12 Desperation Dinners for When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking

Pasta with Parmesan cheese

Dear friends,

Do you ever have nights when you really, really aren’t in the mood to cook?

I write cookbooks, so I do lots of recipe developing and tinkering as part of my day job. I truly enjoy being in the kitchen and preparing food, usually.

Except when I don’t.

Some nights, I could more easily endure a root canal without anesthesia than figure out what to make for dinner.

Some nights, I would give anything to sit on the couch and eat cheese and crackers and watch Friends reruns while a personal chef prepares a well-balanced, appealing meal for my family.

There have also been seasons in my life — when my babies were teething, for instance, or during times of intense grief — when making dinner seemed like the hardest thing I had to do all day.

What do we cook on the nights when we are truly, madly desperate?

Here are some of my go-to emergency dinners. I am not presenting these as perfect healthy meals, but as dinners that can get you through a rough patch. You can fill in with salads or fruit or cooked frozen vegetables to make a somewhat balanced meal:

  1. Pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese.  Year after year, I turn to this simple, kid-friendly comfort food dish during hard times. I cook the noodles a little softer than al dente, drain and toss with salted butter and freshly ground black pepper. I usually add a little cream cheese and stir until it melts, or a dollop of sour cream, plus a little milk. Then sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese….the kind in the green can, or fresh grated if I have that. I had fresh basil when I shot the photo above, so I chopped a little and sprinkled it on top. Alternately, you could add some cooked frozen peas, or crumbled crisp bacon if you’re feeling motivated.
  2. A rotisserie chicken. Pick up a golden, roasted chicken at the deli or market. Cut it up and serve with a green salad and some crusty bread. In the summer I sometimes serve the chicken cold. One hot August night, we had cold sliced chicken accompanied with red grapes and a sliced mild cheese. So simple and good.
  3. Embellished baked potatoes.  Bake large-ish Russet potatoes at 400 degrees F for an hour or so, until tender. (If you’re in a hurry you can poke the washed potatoes several times with a fork, and microwave them one at a time for about 5 minutes. Then wrap in foil and let them sit.) Split open the potatoes and serve with butter or sour cream and shredded cheese, or veggies, or bacon, or chopped ham, or whatever you have in the fridge. Baked sweet potatoes are good served this way, too.
  4. French bread pizza. Split a baguette of French bread in half and cut crosswise to make 4 large pieces. Spread with pizza sauce or spaghetti sauce, sprinkle with extra toppings of your choice and grated cheese, and bake on a cookie sheet at 425 degrees until the cheese is melted and the bread is hot and crispy, about 10 to 15 minutes.
  5. Bertolli penne. This is not a promotional plug for Bertolli, just a blessed secret my sister shared with me. Look for the bagged Bertolli classic meals in the frozen meals section. The Chicken Parmigiana and Penne is kid-friendly and mercifully easy to prepare. You pour the contents of a bag in a large skillet, cover and cook for about 12 minutes while you lie down and put a cool washcloth on your forehead. The bag contains penne pasta, a decent fresh-tasting tomato sauce, melty mozzarella cheese, and breaded chicken pieces that kids love. 1 bag will feed 2 large or 3 small people. I always keep a bag in the freezer for emergencies. I wish this product was organic but it’s not, so I remind myself that life is a series of trade-offs.
  6. Quesadillas. Spread two flour tortillas with butter, sandwich shredded cheese inside, and cook in a frying pan over medium heat until golden brown. Cut in wedges and serve with salsa on the side. You can layer whatever other ingredients you have on hand, like chopped chicken or veggies, with the cheese. I add cooked corn and chopped green chiles to cheese quesadillas, and my kids love them.
  7. Fried rice. Put a pot of rice on the stove while you go and put your feet up. When the rice is done, heat a little olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat and cook some onion and whatever veggies you have on hand. You can add chopped cooked chicken or other meat if you like. Add the rice and a little tamari or soy sance and cook, stirring, until veggies are almost tender. Add a beaten egg to the mixture and cook until the mixture is hot and the egg is cooked. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot. Yum.
  8. Amy’s frozen cheese enchiladas. Again, this is not a promotional endorsement. Amy’s enchiladas are mild and organic and easy to microwave, and my children will eat them. Serve with some beans and corn on the side, and you could almost feel virtuous.
  9. Sandwiches. Make grilled cheese sandwiches with soup, or make simple tuna melts or egg salad sandwiches. Or (my favorite idea) put out bread and the fixings and let everyone make their own.
  10. Scrambled eggs. Try adding a few tiny cubes of cream cheese when you’re cooking the eggs. It will melt into the mixture and make the eggs extra creamy. You can add chopped veggies or cheese, or whatever you have on hand.
  11. Breakfast. I always try to sell this idea to my children as a wacky time with their fun-loving mom: “Kids, we’re going to have breakfast for dinner!” I will say with enthusiasm, glass of wine in hand. Prepare eggs, bacon, frozen waffles, French toast, pancakes, sausage, English muffins, or whatever morning foods you can muster the energy to cook.
  12. Ramen noodles. Discard the chemical-y flavor packet. Simmer some chicken broth in a saucepan, add some frozen or leftover veggies, cook the noodles until tender, and serve.

