

What do you cook for your family that is a crowd pleaser? I'd so appreciate some inspiration!

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  1. Try searching this board for discussions of cookbooks of quick recipes, and other similar searches, like this: http://www.chow.com/search?q=quick+me...

    Also Jacques Pepin's PBS shows, (More) Fast Food My Way, which have accompanying cookbooks, are running now on CreateTV, a PBS channel. As is Sara's Weeknight Meals.

    1. Also try Jamie Oliver's 20 minute meals.

      This is an easy, delicious go to for me, Lidia's poor man's risotto. The longest part is dicing the vegetables but you can also put it in a food processor. It makes the vegetables tiny and disappear into the rice.

      http://www.lidiasitaly.com/recipes/de...

      1 Reply
      1. re: chowser

        I am in a chicken rut. This recipe by Lidia looks easy & delicious. Thanks.

      2. Make ahead meals. Do a lot of your meals on a Sunday and then just warm up for meals during the week. I make and freeze a lot of things that I can then pull out a night or two before I reheat. Stews, casseroles, etc. You can make most anything and freeze it, then while it is reheating, you can make a side at the same time.

        1 Reply
        1. What about chili? If you have a slow cooker you can set it and forget it and come home to a filling meal.

          When I'm pressed for time, frittatas come to the rescue. It's "whatever's in the fridge" omelet. Leftover sausage? Lobster? Easter ham? Throw it in. Serve the frittata with some smashed potatoes or a quick mac & cheese.

          If your family likes wraps, summer rolls are really quick and easy and the kids can messily assemble their own.

          1. Do you have a slow cooker? That can really help. While you wouldn't want to eat meals from it every day of the week and can help you out a lot.

            Do you like to cook overall? A life saver for me has been batch cooking on the weekend to fill the freezer. I usually pick one or two Sundays a month and make huge batches of things like meatballs, meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, pizza dough, all kinds of soups and stews, assorted baked pasta dishes. Many of your family favorite lend themselves to batch cooking too like pastas, chicken soup and enchiladas

            Many of those things can be popped right in the slow cooker, still frozen, before you leave in the am and then the main part of dinner is done when you walk in the door. Or leave a sticky on the fridge the night before to remind you take something out to defrost

            I also make point of making extras when I make pancakes, waffles and french toast. They freeze great, layered between wax papers. Pop in the toaster and you have quick breakfast, snack or "breakfast for dinner".

            Things that are guaranteed to get my son to the table are make your own burritos/tacos, meatballs/meatball subs, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, carrot/ginger soup, chicken noodle soup and make your own pizza

            5 Replies
            1. re: foodieX2

              Thanks, foodiex2. This is really helpful. I do like to cook, actually, but hate the rush. I was good about the cook ahead thing in the winter, but it seems summer hasn't been as conducive to that. So many other fun things to do on weekends, and somehow many of those cook ahead things didn't seem as appealing.

              A question about the slowcooker, though. I have one but think it might be too big. I can't leave it for too long unattended unless it is full, and that results in quantities to feed an army. How big is yours?

              1. re: ClippyZ

                I hear ya. Summer food doesn't call to mind stews and other crockpot things. You want fresh, light stuff. One thing I've realized is easy: fish tacos. Do thin filets on the stove in 10 minutes including preheat, prep guac in the meantime, sliced onion & lime, jarred tartar sauce and sriracha, tostadas = pretty tasty dinner. I also do large quantities of pulled pork, not necessarily in BBQ sauce (can do 'Asian' or green chiles), and use it many ways: tacos, nachos, sandwiches, most recently ramen! It even freezes well.

                1. re: julesrules

                  Mark Bittman has 101 summer meals that are supposed to take 10-20 minutes I think. It is from the NYT. Some are kid friendly, some are not but obviously depends on the child.

                2. re: ClippyZ

                  On the crock pot... I sometimes use it just for cooking meat instead of a stew/soup, etc.
                  Example, a big roast that can then be divided up to become sandwiches, into a salad, shredded for tacos or sliders, etc. I've done similar with chicken breast, then divided the meat up for different purposes (tacos, pitas, on pizza, into a curry, etc.). If it will all get used up in meals over a few days, I leave it in the fridge. If not, packed up in meal-sized portions and into the freezer!

                  1. re: ClippyZ

                    Mine is big and it does hold a lot but it also switches to warm when the cooking cycle is complete. Does yours have that option?

                    Agree that summer is not conducive to batch cooking! We were just talking about this on WFD threads-how Fall is nice because its back to routine!

                3. Hi ClippyZ,

                  Tell your hubby to cook some nights, too!! :-)

                  Seriously, though, great ideas by previous posters. The crockpot is my best friend, especially in the winter, for chili, stews, all sorts of things.

