Summon us a dinner genie
August 15, 2014 10:51 AM   Subscribe

I have a baby, a preschooler, a commute, and a spouse who works late. I need dinner to magically appear on the table within minutes of walking in the door. I don't know if this will involve a genie, a person, a recipe, or "one easy trick restaurants don't want you to know" like those shady sidebar ads.

3 year old Micropanda is a slow eater (we're sure it's behavioral). He has been having dinner at daycare because of the issues outlined in the previous Ask. It's reduced stress for all of us. However, that's about to change.

Micropanda is starting preschool in a couple of weeks, which he's very excited about but also means dinner will have to happen at home now. We've adjusted our morning schedule to handle breakfast and that's gone relatively well. Evenings are tough, though. I leave my office at 5, and we get home between 6:15 and 6:30. Between the walk to the parking garage, the daycare pickup, and traffic that gets worse the earlier you drive through it, I've been really unsuccessful getting home earlier. Since bedtime starts at 7:30, dinner has to get on the table STAT. Stopping on the way home eats up precious minutes.

I enjoy food. I like homecooked food. I really want to feed the kids healthy food with reasonable salt levels, which kills most takeout and prepared options, even the "organic" and "healthy" ones. I would be open to recommendations for low-salt prepared foods that aren't gross and involve vegetables.

We do have a mothers' helper come a couple of days a week to do laundry and dishes and whatnot. My previous person was a great cook, but she quit recently. I've not had good luck finding a replacement who cooks. Also, we don't mind having someone else in the house while we're there a couple of days a week, but every day seems like a lot. The flip side, though, is that even if there is food already in the fridge, it still manages to take 15-20 minutes to get it dished up, microwaved, and pots back in the fridge.
It would be nothing short of a miracle if I could have somebody drop by, have dinner on the table when we walk in the door, and then leave. But it's hardly worth that person's while to drop by for such a short time. Has anybody made this kind of arrangement?

If not, do you know how to microwave faster? Do you have meals in your pocket that can get on the table in literally 5 minutes?

A slow cooker could be an option, but I don't love smushy meat, plus nobody will be home to drop veggies in for the last hour, and I'm not sure what could survive for 11 hours in a slow cooker and still taste good. Are you?

I know dinner is hard for most families. Please share your strategies for what's worked for you and your small children (or whatever other time pressure you live under.) I'm open to new ideas as well.
posted by telepanda to Food & Drink (50 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh crap. This is the previous ask that should have been linked above.
posted by telepanda at 10:53 AM on August 15, 2014

You can have fish tacos on the table in less than 10 minutes:

- Heat a little oil in a pan on the stove over medium-high heat. Put a suitable amount of frozen cod fillets in the pan (I usually go with 1 fillet per adult). Season with a little salt, pepper, a squeeze of lime juice (bottled is fine) and Tabasco (optional). Also optional: a little chopped onion. Put the lid on and let it cook for about 5 minutes.
- In the meantime, chop some tomato and cube an avocado.
- Take the lid off the pan to check the fish. It should be pretty soft, starting to fall apart. If there's a lot of liquid in the pan, keep cooking it for a few minutes till the liquid cooks off; you want the fish to be moist, but not soupy.
- Microwave corn tortillas for about 30-40 seconds.
- Serve with sour cream, (prepackaged) shredded cheese, and/or salsa.
posted by scody at 11:04 AM on August 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

It's hard to think of a good hot meal that won't take at least 15 minutes to get to the table. (But hey - on preview - fish tacos!)