How About You?

What are your go-to emergency dinners when you can’t bear the thought of cooking? I’d love to hear your ideas on the comments section of this post.


The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of 15 books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

12 thoughts on “12 Desperation Dinners for When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking”

  1. Cheater Pasta Bake — I always boil an entire box of pasta to save time/energy, and that usually lasts for about three meals for my husband and me (depending on how much I bulk it up with veggies). Last night I had some leftover pasta. I took a glass (oven/microwave-safe) dish and microwaved some broccoli and pre-washed spinach for a couple minutes. Then I added the pasta and some sauce from a jar, mixed it up, and microwaved another couple minutes, until hot. Then I put some cheddar and mozzarella on top and broiled it until appetizingly golden. It took a total of ten minutes and looked like I’d baked it!

  2. Eliza, love these, many of them I use myself! But i love the new ideas! We do what we call BINNER (breakfast for dinner) quite often, it’s certainly my boys fav! Love the idea with Ramen noodles, I keep trying to find healthy versions of those that my boys will eat, they keep discontinuing the ones I find, I love this idea of tossing and just making in broth!

    A few others are quick chicken noodle soup. Grab that leftover onion stuck in your veggie drawer and chop up a few carrots in some olive oil and sauce in a small saucepan until softened, then heat some broth or stock, throw in some shredded chicken, bring to simmer, season with salt, garlic powder and pepper. Toss in some egg noodles or regular pasta and cook until done. Serve with some bread!

    We also love the Trader Joe’s Teriyaki chicken. Make a quick batch of rice, steam up some broccoli (all of these are also at TJ’s in the frozen section and you could just throw in micro) Heat the chicken, sometimes I use the teriyaki packets, sometimes I toss and use my own GF healthier version of it.

    BLT’s – I will also throw on some A (avocado), chips and some cut up carrots and cucumbers and you are good to go.

    Lastly and I’ll let you go. Tacos, I keep shredded pork and beef in my freezer, I almost always have tortillas, cheese and salsa. Heat up meats, chop some tomatoes, add shredded cheddar and lettuce, dollop on a bit of sour cream, serve with refried beans and tortilla chips.

    All are kid friendly!

    Love all that you do!

    • Oh Kathleen, these are wonderful ideas – thank you! They all sound delicious and doable. I must go to Trader Joe’s a.s.a.p. and try the Teriyaki chicken…really sounds good.

      I will never forget the wonderful meal you brought us during a time of grief, complete with chocolate chip cookies. You are such a good cook, and a kindhearted friend.

