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.

Hugs,

The signature for Eliza Cross

Easy Strawberry Mini Cheesecakes Recipe

Strawberry cheesecake recipe

 

I LOVE dessert, but sometimes a petite treat is just right after a big dinner. These mini cheesecakes are among my favorite bite-sized desserts, and the recipe is so simple. I made them with strawberries, but you can prepare them with whatever berries you have on hand such as raspberries, blackberries or blueberries.

For this variation, I used mini muffin tins and liners to make 24 small cheesecakes, which were perfect for our dinner party  of 6 people. You can easily double the recipe for a bigger crowd.

The base of these baby cheesecakes is a vanilla wafer cookie, which fits just perfectly in the bottom of a mini muffin liner. I put them in with the rounded side down, as they seem to soften and flatten better that way for more even layers.

 

vanilla wafers as base of cheesecakes

 

Mix the easy filling and pour it evenly in the cups:

 

mini cheesecakes

 

After the mini cheesecakes bake for 20 minutes, let them cool and top them with a dollop of strawberry jam.

 

strawberry jam on mini cheesecakes

 

Cover and refrigerate until the filling is firm. Just before serving, top with a fresh strawberry half.

 

Mini strawberry cheesecake recipe

 

Here’s the recipe:

Mini Strawberry Cheesecakes

  • 24 vanilla wafer cookies
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup strawberry jam
  • 12 medium strawberries

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Line 24 mini muffin cups with paper or foil baking liners. Place one vanilla wafer in each cup.

In large bowl, beat cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg, milk, salt and vanilla. Pour the mixture in prepared muffin cups. They will each be about 3/4 full.

Bake until set, about 20 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack to room temperature. Top each cheesecake with a heaping teaspoon strawberry jam and spread with a spoon. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, wash, dry and hull strawberries. Cut them in half and top each cheesecake with a strawberry half. Makes 24 mini cheesecakes.

Berries cookbook by Eliza CrossFor more delectable berry recipes, enter the Goodreads giveaway to win one of 10 copies of my new cookbook, Berries: Sweet and Savory Recipes.

If you make these miniature treats, I’d berry much love to hear what you think!

Hugs,

The signature for Eliza Cross

A New Season

First crocus of spring

 

Our garden is awakening here in Colorado. The first crocus bloomed yesterday!

The daffodils are budding, and the tulips are emerging.

 

Daffodil buds

tulips coming up

 

It’s sunny and mild, too, so I’ve been puttering and doing a little cleaning up in the yard.

I know better than to clear away the leaves that are still protecting tender young plants and shoots, because our springtime weather is always unpredictable. So I’ve been trimming branches that were broken by heavy snows, pulling young weeds, sweeping sidewalks and watering shrubs.

The hardy vinca is starting to bloom, warmed by the sunny rocks on the south side of the yard.

 

early spring vinca

 

I often feel introspective when I’m working in the garden. Do you?

 

Spring garden

 

Grateful for a patch of ground to tend, I wonder what might need weeding and pruning and cultivating in my life this season.

 

Strawberry plants

 

Springtime signals rebirth, reawakening, and newness. As I work, I silently pray for renewed energy, for new ideas to sprout, and to see people and situations in a new light.

 

Budding branches

 

Our garden has places of disappointment, too.

Sometimes I discover that something I planted, watered, nurtured and tried so hard to grow didn’t survive the winter. Help me accept this outcome, and clear the way for something new, I whisper.

Has a new season arrived in your part of the world? Is your garden awakening? Do you have any thoughts or insights you’d like to share? I always love hearing from you.

Hugs,

The signature for Eliza Cross

 

7 Ways to Manage a Conflicted Case of Spring Fever

Tulips for spring fever

Here in Colorado, the meteorologists like to remind us that March is historically our snowiest month. (We hate when they say that.) They are apparently bound by some sort of Colorado meteorologists’ ethical code which obliges them to always (always) follow up that statement by reminding us that April is the second-snowiest month. I respond to these two helpful reminders by throwing pillows at the TV.

We had three record-breaking warm days in Denver during February 2017. They were lovely days, but their freakish balminess made many of us feel uneasy. Spring fever has struck with a vengeance, but for the first time ever I’m actually hoping that our “normal” spring snowstorms are still ahead.