                  My house isn't as busy as yours, but we do make-your-own wrap nights and top-your-own-salad nights. For the wraps, we have everything from cream cheese and salsa and pesto and peanut butter (not at once) to diff. cheeses, veggies and meats (both deli sliced meats and leftovers). For the salads, we top with hardcooked eggs, meat, tuna, other veggies, whatever we want, and the dressing of choice.

                  We're also fans of breakfast for supper. A plate of scrambled eggs and bacon is hard to beat.

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: pinehurst

                    As kids we loved make your own pita bread pizza night!

                    1. re: pinehurst

                      Good on you for the breakfast suggestion. Quick and easy. We do it about every other month. And, the crock pot is a life saver. We like crock pot pizza which if you have kids, is a total enjoyment. A pork butt for bbq pork sandwiches is a must in that bad boy. Pot roast? Easy, peasy. Chili, check. Soups, check (and make a grilled cheese once home).

                      1. re: boyzoma

                        Speak to me of this crock pot pizza, dear boyzoma. I'm intrigued!

                        1. re: pinehurst

                          Yes, please, do tell. I thought I'd seen pretty much every crock pot trick out there but pizza? No way.

                          1. re: tcamp

                            Me, too. Pizza is about high dry heat which is the opposite of crock pot cooking.

                            1. re: chowser

                              Never mind. I googled it. It's a pasta dish that uses pepperoni and tomato sauce.

                        2. re: boyzoma

                          OK - here is the link to the one I use: http://www.bigoven.com/recipe/163426/...

                          It's not a traditional "crust" pizza, and yes, it does use pasta, but it also has the flavors of a pepperoni pizza. You can also change up the flavors to whatever you like instead of pepperoni.

                          1. re: boyzoma

                            Thank you---I might play with this recipe this weekend if it stays cool. :-)

                        3. re: pinehurst

                          Ha! Yes, I tried that with my husband, but he's actually home later than me, and his idea of home cooking is pasta with Prego. :)

                          1. re: ClippyZ

                            A big batch of pasta sauce made on a weekend (even in the crockpot!) and frozen into meal sized portions could easily turn his (or your,) cooking nights into pasta with home made sauce. You can even cook and puree all sorts of veggies like carrots and roasted peppers into the sauce to increase it's nutritional value. Open a bag of salad and some veggies that you've diced up into containers on the weekend and you've got a well rounded meal.

                            Just pop a container of sauce out of the freezer and into the fridge to defrost on mornings when it's his turn to cook.

                        4. Some of my favorite home cooking is made from leftovers in the fridge. But it helps to plan for leftovers.

                          When I make rice for any purpose, for example, I make twice what I'll need so that I can have a tupperware container of 1- 2-day-old rice in the fridge to make fried rice, which doesn't have to be too spicy and can be done in any number of seasoning profiles from Chinese to Thai and Mexican. Just mix in whatever leftover proteins, egg, and veggies you have around. My favorite flavor background comes from Thai chili pastes.

                          The same principle applies to leftover spaghetti or other pasta: with day-old pasta, you can make a frittata with herbs, egg, diced cured sausage, etc. In this and the fried rice, it is important that the starch not be freshly cooked but a day or more old, for moisture reasons.

                          Grilled salmon or pork chops with cous-cous can be quick and easy. Important to use a properly tasty broth with cous-cous, as you might already know.

                          1. I spent a few days with my niece last week. She works and has two young children. She is very organized, she plans her meals and always shops with a grocery list. She does buy some convenience foods, (prewashed spinach), the other night she made a spinach salad, put some green apple in it, some slightly heated walnuts which had been carmelized and topped with a balsamic dressing. Still thinking about that nourishing salad. She makes quite a bit of stir fries, using whole wheat pasta, garden vegetables and chicken. I need to spend two weeks with her to learn her healthy approach to feeding her family. For myself I really like a lemon angel hair pasta recipe from Big Bowl of Love, Christina Ferrare. It can be made in advance and reheated, it is fresh and light.

                            1. A crowd pleaser that is very easy is a tagine with couscous. Dump chicken, lamb shoulder chops, whatever you like in a pan with chunks of onion and pepper, add broth and spices, leave it on low a few hours, throw in dried fruit fifteen minutes before serving and couscous five minutes before serving.

                              1. Beefburgers -- 1 lb. Ground beef, browned with onion. Mash in a can of vegetable beef/alphabet soup, stir in 1/4 C. ketchup, 1 T. mustard. Add water if needed. Simmer 5 minutes while you warm hamburger buns (toaster oven or stovetop.) Serve with optional dill pickle slices, carrot sticks. Great with cornchips if you're out of buns.

                                Toaster oven Smoked Turkey chimichangas (or regular oven if you start to preheat it immediately when you walk in the door..) We use salsa instead of the (too hot/spicy) adobo. Recipe here http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ra...