      Readers, be sure to check out Kathleen’s terrific new food blog, The Fresh Cooky: http://www.thefreshcooky.com/


  3. How ’bout a nice quick batch of Migraine Soup, aka 6 can Chicken Tortilla Soup? 1 15 oz. can whole corn, 1 15 oz. can black beans, 2 10 3/4 oz. cans chicken broth, 1 10 oz. can Ro-tel tomatoes, 1 10 oz. can chunk chicken. Simmer til hot through, and serve with your choice of random toppings lurking in your fridge/pantry, such as shredded cheese, crushed tortilla chips, sour cream, cilantro, chopped fresh taco-ish ingredients… I confess I don’t use canned chicken, because I always have boneless skinless chicken breasts that are individually frozen in my freezer, so I just fish out a big one and put it directly in the soup. When it’s fully cooked through, I dice it and put it back in. Viola!

  4. I fear that my “too tired to cook” dinners are a LOT lazier than yours are! One of my favorites is to throw some frozen veggies in the microwave – the ones called “fiesta veggies” that have some beans in them work well, but even the good old “mixed veggies” that are just carrots, peas & corn will work. Melt some shredded cheese on top and call it dinner! If I need more protein than that I’ll cook up and egg or two and toss it into the mix.

  5. 1. Cut slices of whole grain bread into quarters. 2 slices per person. Put good olive oil into skillet. Warm the bread in the skillet, turn it over. Put in two eggs per person. Turn them over, serve with grated cheese and slices of fresh tomato. Big hit!
    2. Make a big pot of brown rice, and put into the refrigerator. It will last for a few days. Serve with veg and meat or egg. Fried rice is great with this browning some nuts and/or seeds in the fry pan, adding some rice, putting in an egg if you wish. Or serve the rice with any of 100s of different possibilities.
    3. Soup: Brown some onion. I like to use one big one sliced but not chopped. Do same with garlic or cheat and use prepared garlic. Put it into a soup pot, add some chicken broth or just water. Cut a few veg — Do not bother dicing them, but just put in chunks. Bell pepper is great in this sort of soup. Add whatever you have around such as sausage, breakfast sausage, pieces of chicken, a can of shrimp, or a can of tuna or a can of corn or tomato if you want to. Cook til tender. Drop in a little bit of herbs and some wine near the end if you wish. One day I dropped in about 1/2 cup of beer near the end and that was a hit!
    4. Can if chili. Add chopped onion, garlic, chicken broth, beer, cheese, chopped carrots or other veg, can of corn. Great stuff, add some rice if you have it already made (see 2 above)
    5. Get a bell pepper, carrots, zucchini, other veg of your choice. Wash but do not cut up. Make some sauces: One of yogurt and grated cheese, one of salsa and some beans. Give your family the veg, a good sharp knife and the sauces and tell them to cut the veg up and dip them! You can also serve crackers or chips. I don’t but it is a matter of taste.

  6. One of my quick fix dinners is hamburger “goulash”. Just brown a pound of ground beef or turkey along with a chopped onion and a large diced bell pepper. Boil up a small box of macaroni and drain, then put the browned meat and mac in a pot along with a jar of your favorite pasta sauce and heat through. Serve with a green salad and it’s dinner.

    Another idea is “loaded” macaroni salad. Either your favorite homemade or store-bought salad will do. Just mix in some tuna, chopped chicken, or whatever you have on hand and whatever other fixing you like, olives, chopped tomatoes, jalapenos, whatever. It’s quick, cool and good.

  7. I have two: Tortellini soup, where you cook fresh tortellini (has to be Buitoni chicken and prosciutto for my family!) in chicken broth, then sprinkle with parmesan.

    The other is Egg McMuffin Squares. A tube of refrigerator biscuits (grands buttermilk), pull the top half off each one to make two thinner biscuit rounds & place, stuck together, in a greased lasagna pan. Cut a package of breakfast sausages into small pieces and scatter across the top. Mix 4 eggs with milk, as if for scrambled eggs, & pour over the surface. Throw on a couple handfuls of shredded cheddar, and bake at 400 for 15-20 minutes, or until the eggs don’t run when you tip the pan & the crust is golden brown.


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