Can you consider staggering the parts of the meal a bit? It depends, I guess, on what your standards are for "we're having a meal together" but I've found getting the kids started with a finger-food salad course (baby carrots or whatever it looks at your house) while I got the rest of the meal going helps with the time crunch. (Our dining area is in/adjacent to the kitchen, so I am still there on the scene).
posted by pantarei70 at 11:06 AM on August 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

You can make ahead large quantities of things that can be served cold. Then you just take the box out and eat it. Pasta salad, quinoa salad, sesame noodles, etc.
posted by steinwald at 11:07 AM on August 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

Slow cooker pork tacos:

In the morning, put a can of black beans, a couple handfuls of frozen corn, four frozen pork chops, and a jar of salsa in your slow cooker. Cook on low all day (it should be fine for 11 hours), and when you get home, tear up the meat with forks (two minutes) and stir altogether. Serve with taco shells or tortillas or on chips as nachos.
posted by mmmbacon at 11:08 AM on August 15, 2014

The flip side, though, is that even if there is food already in the fridge, it still manages to take 15-20 minutes to get it dished up, microwaved, and pots back in the fridge.

It sounds like this process is take food out - plate everyone's dinner - microwave everyone's dinner while putting food back - eat. Would it be possible to modify it so the kid gets his food ASAP to start eating? That is, cook on the weekend or after kid goes to sleep. Put kid-sized portions in microwave safe bowls with plastic wrap. When you get home, drop your things by the door, and go microwave food for the kid. Kid starts eating ASAP. Then, you put away your stuff/ get your food ready / join kid at the table.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:09 AM on August 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think a sous vide might work for you. (Sous vide is a method of cooking vacuum-packed foods in a temperature-controlled water bath.)

You can cook your meals ahead of time in the vaccum pouches, and then drop them back in the water at a lower temperature when you go to work to bring them back to temperature. Alternatively, you could just time the water bath to be ready when you get home.

Sometimes it's hard to conceptualize how it works for a full meal, but it's great. Since vegetables are cooked at a higher temperature than proteins, you could cook, say, carrots at 180 degrees and then refrigerate them. If you put the carrot package in the water bath when you cook meat at 140 degrees, the carrots are not going to get really any more cooked, they'll just stay 140 degrees.

When you get home, you would just open up the vacuum pouches, sear (if desired) and plate.
When I cook like this, it takes about 4 minutes to go from the sous vide to the dinner table.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:12 AM on August 15, 2014

I should add that sous vide cooking doesn't render food mushy if you don't over do it--as in a steak cooked for 8 hours is really tender, but not spreadable. Plus, you run them on timers--i.e., drop a bag in the machine at 6 am and have the machine cook from 12-7 pm. Sous vide cooking is awesome.

You'd have to buy a sous vide machine and a vacuum sealer (e.g., Food Saver)--alternatively, you can get pretty good results with ziplock bags and some care ("water displacement method").
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:22 AM on August 15, 2014

"So here are 101 substantial main courses, all of which get you in and out of the kitchen in 10 minutes or less"

Summer Express: 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less

I know it says Summer but really these little recipe outlines are applicable anytime.
posted by gyusan at 11:24 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

A slow cooker could be an option, but I don't love smushy meat,

If you sear the meat on all sides before putting it in the slow cooker it doesn't get mushy.

plus nobody will be home to drop veggies in for the last hour

Most of the time I just put them in at the beginning. The vegetables do end up mushy, but I find mushy vegetables to be more tolerable than mushy meat.

You could also cook the veggies separately in advance, refrigerate them, and then warm them up in the microwave and combine with the slow-cooked meat just before serving.

and I'm not sure what could survive for 11 hours in a slow cooker and still taste good. Are you?

Pot roasts, soups, stews, and chili all taste better when they've cooked all day, IMO. You just have to use the low heat setting if you'll be cooking over such a long period of time.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:25 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

A good rice cooker can be set on a timer so that it will be done cooking rice when you get home. you can put other things in with the rice, like vegetables or black beans or whatever, too.
posted by steinwald at 11:26 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

This isn't hugely off from the current arrangement with my two year old:

What we'll do is cook with an eye on leftovers after little Okt goes to bed, then feed her leftovers for dinner the night before. It seems to work well so far.

