Updated on 02.27.07

“I’m Too Tired To Cook” – At-Home Dining Solutions For The Overworked Family

Trent Hamm

Many of my readers have reported to me that they enjoy my postings on cooking and they see how it can save some serious cash, but that most nights after a long day of work, they’re just too beat to cook a stellar meal.

I can sympathize. After a long day at work and with a toddler running amok when I get home, neither my wife nor I want to cook some nights. Here are our five best tricks for putting a warm, healthy, home-prepared meal on the table without much effort in the evenings.

Prepare meals in advance. Spend a weekend preparing a bunch of meals for you and/or your family that you can just pop in the oven after a long day at work. This works well if you have a large freezer, as you can stack covered baking dishes in there with the meals already prepared in them so you can literally start preheating the oven, pull one of these out of the freezer, toss it in the oven, wait for forty five minutes or so, and then have a delicious homecooked meal.

Discover the crockpot. Rather regularly, I’ll prepare a meal before I even leave for work for the day. I’ll just put all the ingredients in a crock pot, turn it on low, and when I get home a delicious meal is waiting for me and my family. If there is interest, I’d be glad to post a compendium of ten or so of our favorite recipes – basically, just toss this list of things into the crock pot, turn it on low, and leave.

Have regular “leftover” nights. If you work hard to prepare a meal one night, have it as leftovers a few nights later. Change the preparation a bit, add some more (or different) spices to change up the flavor a bit, and you’re good to go. My favorite trick is to take leftover spaghetti, pour it in a pan, put the sauce on top of it, put some mozzarella on top of that, toss a few herbs and spices on top, and bake it for twenty minutes. It’s delicious and quite a bit different than plain old spaghetti.

Use lots of items that require minimal preparation. There are lots of ways to do this. Get frozen vegetables that can be steamed in the bag. Eat high-quality whole grain bread with a meal to get your whole grains and cut down on preparation time. Serve whole fruits, such as grapes or oranges, along with the meal. If you use these suggestions, you can easily prepare something like a chicken breast in just a few minutes and have that be your only real task.

Eat extremely simple meals. When I was working almost full time and also a full-time college student, I used to prepare extremely simple meals for myself. One common one I liked was “poor man quesadillas” (a tortilla on a plate, some cheese on top of that, another tortilla on top of that, microwave for a minute, pour some salsa and a bit of sour cream on top – you can also use small pieces of chicken in there, too), a cup of yogurt, and a big glass of milk. It doesn’t have to be exquisite, just something that hits the major food groups.

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  1. mike says:

    throw that list of crockpot recipes up there for us, kind sir

  2. kyle says:

    I’d love to see your crockpot recipes (Sure, I may have been one of the readers who suggested you not stray from finance related posts when you were about to start your “Books that change my life” series, but what can you do?). I got one for Christmas and have been trying a few different things, but I’m always open to some tried and true recipes.

  3. Ellen says:

    I’m going to add a quick* tip–an addendum, really. Instead of prepping whole meals in advance, which I don’t have time or freezer space for, I prep ingredients a day ahead of time. That means that if Monday is schnitzel with mashed potatoes, I mash twice as many potatoes as I need, and then Tuesday’s shepherd’s pie is half done. Or I’ll chop twice as many onions as I need, or cook a double batch of chicken or ground meat. I barely notice the extra time. The reason for this is that in addition to problems with freezer space, sometimes I find that frozen meals have texture issues, and prepping the more time-consuming ingredients instead of the whole meal simplifies the process without costing a lot of time upfront.

    Proper meal planning helps a lot with this, so you don’t chop extra onions when nothing else that week needs them. To that end, I’d advise that people have a list of things they can easily make when they can’t think of anything to make. My problem usually isn’t the gumption to cook, it’s deciding what should be for dinner. If that decision’s been made a week in advance, and some of the prep’s already done, it’s much easier to just slam things together right after walking in the door after work. It’s the days that I look up at seven and ask Hay, What’s For Dinner that we end up with take-away.