                                Hot peanuts sauce over rice with cooked vegetables.

                                Faked chicken pot pie - Preheat oven. Can of cream of potato soup, diced cooked chicken (from deli rotisserie chicken), briefly cooked frozen mixed veg (steamed in microwave or stovetop), seasoning of choice - I like oregano & parsley. Combine in 8x8 pan, top with half of refrigerated crescent roll, bake to golden brown. Make the rest of the rolls and use with scrambled eggs for breakfast or next night's dinner.

                                1. BTW - who has the meltdown - you, daughter or husband? Could you serve a scoop of cottage cheese with fruit or club crackers as you start cooking? A square of veggie pizza, half a devilled egg, Or other hors d'oeuvres ? Just a part of what might otherwise be in the meal, to stave off hunger-panic while you catch your breath and assemble the rest.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                    Ha - my daughter! I wouldn't be married to him if it was my husband! :) She has an "appetizer" in the car on the way home from school, but if I don;t keep it light, she doesn't eat dinner. And it's also a matter of a sheer lack of time in the evening - if dinner gets pushed back, so does bath, so does bed, etc etc.

                                    1. re: ClippyZ

                                      8-12 nuts, depending on size, will take the edge off anyone's appetite. The car snack might be a factor - what does it usually consist of? If it's mostly carbs, it'll ramp up her appetite. A cube of cheese or a small yogurt or a half a piece of fresh fruit is better than cookies or chips. Not to mention water or flavored water. Lots of what we perceive as hunger pangs is actually dehydration. See how she feels 20 minutes after drinking 8oz or more of water or fitness water. She may no longer be hungry, and getting into the habit of first, water, then food if you're still hungry in a half hour would be a good thing for parents and kids alike.

                                      1. re: greygarious

                                        It's usually water + fruit or veggies, maybe some nuts or cheese. I try to think of it as a part of dinner rather than a snack, since I know it will get eaten regardless of what it is!

                                  2. There was a good discussion this summer about some specific cookbooks and recipes for quick cooking. Link here
                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9032...

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                      Possibly even more helpful than that thread (of which I am the OP), I think, is this thread "Cooking Strategies for working parents of young children": http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/863756

                                      The thread has 343 replies, which can be pretty intimidating, but in this post, about 2/3'rds of the way down, I summarized all of the recommendations that had been made at that point: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8637...

                                      There are a bunch more suggestions that came after my summary, but the summary might be a good place to start if you're not prepared to start at the very beginning.

                                      ~TDQ

                                    2. This thread on everyday pre-dinner bites may give you some added ideas

                                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8911...

                                      1. Here are some quick and easy favorites chez-TDQ:

                                        Roasted Broccoli with Shrimp:
                                        http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/din...

                                        Proper blokes' sausage fusilli (we add peas to make it a one-pot meal):
                                        http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/pa...

                                        Roast Chicken Breasts with Garbanzo Beans, Tomatoes, and Paprika: http://www.pepperplate.com/recipes/vi...

                                        Chicken, Zucchini, and Prosciutto
                                        http://www.pepperplate.com/recipes/vi...

                                        Cherry tomato and tofu salad
                                        http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/20...

                                        Tofu with Lemon, Soy, White Wine, and Butter Sauce
                                        http://guiltlessplate.com/featured/le...

                                        Baked Shrimp with Scallions, Tomatoes, and Feta
                                        http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

                                        If you can do a big batch of grains (rice cooker!) and/or beans (crockpot!) on the weekend, you can have them ready to dive to at any point during the week.

                                        ~TDQ

                                        1. The now obsolete magazine "everyday food" from the martha stewart empire still exists online-
                                          Tons of quick dinners with simple instructions:
                                          http://everydayfoodblog.marthastewart...

                                          I also have to say that each sunday i do as much prep as i can, even if it is just making a pot of quinoa and some roasted veggies. I use the "help" during the week to then make a meal faster- i.e. add the roast veggies to burritos or the quinoa becomes part of the stuffing for stuffed peppers.

                                          1. Long ago I was a working mom going through a similar problem. I found one thing that helped. Once a week I would take a few moments to plan out the following week's meals. I would have my recipe box with me and be able to pull out simple dishes to make, the family enjoyed, which I had long forgotten about. Or find a recipe I wanted to try that completely slipped my mind because I was so busy. Knowing what I'd be making would also provide me with a clue about any ingredients to pick up when I went shopping.

                                            1. I've now given this book to my niece, who's in college and frequently pressed for time, but it's a great book:

                                              http://www.amazon.com/Desperation-Din...

                                              It's written for just your situation, and some of the recipes are really, really good. (Chicken Marsala, Moo Shu Pork

                                              )

                                              I keep chicken thighs and a big bag of mixed Asian vegetables in the freezer at all times. You start a pot of rice, and by the time it's done, you have a stirfry ready.