Slowcookers are great (pot roast! pulled pork! chicken tikka masala!), bit stirfries are great, and big pasta dishes are great for this.
posted by Oktober at 11:27 AM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Frittata are lifesavers at our house. You can prep veggies, leftovers, whatever you want the night before or in just a few minutes, scramble some eggs, add some cheese and your chosen ingredients (a meat if you're so inclined, some herbs, salt, pepper, beans, veggies) and cook on stove top until set on the bottom, 5 mins under the broiler and you're good to go.
posted by goggie at 11:29 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think a slow cooker may be the answer, but the trick would be to get a fancier slow-cooler with a timer and automatic warm setting, to help reduce overcooked/mushy meat tendencies, and consider sides of raw veggies/salads, steamed veggies, or cold roasted veggies from the day before, along with "starchy" sides of pre-cooked quinoa, rice, couscous, etc.

If you put the warm slow-cooker meat or stew on top of the starch, it should warm it nicely, and the veggies can come together in a snap if they only need to be warmed or lightly cooked/eaten raw.

Otherwise, upon preview, do also look into chili, soups, stews, and curries, which benefit from being cooked for long periods of time on low. Also, yes, I do believe they make rice cookers with timers as well.
posted by PearlRose at 11:29 AM on August 15, 2014

I don't know what the cost of a personal chef would be, I used to know someone who prepared hot food for working families for supplemental income, but that would be what you are looking for as a search term if you are interested in at least a meal or two hot and ready when you walk in the door.

If I were you I would focus on not one solution, but several. One night is take-out, your most stressed night perhaps. Two nights of personal chef. One night (like Monday) uses Sunday leftovers in a small bowl that heats up in microwave for toddler in like 2 minutes tops. What about a helper that comes in 30 minutes to an hour before you and gets things warmed up? That person would not have to cook, just have instructions on what to warm up and maybe make some rice or pasta, steam some veggies. If you could call/text this person you could have dinner ready when you walk in the door.
posted by dawg-proud at 11:29 AM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Train your family to help! It means some short-term difficulty but a long-term payoff. Your pre-schooler can set the table if you have non-breakable dishware. (Practice this on weekends so there's less pressure.) Your spouse can cook chili or stew on the weekends to serve on Monday or Tuesday. It won't solve the problem entirely, but it sounds like part of what makes this so tough is having the full burden fall on you.
posted by equipoise at 11:30 AM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Cook on the weekend and reheat leftovers for Mon and tues. Quesadillas made with cheese, meat and greens you already have chopped up in the fridge on Wed. Tacos on Thursday. Take out or grilled sandwiches (get a sandwich maker) Friday. Done.
posted by fshgrl at 11:34 AM on August 15, 2014

You could serve more cold dishes; especially ones that can be made on a Sunday, plated, and then served directly from the fridge throughout the week. For example:

-quinoa or other grain salad -- I highly recommend Ancient Grains for ideas
-kale salad -- choose ingredients you like; dress light before storing (kale holds up really well even when lightly dressed)
-cold soups
-hard boiled eggs
-asian noodle salads

It doesn't have to be hot or consist of several separate dishes to be a complete "meal."
posted by melissasaurus at 11:34 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is us too. Two working parents, day care, toddler, infant #2 coming soon.

Things got much easier when I became okay with not having everyone eating the same food at the same time. We end up doing dinner in basically two stages. "Family dinner" happens right away when everyone is home. Kid goes in high chair, gets a handful of crackers or fruit to munch on while I plate & reheat some of last night's dinner for him. Husband & I sit down with him and eat something small (cheese, salad, whatever you can pull out of the fridge quickly). We stay at the table until he's done eating.

When he's done, husband takes him to the bath while I start cooking tonight's dinner for the adults. Then bedtime routine starts (again handled by husband). This gives me 30-60 minutes to cook. Easier meals mean I can spend some time with the kiddo, so it's a balancing act, but that's more than enough time to prepare a huge variety of foods.

At bedtime (7-7:30) the kiddo goes into his crib and I have dinner ready basically right after that. I plate it, being careful to put a toddler-sized portion in some tupperware for tomorrow, and we sit down to eat our dinner together.