    *Not so quick, apparently. I do so love the domestic. Frustrated housewife!

  4. Rich says:

    I’ll bite… Can you post your crock pot recipes? I’ve done beef stew, chili and chicken noodle soup, but would really like to see what you’ve done. Thanks Trent.

  5. Jon says:

    Here’s another vote for posting those crock pot recipes. My wife and I got FIVE crock pots from well-meaning relatives after we got married, which we’ve since pared down to one. I think we have only used it once in 4 years!

  6. Gabe says:

    Yeah I’d like to see some of those crock pot recipes too. The only one we make at home regularly is corned beef. We’ve made some ready-made crock pot dinners bought from the local supermarket but those were pretty mediocre. I’d love to see some samples of what you’ve made.

  7. Craig says:

    I’d also love to see your crock pot recipes, particularly since I’ve never really figured out what to do with mine.

  8. Stephanie says:

    My family has just started using our crockpot more. I would love to see your recipes!

  9. Mama of 2 says:

    I would love the crockpot recipes. I got a new 7 QT one for Christmas and I love it. So it would be great to have new recipes to use in it — especially on my work days.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Ditto on the crock pot recipes.

    We have scrambled eggs about once a week. They’re cheap, easy and fast. Serve with toast and veggies from the freezer and all nutritional bases are covered.

    I try to always keep something in the freezer for days when I’m too tired to cook. Ideally it’s something I’ve cooked earlier, but also frozen pizza, lasagne, etc. I’m an at home parent so usually I only need a day or so to rejuvenate. I think it would be much harder if I were working in an office and had to come home and cook every evening.

    My husband is way too eager to eat out when I’m tired but I prefer eating out to be a treat. We only budget one meal out a month so I don’t want to waste it on an evening when I’m dragging and don’t care what I eat.

  11. gp says:

    one thing that we do is make taco and sloppy joe meat one night, just warm it up for dinner during the week. the crockpot is great for simple things like any type of roast or pork tenderloin. there are several recipe books out there for slow cookers.

  12. Bobby says:

    Looks like the crock pot recipes are not optional. Another vote from this precinct.

  13. 6hand1 says:

    Dude, bring on the crockpot recipes. We got one as a gift after we begged our relatives for one for Christmas, and have been hooked on it ever since. It is a definite time/money saver and we have yet to have ANYTHING come out of it that wasn’t yummy and fed us for days on end.
    So by all means…share the love. :-)

  14. Nathania Johnson says:

    1. Buy frozen ravioli. I got the Walmart brand (Great Value) for $1.96 per package. Throw those suckers in boiling water and when they reach the top of the water, they’re ready. Add sauce. Yum.

    2. Cheap and HEALTHY dessert. Instant sugar free pudding from Jello. Read the instructions, but usually you add 2 cups of skim milk with the package (about 60 cents each!), stir for two minutes, fridge for five – and bam- tasty dessert.

    3. Hot dogs or turkey dogs. For a grilled taste – put them in the oven on BROILER for a few minutes.

    4. Invest in an indoor grill. Find one that has removable plates that you can put in the dishwasher. You can cook burgers, chicken, pretty much anything under the sun. The one we have came with a bunch of recipes too..

    5. Red Baron pizza. Got two tonight for less than $3 each. Fed family of 4 with some leftovers.

    4. Frozen crockpot meals. Why do all the prep when you can pay $5 at the grocery store?

    6. Frozen potatoes – fries, hash browns, and tater tots. Get generic to pay less. Throw in the oven. Take out of oven. easy peasy.

    7. Frozen waffles. I get these at Walmart for $1 a piece, again using their generic brand. I get cinnamon and blueberry flavored. The whole family loves them. If you’re living large, add some low fat whipped cream to them. which can also be bought for about $1.25 a carton.