                                              1. I'm in your shoes too. I agree with everything that's been posted, especially making all or part of a meal beforehand so all you need to do is heat up, stir fry, whatever at the last minute.

                                                My tip is to jot down a weeknight meal plan for the week on Sunday. Stick it on the fridge - Monday, meatball sandwiches and salad, etc. Do what is necessary over the weekend or the night before to prep parts of the meal so that when you get home, it is truly 30 min. or less. I've peeled and chopped potatoes the night before, marinated chicken thighs that can then be sautéed stove top, made salad components, etc.

                                                1. I like to cook and have more time after dinner than before. Could you make or prep after bedtime and then just assembly, reheat or cook the next day? For example: yesterday I made meatloaf, prepped all my salad ingredients and made a corn casserole in about an hour in the evening. Today I will reheat the hot meals and assemble the salad.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: melpy

                                                    I do this too. After dinner and bedtime I pack up leftovers, including packing some leftovers as my lunch. Then I start whatever prep for the next day -- marinating proteins, chopping veggies, mixing up a sauce, etc. -- anything to make the sprint the next evening a bit more streamlined.

                                                    1. re: MAH

                                                      A big +1 here. I get going after my kids go to sleep.

                                                      On Tuesday we had fajitas for dinner. On Monday night, I cut up the peppers and onions, and sliced up the chicken. Makes things go that much quicker when you are actually ready to cook.

                                                  2. Taco bar night -- fillings made with ground turkey and grilled chicken; hard shells, whole wheat tortillas, refried black beans and the standard range of toppings.

                                                    Trini-Chinese Chicken (much posted about recipe from the NYTimes). i've discovered that we like it best made with boneless skinless breast tenders (which I know changes the dish). Seriously good. the chicken is marinated with five spice, soy, ginger and fresh lime. i add sesame oil to the marinade because i don't fry it as per the recipe. My daughter loves the chicken marinated and then baked. for the adults, I slather on the fiery sauce called for (mix of oyster sauce, scotch bonnet sauce and more fresh lime). it's awesome. I usually serve this with some rice and stir fried bok choi or broccoli. Last night i made it with some doctored TJ's (frozen) shrimp fried rice. i didn't use the TJ"s shrimp, but sauteed up a bunch of my own veggies, cubed baked tofu and a lot of baby spinach, to which I added the frozen Thai style fried rice. It was great. will repeat the doctored thai fried rice and as an accompaniment to the Trini chinese chicken.

                                                    slow braised pork shoulder in the slow cooker. turkey chili also works well.

                                                    Roasted salmon -- maple glazed, dijon and herb crusted or crusted with crushed wasabi peas. always along with roasted veggies -- roasted cauliflower and asparagus. I roast all at the same temp just stagger their entrance to the oven. I try to prep the veggies in advance so i can just pop it all in on schedule. I race in the door, preheat oven to 400. Throw cauliflower in baking dish with olive oil and a good amount of garlic powder, salt and pepper. in for 40 minutes or so. Once that's in prep the salmon -- season, the glaze/sprinkle on topping. it goes in at the 22 min mark. next the asparagus. drizzle with olive oil, season and in at the 15 min mark. during the last 15 mins, i kick off my shoes, make sure table is set, hands are washed, etc.

                                                    I tend to do a lot of oven roasted veggies as sides (cauliflower roasted as above, or tossed with tandoori masala; butternut squash, zucchini and yellow squash, asparagus; brussel sprouts, etc.) and use my oven for proteins quite a bit. So with some tweaking the above description can be fit to many meal plans. For the weeknight dinner sprint I like the hands off cooking so that I can race around picking up, changing clothes, etc. while the food is in the oven.

                                                    1. and a pressure cooker -- makes it possible to make food that tastes slow-cooked in under an hour.

                                                      1. I've been on a stir fry quick lately. I throw some rice in the rice cooker when I walk in the door. I try to do my chopping the night before, and use things like snow peas and frozen peeled shrimp that don't need any prep.

                                                        We have a gas grill, and I find that boneless chicken or pork tenderloin with grilled vegetables is very doable for a weeknight. The dishwashers in the family also appreciate the easy clean up!

                                                        1. "(or meltdown city ...). "

                                                          I think this may have been why mom made hot tea and toastpoints with nutbutter on them when we would get home from school as she was getting stuff out to make dinner. then we would wash up and start helping her.. and it was a relaxed fun time...
                                                          we still eat later than most american famlies though...when we were kids it sometimes meant we heaven forbid did not bathe every night...and bathed in the morning .
                                                          some make aheads that were easy:
                                                          meatloaf
                                                          stuffed shells
                                                          sweadish meatballs
                                                          poatopancakes
                                                          chef salad
                                                          short ribs( mom would cook these almost done and finish them on the day)
                                                          paneer in korma