It's a nice system because you have some time as a family AND some time with just your partner to eat and discuss grown-up things. Plus you don't have to compromise on cooking, and the toddler will still get to eat home-cooked food.

When the system breaks down (too tired, too pregnant, someone gets home late, etc) we have a handful of delivery options that we can have timed for when we come home. Or we just make sandwiches. Or we have a frozen dinner of some kind. Or we have something that was prepped on the weekend and saved for such an occasion (lasagna, meatloaf, casserole, etc).

Also: my kid eats a LOT of frozen veggies. They can be cooked in minutes (steaming is best) and are just as nutritious as fresh.
posted by annekate at 11:34 AM on August 15, 2014 [21 favorites]

I don't understand how it's taking 20 minutes to microwave already-cooked food. Even if you got someone in to bulk cook twice a week and package it up, you're still going to have to heat it up. I'm not sure what you're doing but my recommendations are:

Put food away (gladware, glass storageware, whatever you like) in 2.5-person quantities. One gladware of family-sized spaghetti sauce, one of noodles. Put the sauce in the microwave for 1 minute, stir when it dings, put it back in the microwave with the container of noodles for another minute. Fling in bowls, put on table, put gladware in dishwasher. You might even have time during cooking to bang a couple handfuls of bag salad into bowls and drizzle with dressing. Fridge to table should take 5, maybe 7 minutes.

This should be true of any premade refrigerated food. You can freeze portions, but move them to the fridge 24 hours in advance so they are only fridge-cold when reheating. A steamer bag of vegetables will take 4-7 minutes to microwave and that might push dinner prep to 15 minutes but you can start Micropanda on his first course while the green beans finish. My mom always served salad first, on the same principle.

Also you might plan to always do a cold first course and hot second, if that helps even out the lengthy eating time. He can have raw broccoli with a smear of hummus while you reheat the mains.

And keep your sights lowered for weeknight meals. Several nights a week we eat chicken breast (cooked in bulk on Sunday) with steamed or roasted green vegetable. That's fine, that's a meal. If you need a carb you can pre-cook rice or noodles for several days. Or the three of you split a potato, which in my kind of nuclear microwave takes about 6ish minutes.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:37 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you have weekends to make up meals ahead? You wouldn't have to make it up specially to freeze, make an double or triple amount of what you'd normally make. Store in fridge or freezer, stick in microwave when you get home. There are numerous websites out there for freeze ahead meal ideas. A personal chef might also be able to do this once a week for you.
posted by wwax at 11:39 AM on August 15, 2014

My parents both worked when we were little, and they often worked longer hours.

Spaghetti/pasta: cook a massive amount over the weekend, plain. Can be then heated with sauce (if homemade, just freeze in small single meal serving tubs, or use jarred), or if you want to get slightly fancier, you can add in aglio/olio and lightly chopped vegetables in a pan (or frozen and lightly reheated peas, it's cool).

Mediterranean style: grazing! Put some cheese out, some crackers, olives, slice up a cucumber or a tomato, maybe some cold cuts, cornichons, hummus, feta dip, whatever. If you want more sustenance, buy or make a batch of tabboleh or orzo salad. Could easily be plated and set up by your mother's helper and then just pulled out of the fridge for dinner.

Cold bean salads (black bean/corn etc.) + cheese + protein + tortillas.

Lasagna: cook over the weekend, then dish up slices, zap them in the microwave, and put some bagged salad mix in a bowl.

Fried egg sandwiches or BLTs: good bread, good tomatoes, onion, lettuce, mayonnaise if that's your thing. Really good with avocado. Most of it can be sliced in advance (or way in advance.)

One pot stews: heat and then serve with fresh bread and bagged salad. Invest in some decent Pyrex/Corning ware that's microwavable and have one pot meals divided up into single meal portions so that all you have to do is put one in the microwave (or three separate smaller ones?) and dish out bread and salad.

We also ate a lot of preseasoned pork tenderloins, which fail the sodium test, but which were extremely hard to screw up cooking wise. You literally just need to put them on a tray in the oven for X amount of time. It reheats fairly well in smaller chunks, but it's also pretty good on cold sandwiches too, with vinegar slaw and accoutrements.