    8. Chicken patties.

    9. Banquet frozen meals – about $1 each – my kids love ’em.

    10. Salisbury steaks (again, frozen section) – 6 for less than $2

    11. Chicken or turkey pot pies. Anywhere from 44 cents to around 75 cents each. You’ll definitely need a side dish, though, as they’re not terribly filling.

    My goal is to get my family’s weekly groceries to somewhere between 50 and 70 bucks. This is how I do it.

  15. ideagirl says:

    One more vote for the crock pot…let’s have it!

  16. Jeff says:

    Crock pot, crock pot.
    Crock pot, crock pot.
    All the things you wanna cook are cooked inside for you.
    Crock pot, crock pot.
    Crock pot, crock pot.

    (I gotta stop watching Dora the Explorer with my daughter.)

    Maybe I should save this for the now inevitable crock pot post, but…

    The best, most moist chicken I ever had was made by simply putting a few simple spices (like salt and pepper) on the bird and dropping it in the crock pot for 8 hours on low. The crock pot ended up almost filled with the juices (which make a great gravy, too). ZERO effort.

  17. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    OK, I get the memo: the crock pot post is coming. Most of my actual crock pot recipes are offline (print-offs of various web pages + notecards), so it will take me some time to type some of them in. I’m going to try to do a mix: some really easy, a few a little tougher, but nothing ridiculous (after all, this is about convenience cooking).

  18. S says:

    I stay by myself and only cook one big meal every fortnight and reheat the same thing for dinner everyday for two weeks. I can tell you that it gets really bad on day 14 (I don’t have a big freezer, so it doesn’t keep as long and fresh as in the fridge).

    But I do get really exhausted at the end of a working day, and knowing that I only have to throw something in the microwave and prepare some fresh vegetables helps keep me from stopping at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and other numerous takeaway joints on the way home.

    I have been doing this for a few years and haven’t fallen sick yet. I am quite the opposite in fact. I’ve only taken about 3 sick days in the past 3 years — and not because I was ill. ;-)

  19. Thoglette says:

    “I’d love to see your crockpot recipes”

    Goodness – see standard French techniques
    1) Brown meat (perhaps floured), remove
    2) Saute hard veges (onion, carrot)
    3) Return meat to pot
    4) Add stock/wine/herbs/water/legumes/etc
    5) Simmer over low heat until meat is falling off the bone.
    6) Garnish
    7) Serve

    Note that everything has variations.
    Even serving:
    * serve a stew (meat in chunks);
    * serve as soup (serve meat cold next day w/ fresh bread)
    * serve as pot roast (meat sliced at table) w/ accompanying veges

  20. GrizzlyAdams says:

    Another vote for the crockpot recipes: I’m always looking for more!

    Here’s one of mine that I just made:

    Crock-Pot Roast

    2 pound cut of beef
    2 cans Campbell’s Golden Mushroom soup
    2 pounds frozen stew vegetables (potatoes, carrots, celery)
    1 can water

    Put the beef in the bottom of the crockpot. Add vegetables. Combine soup and water and stir until smooth; add to crockpot. Stir veggies until coated with soup.

    Cook on low for 8-12 hours, or until beef is “fall apart” tender. This was the one of the best pot roasts I’ve ever had.

    Notes: I found the frozen stew vegetables in a local grocery, under their store brand. It contains whole peeled potatoes, crinkle-sliced carrots, and sliced celery. If you can’t find it combined, you can use individual bags of veggies, or canned.

  21. Thoglette says:

    On eating well on a budget
    1) Eat local foods in season. Stating the obvious? I guess so, but do you know what is in season and when?
    2) grow high value/small quanity herbs etc
    There’s a wide range of herbs and similar items (citrus, ginger, tomatos & chilli) which are expensive but are easy to grow and make a massive difference to taste. Tailor to your region – bananas in Anchorage and chervil in Miami are difficult! But the principle stands. Even if all you have is a balcony, you can pot a few suitable items.
    3) Avoid processed foods
    What can I say about these that hasn’t been said? Perhaps just to note the umpteen 100%+ markups between the farmer and you!

