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A Foodie Mama’s Journey to Simplifying Weeknight Dinners

Variety is the spice of life, or so they say. In my life, variety is the spice of life in my kitchen only. Cooking new recipes is my favorite! The rest of the time? I love structure, routines, and predictability. (Do not throw me a surprise party, please and thank you.) Before baby, a sample week of meals in our house would look like this:

  • Monday: Zucchini Lasagna Roll-Ups
  • Tuesday: Bacon Cheeseburger Quiche
  • Wednesday: Cajun Seasoned Salmon
  • Thursday: Black Bean Burgers
  • Friday: African Peanut Chicken and Pineapple Stew with Rice
  • Saturday: Homemade Pizza
  • Sunday: Chicken and Veggie Stir Fry with Thai Peanut Sauce over Rice

Sometimes there would be an “easy dinner” night featuring breakfast for dinner, a frittata, popcorn and smoothies, or the like. And sometimes we would get takeout or go out for dinner. But for the most part? I loved spending evenings in the kitchen. Making an awesome dinner was a way to relax after a long day. An hour in the kitchen? No problemo. I’m a foodie through and through.

Weeknight dinners are hard! This is my new-mom journey towards simplifying weeknight meals and finding balance between cooking and family.

But having a baby changes everything—even what you eat for dinner. I have to say that we did pretty well during my maternity leave. A combination of family visits, gifted meals from friends, and freezer cooking made for many a tasty meal.

After I went back to work, however, things got rough. The two hour rush between arriving home and baby bedtime did not leave much time for cooking dinner. It’s hard to squeeze everything in! Sometimes I would try, but in my meal planning on the weekend I chose recipes that were too ambitious. I either wouldn’t make them (and thus throw away rotting produce every week), OR I would make them—to the detriment of baby’s bedtime. I ended up frustrated nearly every night but knew I had to figure out a solution. You gotta eat! And I’m too cheap for takeout every night.

I finally wised up and decided to simplify my weeknight cooking routine. The first step was to implement…

Weekend Cooking

Most every weekend you can find me in the kitchen for a few hours preparing for the week. Some people call this meal prep. I don’t go to quite the extremes as some people, but I do like to do things such as:

  • Chop veggies for side salads or recipes
  • Prepare a casserole or baked pasta dish to bake during the week
  • Make a batch or two of rice, quinoa, or other grain
  • Brown ground beef or cook and shred chicken
  • Make a batch of pasta sauce or soup
  • Get breakfast ready for the week 
  • Cook a large meal in the crockpot…enjoy on Sunday night—then eat the leftovers for lunch throughout the week
  • Portion out items for lunches (baby carrots, grapes, orange slices, pretzels, etc.) so lunches can be more “grab and go”

The second step towards my journey to simplifying weekend dinners?

Being Realistic

aka the HARDEST STEP for me

When menu planning, I realized that I needed to be more realistic about what could really be on my table for dinner on a random Tuesday night. I thought about what I considered dinner: main dish with a veggie side and maybe a carb-y side OR some sort of all-in-one skillet dinner. (I had to define dinner because my husband is REALLY GOOD at cooking/making a “main course” but doesn’t really consider the side dishes, so I have to be specific.)

  • Spaghetti, salad, garlic bread
  • Tacos, steamed broccoli, Mexican rice
  • Smoked sausage, roasted green beans, sweet potato fries
  • Deconstructed Falafel Bowls 
  • Burrito bowls

So, being the planner that I am, after I defined dinner, I made a list of about 30 meals that we love that can be made in about 30 minutes or less—or a little longer if they have to bake in the oven. I listed the ingredients in each recipe—everything from produce to spices—so I didn’t have to look up the recipe while making the grocery list.

This has helped me immensely over the past few months. Now when I am meal planning and making my grocery list, I just grab my list and choose a few meals. This, combined with weekend cooking, usually allows us to eat well throughout the week. 

Your list doesn’t have to be 30 meals. I just like variety, remember? There are tons of meal planning tips out there. This is just what works for me!

However, the last step in this journey (for now, anyway) has required me to get out of my comfort zone of home cooking and…

Accept Convenience Foods

Now, I’m not criticizing those of you who rely on boxed or frozen dinners or other convenience foods. #youdoyou Remember, cooking was my me-time in the pre-baby days.

For me, it’s hard to bring convenience foods into my kitchen because it feels like cheating (and they can be more expensive than basic ingredients). I can make a salad! I can bake hamburger buns! I can make bbq sauce! I can do this. I can do that. And I can. But not on Wednesday night at 5:30. My time is not unlimited, and I don’t want to miss out on time with my baby because I refused to buy a bag of salad every so often.

And guess what? It’s not the end of the world if you don’t cut up your own veggies!

Sounds silly, but I have to say this to myself almost every week at the grocery store.

I’ve learned that the spicy citrus kale salad in a bag from Aldi is delicious—as is the chopped Brussels sprouts salad from Sam’s Club.

Publix bakery sandwich buns rock.

A tub of hummus, macaroni salad, or veggie dip isn’t that expensive and can make your meals go from blah to yum (especially if you are regimented in what “dinner” means to you).

There will be a day again—probably sooner than I can imagine—where I can make hamburger buns during the week with no problem.

But for now? I will do what I can on the weekend, be realistic about I can do during the week, and accept convenience to fill in the gaps. Because I love eating dinner too much to eat cereal every night. 🙂

If I have to, I still resort to something easy like eggs, grilled cheese and tomato soup, or takeout. But implementing these tips in my life HAS truly been so helpful these past few months. Hope they help YOU too, foodie mamas! 

What do weeknight dinners look like at your house?

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