In general: absolutely yes to frozen vegetables. Freeze or store things in pre-set servings so you can just grab and reheat. Maybe add in more cold dinner options, unless it has to be a hot dinner.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:40 AM on August 15, 2014

I have a variation of this problem and have not solved it, but I will note that you can serve some toddlers frozen vegetables directly out of the freezer, still frozen, and they will eat them, and sometimes prefer them to "normal" vegetables. This works as a very fast appetizer to pacify (sometimes) while I am heating up/assembling/plating whatever it is I have for dinner. Big hits in our house: green peas, long green beans, corn, blueberries (messy), strawberries, raspberries.

Also, I pack extra veggies and fruits for the commute home snack, so even if all she eats for dinner is Cheerios, at least there were veggies consumed.
posted by chocotaco at 11:42 AM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Pre-cook some meat (chicken, salmon, steak, pork chops) on the weekend and cut it up into bite-sized pieces for use throughout the week for dinners that can be done in 10 minutes or less:

Caesar salad. Just toss romaine, croutons, parmesan, and chicken or salmon together, voila, dinner.

Burritos. Open a can of black beans and a can of corn, throw them in a microwaveable bowl with meat of choice, heat for 2 minutes. Put on tortillas with premade salsa/pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, and cheese. I low-carb so I just eat the burrito filling in a bowl, so that's another option, just a "mexican" salad.

Stir fry. Package of frozen stir fry veggies, meat of choice, a little soy sauce, ginger and garlic (pre-jarred minced) and honey. 10 minutes on high heat and dinner is ready. Even less time if you have fresh veggies that you chopped the previous weekend.

Pasta. microwave meat and veggies to put in marinara, boil pasta in 10 minutes.

Standard meat 'n' potatoes: instant mashed potatoes, heat up some meat, tub of salad greens + bottled dressing.

Make twice as much as you'll eat so you only have to cook every other night. I usually only cook on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the other 3 weeknights have leftovers from the night before.

Also yeah, you can do a ton of things with a crockpot. Chili is my favorite thing, just break up a pound of ground beef and dice an onion, add cans of black beans, kidney beans, and diced tomatoes, put a little chili powder and oregano and thyme, and let it cook all day. Pork shoulder in barbecue sauce, pick up a coleslaw kit to go with it. Stew meat, carrots, potatoes, onions, and a can of stewed tomatoes and you've got simple beef stew.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:42 AM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

As others have noted, slow cooker doesn't have to = mushy meat. Back when I was working full time, and in school full time, with a 2+ hour/day commute, I did a lot of freezer-to-slow cooker meals. For example: in a gallon zip-top bag, combine raw baby carrots, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, duck sauce, soy sauce, chicken stock, ginger, garlic, and bite-sized chunks of raw chicken. Freeze. Yes, the whole thing in one bag. As you're running out the door in the morning, cut the bag off the frozen chunk of goo and drop it in the slow cooker on low. 10-12 hours later, a big vat of yum. If you want a starch with it, you can freeze single-serve portions of rice (short-grain works better than long grain for freezing) in a muffin tin and microwave to heat. Top with hot food from the slow-cooker and you're done. (I have a bunch of recipes like this, including stuff like Beef Bourguignon; memail me if you're interested and I can dig them up.)
posted by okayokayigive at 11:47 AM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Lyn Never's post about pre-cooking rice for several days is our trick. We usually cook 6 cups of rice at a time, which tends to last us the week. rabbitrabbit's stir-fry is also what we do in our house. The longest part for stir-fry is chopping up the food, so that could be a task to do in bulk on the weekend or after the kids are asleep. So pre-cooked rice, pre-chopped veggies and meat, stir-fry it up with some oil and salt and maybe extras. Hot, tasty meal in not too long of a time!
posted by jillithd at 11:49 AM on August 15, 2014

Also, have you looked at Fix, Freeze, Feast? A friend of mine did that when she was pregnant with baby #2 in prep for after it was an outside baby and said it was wonderful!
posted by jillithd at 11:50 AM on August 15, 2014

Sandwiches and omelettes with a side of prewash lettuce are good go-tos when in a rush.