    On “I’m too lazy”.
    1) Keep a stash of decent cheese, pickles, preserved sausage/meat, re-crisped bread and beer. Or somthing similar. Recrisped bread can be anything from yesterday’s flatbread (as Trent suggests) to a proprietory brand (eg. Rivita). Slice and enjoy. And it’s still better value than BigBrandName(tm) sandwiches.
    2) Dry Noodles + veges + leftovers + stock. Slice and heat. Stock can be fish & soy sauces or half a stock cube. Or something more complex. My standard lunch :-)
    3) Learn to boil; poach and scramble eggs. If you can scramble, you can omlette.
    3) Did I mention eggs? cheese? And leftovers?

    On the whole thing.
    I roast my own coffee over a flame. It’s cheaper than roasted. Now, perhaps, economically, I’d be better flipping burgers at MickyD;s for an hour once a month and paying the local coffee supplier to roast it.

    But I know which is better for my soul.

  22. Jodi says:

    “Once A Month Cooking” has pre-made plans and recipes for prepping 30 days worth of meals in one day. I did it for a couple months. It was pretty amazing. Very hard work that day, but the result was no stress at dinner time for the rest of the month.

  23. gp says:

    Here is one of our favorite and simple crock-pot recipes.

    Buy a bottom roast and dump a jar of peppercinni’s over it, throw it in the crock-pot. The meat falls apart, we love it. I also steam broccoli and soak it in the juice.

  24. Amy says:

    The Yahoo Slowcooker group is chock full of crockpot recipes. Even better, they have a monthly contest for the best recipe, and the best-of-the-best are compiled here.

    They also have links to a bunch of other sites in their links area (you have to join for that one) and they’ve been very helpful when I need advice.

    My only beef: many of the recipes are for 6-8 hours on low, and I’m out of the house from 7 am to 6 pm. I keep those recipes for the weekends.

  25. Jeff says:

    @Amy – great recipes on that site (Yahoo Slowcooker) but WOW… I have never in my life wanted to override a background graphic so badly. That index page is almost impossible for me to read. I get a headache if I look at it for more than 5 seconds.

  26. Robin says:

    Pork steaks are cheap and mushroom soup and milk or water. Put the porksteaks in the crockpot and mix soup with some milk or water. Pour over steaks and cook all day or all night serve with boiled pot. or mashed pot. and use soup as gravy. They fall apart.

  27. Robin says:

    In the winter I spend a sunday afternoon making frozen meals to put in the freezer for later in the weeks ahead or should someone become ill and a family needs a meal or someones aniversary present. Start out by cooking 10lbs of hamburger along with 2 large diced onions and garlic powder to flavor. Drain it and set aside. If you have flour tortillas in the refrig. pull them out. Put some of the hamb. in a bowl and add taco seasonings to it, some canned green chilies, a can of drained tomatoes, and some shredded cheese. put meat mixture down the middle of tortilla , rollup and put in a long casserole dish. When full put some enchilada sauce and shredded cheese on top. If you cover with aluminum foil, spray foil with cooking spray so cheese won’t stick when done cooking. Freeze. Pull out and cook for 45min. to one hour or till heated through. Make two casserole dishes of these and freeze both. Make a dish of chicken ench. just by substituting the chicken with the beef. You’ve already got out most the ingredients so fix another meal for later. They freeze well!! In another bowl put more hamb. meat and a jar of your favorite spaghetti sauce, 3tblsp. of sugar, can of drained tomatoes, half of a large diced onion, and a tsp. of minced garlic. Get out your casserole dishes out again and spray with pan spray Put down a layer of meat sauce, layer of lasagna noodles( I don’t even cook my noodles. Just use alot of sauce in between layers because noodles will soak up alot of fluid while cooking in the oven so maybe use two jars of sauce), shredded mozzarella cheese or cottage cheese, repeat layers till pan is 3/4 full. I usually only get 2-3 layers in a dish. Always end with shredded mozzarella. Cover, spray foil so cheese doesn’t stick and freeze. Freezes well! Use remainder of hamb. and make a pot of chili. put into individual containers for one or two people and put in the freezer. Pull out for a single meal or several. Make frito mess by reaheating chili. Put frito chips on plate, cover with chili, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream.
    Chicken breasts, skinless boneless, put four or five in crockpot cover with a can of cream of mushroom or chicken soup again mixed with water or milk. You can put some fresh carrots and pot. in there(on the bottom,then the chicken and soup). Cook all night or all day.