I also often cook a huge batch of rice on the weekend, roast a chicken and prep some veggies (broccoli, peppers, aforementioned pre washed lettuce). On weeknights (or even for lunches), I put rice at the bottom, top with the chicken and veggies, add a sauce (sweet and sour for instance) and nuke in the microwave. You could use a bigger serving size bowl so that you don't waste time heating individual portions.
posted by Milau at 11:51 AM on August 15, 2014

A few more ideas for less-than-10-minute meals:

Grilled cheese and tomato soup

Tuna sandwiches and side salad (just bagged greens and dressing)

Scrambled eggs topped with black beans, salsa, and guacamole

Frozen veggie burger patties (the black bean ones are my favorite) microwaved and put on whole wheat buns, with a side of sweet potato chips and a salad

And the occasional fast food won't hurt anybody.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:53 AM on August 15, 2014

We often put a roast in the slow cooker for several hours and it turns fall-apart tender, not mushy.
posted by harrietthespy at 12:00 PM on August 15, 2014

Oh - one other things with slow-cookers: you can put the meat in the crock liner and put it in the fridge overnight. Then pop the whole thing inside the base and turn it on. It takes longer to heat up and start cooking so it's not cooking as long. You may have to experiment with the temp setting (hi, md, low) after it comes out of the fridge. Try medium to start.
posted by harrietthespy at 12:02 PM on August 15, 2014

It's ok to have sandwiches or breakfast cereal for dinner. A lot. A tray of crudités from the grocery store can be the dinner veggie selection for a few nights. Or fresh fruit eaten out of hand.

You will not have a baby and a preschooler forever. There will be times in your life again when you can have hot, home-cooked dinners again. Give yourself permission to pick the easiest, easiest foods possible for a while.

Hang in there.
posted by Sublimity at 12:05 PM on August 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also--an idea that helped us a lot when we were in this phase--have certain nights for certain foods, just to give your brain some slack because tips already decided.

Like: Monday is hot dog night; Wednesday is spaghetti night; Friday is Chinese food delivered, yay!

Your kids will appreciate the stability and rhythm of it, and you won't drive yourself bonkers having to solve the dinner problem fresh every night.
posted by Sublimity at 12:08 PM on August 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

Put your leftovers/pre-cooked dinners away already plated and covered in saran wrap, so all you have to do is pop them in the microwave when you get home. I also freeze leftovers in single serving ziploc containers and reheat them later as home-made frozen dinners.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:09 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Kid can have some cold food appetizer while you prepare the rest of dinner. Pre-portion these at the beginning of the week. Chopped veg with hummus, cooked chicken, cheese, yogurt with pre-sliced fruit (try thawing frozen fruits for min prep) are all easy and healthy choices to dump on a plate and start.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:22 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Trader Joe's has a good range of low-sodium vegetable soups - I like the tomato-red pepper. Like most soups, they heat quickly. Could you do soup + torn-off hunk of bread + pre-cut chunks of cheese? Otherwise, bean salads - make them the night before, serve them cold.
posted by ostro at 12:31 PM on August 15, 2014

If you have a programmable oven, then you could put something in the oven and have it cooked for when you get home. There are also slow cookers and rice cookers with a timer delay function.
posted by lizbunny at 2:00 PM on August 15, 2014

This thread has great suggestions but I also wanted to say that it's OK to not serve your kids a hot dinner every night. We have a similar time crunch problem, and 3-4 nights a week my kids' dinner is a peanut butter sandwich with some carrot sticks, or an apple. Or reheated pasta with carrots or green beans.

My husband and I will then eat later after they are in bed (or, sometimes I have the PB sandwich and apple too).

It's really not the end of the world, especially when they are so young. Mine are 5 and 2.5 and I know this is pretty temporary. We started doing this because we used to be sacrificing their sleep for a family dinner and we learned it just wasn't worth it. We wouldn't even sit down for dinner until 7 and my kids wouldn't be in bed until 8, 8:30 and it was just a mess. Everyone is happier this way, and we are able to eat a real meal as a family the other 3-4 nights a week.
posted by sutel at 2:19 PM on August 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was a nanny in college, but a large part of what I did - really - was make and clean up dinner every night. I also packed everyone's lunches for the next day. I was in school full time with lab classes, so an hour of work a day - or a couple hours every couple of days - worked fine for me, and kept gas in my car. If you have trouble finding a college student who can cook, try your local culinary school or community college cooking program. Just another idea...

If you prep Mon and maybe Tues dinner over the weekend and Friday is pizza night, then you'd only need someone T?-W-Th.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:38 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

In the summer, cool salads with cold meat should be fine. Chicken legs, chicken salad, tuna salad, deviled eggs, etc. Quinoa, rice or macaroni salads. Cut up veggies with a yummy dressing to dip into and fruit for dessert.

In the winter, hot soups and stews from the crock pot are ready when you hit the door. Toss a salad and throw fresh bread at people. Happy faces!

You could do casseroles, lasagna, mac and cheese, enchiladas. Whatever you like. Freeze them. In the AM take them out of the freezer and put in the oven. Most ovens have a timer where you can set it to start cooking at a particular time. Do that. The casserole with thaw, and the oven will turn on about an hour or so before you get home. You'll come home to a hot meal. Dish up and serve.

Breakfast for dinner. Toaster waffles, reheated bacon and sausage, scrambled eggs. You can throw that together in 5 minutes and not break a sweat.

As noted, rice reheats really well, and fish cooks very quickly. You could cube up salmon, and use pre-sliced squash. Stir fry in a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce while rice warms in the microwave. Serve!

My favorite dinner when I was a kid was Bubbly Cheese Wheelies (English muffin with melted cheese, done in the toaster oven) and Campbell's Tomato Soup. What can I say? I was easy to please.

Ploughman's plate. Bread, cheese and pickles! YUM!

Lots of options, most are easy, cheap and healthy. It does take a bit of planning, and some work on the weekends, but if it buys you a stress free evening...bonus!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:54 PM on August 15, 2014

You can also use a light timer on your slow cooker if you want to make 5 hour recipes.
posted by Duffington at 3:45 PM on August 15, 2014

Since 5 or 10 minutes is minimum time to prepare a dinner, perhaps you can buy a little time by serving an appetizer like a small amount of fruit cocktail, or a carrot, or celery filled with cream cheese.

Also think about things that can be heated or cooked without you being present.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:59 PM on August 15, 2014

We do batch cooking to help prep for a few weeks/the week. Recent option - bake sweet potatoes (after dinner); batch cook black beans in crockpot; batch cook rice in rice cooker. Then we combine in variations: One night we microwave the sweet potato and saute some kale with garlic, and the black beans (under 10 minutes), top the sweet potato and add some greek yogurt. Another option is to slice a baked sweet potato, microwave, place on microwaved or stove warmed tortilla, add black beans, a chopped up avocado, tomato, sauteed green and yogurt. Rice if you want it more filling. Again, takes about 10 minutes after you have the routine down.
posted by anya32 at 4:18 PM on August 15, 2014

Oh and I should note we cook the black beans from scratch in the slowcooker - much more affordable.
posted by anya32 at 4:20 PM on August 15, 2014

These are awesome and our similarly challenged family uses some of these tricks. To add some we use:

Make soup on the weekend and serve with wholesome bread and salad.

Make quiche the night before and serve cold or heat up.