  28. cami says:

    “poor man quesadillas”, I do something similar but with black beans instead of chicken. Black beans are great because they are cheap, healthy, and have a good shelf life. Also you can throw all those ingredients over tortilla chips instead, which adds a little variety.

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  30. Jean says:

    Our basic crockpot dinner:

    –Spray the crock with cooking spray
    –Add hard veggies in the bottom…potoatoes, carrots, onions
    –Add the meat, covering the veggies as much as possible. This allows the juices to drain down over the vegetables.
    –Add whatever seasonings you like.
    –Top with some sort of liquid such as reconstituted canned soup, broth, wine, etc.

    I usually prepare the crockpot the night before and put it in the refrigerator to be turned on the next morning. Potatoes will turn dark, though, unless they are in liquid.

    If possible, I turn the crockpot on “high” for an hour or two, and then turn it to “low” for the rest of the day. This allows it to get up to a good, safe temperature for cooking, especially if it’s starting from refrigerator temperature.

    But, that only works on the days that my husband leaves for work after I do, so sometimes it’s on low the whole time. On those days, I try to have some of the ingredients (veggies, perhaps) at room temp so the crock doesn’t have to work so long to get to a safe temperature.

    Crockpots are old technology, but I still call them “magic cooking”. :)

  31. threenorns says:

    ooo… smack on the wrist from teh cheapness fairy for that crack about buying frozen veggies in a microwavable bag!

    much cheaper and just as easy to buy frozen veg and a microwavable dish with a lid. toss in whatever quantity of veg you need, add a *small* amount of water plus butter and whatever seasonings you like, put the lid on loosely (or it’ll blow off) and nuke until done (start with 4min for a small amount, 6 for a lot, then check every 2min).

    added bonus: no garbage baggies to throw away.

  32. Lynne says:

    1.Omelets–can be individual or family size–eggs, a little milk or water stirred, season, pour into non-stick pan, when nearly set add cheese, herb, any fresh or left over veggies, meat, salsa, or whatever you have in the fridge that sounds good. Fold over to finish & serve.2. Inexpensive frozen burritos-place in a cassarole dish, pour a little canned or jarred enchilada sauce over the top, sprinkle with cheese. Bake in oven–instant enchilada cassarole! 3.Our fave was always tomato soup & grilled cheese & tomato sandwiches. 4. I keep ham slices in the freezer. They only take a few minutes to cook in the micro. Canned or frozen veggies & you’re good to go. 5. I have been cooking mostly small red & yukon gold potatoes. Scrub, dice & place in a microwave dish with a small amt. of water. Season with salt & pepper, a little lemon juice. Cook on high til done. Less than 5 min. Stir in butter (or margerine or whatever you use), a bit more lemon juice & some fresh or dried parsely. There are tons of things you can come up with to serve good meals quick! Find your families 5-7 faves and make sure you keep most of those ingredients on hand. Whenever you’re tired, or pushed for time that’s when you tap into those go-to favorites.

  33. Fawn says:

    (I know this is an old post… but I ran out of new ones, and liked them so much, I had to read the old ones!! ;) )

    This post speaks straight to me, I will be tired, or not want to cook, and my boyfriend isn’t much of a cook, so we eat out. :S

    Thanks for your great ideas! Fawn :D

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