Pita bread or naan pizzas

Lettuce wraps with chicken salad made on the weekend, or extra steak grilled on the weekend, plus bagged salad or coleslaw inside. Grilled steak or chicken to have with salad goes a long way for a lot of dishes.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:54 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to throw money at it, there are all kinds of meal prep delivery services around (e.g. Gobble; I used them in a previous incarnation when they delivered your actual hot meal, but now they've 'pivoted' to just doing ingredients). Might fill in gaps a few nights a week.
posted by marylynn at 5:26 PM on August 15, 2014

Eggs are great for 5 minute meals, same with wraps of all sorts (precook the meat filling, buy pre-grated cheese). This soup is pretty awesome and quick. Freeze rice and bulgogi beef separately and add a fried egg with salad stuff for Bibimbap. Pancakes made on coconut milk with curry is a recent addition to our menu.
posted by geek anachronism at 6:27 PM on August 15, 2014

Once a week, make something in a crockpot so it will be ready when you arrive at home. Chili does well, as does pot roast with the right cut of beef. Crockpots basically braise food, so use meat that has lots of connective tissue, which will slowly dissolve and become moist & tender. Once a week, get takeout someplace that has healthy food. Once a week, have the housekeeper prepare a straightforward meal or at least set out everything for dinner. Once a week have scrambled eggs, toast and pre-cooked sausage, with salsa on the eggs, and orange wedges.

I like hamburgers cut in half and served in a corn tortilla with lettuce, salsa and avocado. It takes 5 minutes to grill up a burger. While it's cooking, slice the avocado and warm the tortilla. Cheeseburgers optional.

Buy chicken breast strips, season with one of the many seasoning blends, grill in a very hot pan with just a little oil, turn several times. Then turn the heat off and put the lid on the pan. You can also do this with sliced pork tenderloin. Serve with microwaved pasta that you made the night before, and sliced tomatoes, or another vegetable of your choice.

Many foods can be made on the weekend, then warmed up fast. Spaghetti sauce can be made just about as easily in huge quantities as in small, and freezes well. Take it out of the freezer the night before and put in the fridge to defrost overnight. Make the pasta ahead of time, which is heresy, but worth the time savings. You can bake potatoes 3/4 of the way to finish in the microwave. Salads can mostly be made ahead. Coleslaw = shredded cabbage and dressing and tastes great if you mix it just before serving.

Not sure where kiddo is when you pick them up, but you could have healthy food ready and waiting in the car. Sliced apples, sliced red peppers, cheese cubes, peanut butter sandwich, etc. Having a healthy snack when kiddo is hungry will help them enjoy eating healthy food; hunger is a terrific appetizer.

Your mornings are probably also quite busy, but having dinner planned, table set, and everything ready to go will help a lot. I recommend planning menus on the weekend, making sure all supplies are available.
posted by theora55 at 6:52 PM on August 15, 2014

The blog called Dinner: A Love Story has got it going on.
posted by ersatzkat at 7:32 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

May be a little late to the party, but I generally get home for dinner around 10.30pm so do not have a tolerance for more-than-10-min to prepare dinner either.

Once a month, I cook a huge batch of bolognese sauce. If you are time poor on weekends too, I've developed a method for making it super easy:

Dump 1kg of mince of choice, 5-6 tins of tinned tomatoes, a jar of tomato paste, a handful of mixed herbs and any other additives you may like, into a casserole/dutch oven. Pop in a slow oven (150-170 degrees celsius) for 3-4 hours, stirring just once per hour. DONE.

Whilst that's cooking, I cook all the pasta i may need. Then it all out (pasta + sauce) into containers. Some people say this degrades the quality/texture of the pasta. I say as long as the pasta is coated in sauce, it is just fine. Freeze. It can then be microwaved - 7 minutes to a meal.

I do the same for shepherds pies, fried rice, soups, creamy pastas, lasagne, burritos, stroganoff on rice, - it all freezes pretty well fully assembled, in their final form, in individual serves. This makes crunch time even easier - no need to pull different things out of the fridge/freezer/put it all together. Everyone gets a one-pot meal!

If you think the microwaving from frozen thing takes too long, pull the packages into the fridge the morning of or night before, so it's defrosted and can be zapped in just half the time.
posted by shazzam! at 1:36 AM on August 17, 2014

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