How do you manage a bad case of spring fever mixed with a yearning for a normal climate? Here are some ideas:

Wear some of your springtime fashions.  Pull those transitional clothes from your closet, like a floral women’s blouse or a men’s pale blue oxford shirt. Layer with a camisole or undershirt if the temperatures outside are still nippy.

Use colorful linens. Put a pretty tablecloth on the kitchen table, or hang a bright dishtowel.

Force flowering branches. If your forsythia or pussy willows are starting to bud and develop small leaves, cut some branches and bring them inside. Put them in a vase of room temperature water, and in a few days they may start to leaf out and bloom.

Walk outside and see what’s coming up. We have tulips and crocus popping up, branches budding, baby strawberry plants, violets and vinca all greening up. I’ve covered some of the tender plants with extra leaves and mulch to encourage them to take their sweet time. What’s coming up in your garden?

 

Tulip Arrangement at Happy Simple Living blog

 

Make a spring flower arrangement. The stores here are full of tulips and daffodils. Six stems of daffodils are just $2.99, making them a most affordable splurge. Or try a creative combination like the arrangement above, which I made when I had some extra asparagus and thought the purple tips nicely complimented the tulips.

Read gardening books. Now is the perfect time to develop a master plan for your garden spaces. Daydream, make sketches, and figure out what you want to grow this season.

Order seeds. Buy what you need now, before the nurseries sell out of the really popular seeds. These are some of my favorite seed companies.

How About You?

Do you have spring fever? I’d love to hear your favorite ways to invite springtime in during these early weeks of March.

Hugs and enjoy the weekend,

The signature for Eliza Cross

P.S. Congratulations to Betty Jo Harris, who won the giveaway for my new cookbook Berries: Sweet and Savory Recipes. If you’re on Goodreads, watch for a new giveaway for the book starting March 9, 2017.

 

What is My One Thing? and Other Questions on a Winter Walk

frosty pine tree

 

I visited a friend in the Colorado mountain town of Evergreen earlier this month, and decided to take the scenic route instead of the highway. What a good decision that turned out to be. As I wound through Indian Hills and came around the bend to Mount Falcon Park, I entered a wonderland where a blanket of frost had turned the landscape soft and white.

It was so breathtaking, I parked and took a spontaneous walk.

 

Snowy pine tree

 

Every tree branch, every blade of grass, had been touched by frost.

 

 

My spirit had been downcast after reading the news that morning, and the walk did me good. I’d been wondering for the zillionth time why, as a people, we can’t strike a better balance between supporting business and taking care of the environment. Why do those two good concepts have to be in such conflict?

 

Frosty fence

 

We’re so smart about some things. Why is positive change so difficult? Why should there be any question at all about our collective need to care for our beautiful earth?

 

 

The night before I’d had a good conversation with my niece, Bonnie. She’s caring, committed, courageous, and outspoken. She’s 24, and she’s part of the generation that will, I hope, fix some of the things we’ve unfortunately broken.

“We can’t each fix everything, so why not focus hard on one thing and really try to make an impact?” she suggested, and I thought it was wise advice.

 

 

The challenge, for me, is narrowing down all the things I care about to really focus on one thing. Feeding the hungry, clean water, clean air, human rights, caring for the environment…how can you pick only one?

 

Frosty trees

 

But perhaps, I reasoned, I could give one cause my daily attention.

 

 

A simple walk through nature reminded me of how ordered and perfect and sustaining a mountain meadow is. God entrusted us with the earth, and all we humans have to do is take good care of what we have. My one thing, I decided, is to do all I can to nurture the earth and speak out in support of long-range, big picture policies that better help us humans steward this beautiful planet.

 

 

I’ll do my best to look after all of the causes that matter to me, but I’ll focus extra hard on my one thing:  making a positive impact on our environment.

Maybe if enough of us do the same, future generations can experience the soul-soothing wonder and awe of a quiet mountain meadow dusted with frost.

Hugs,

The signature for Eliza Cross

10 Simple, Budget-Friendly Gifts You Can Give That Aren’t Lame

red geraniums

 

A reader wrote during last month’s January Money Diet and said that she was trying to be frugal but had several birthdays to celebrate. “How do you balance wanting to give generous presents while still sticking to a budget?” she wrote.

Good question! I suspect many of us are similarly challenged. We want to bless our friends and family and show them that we love them. At the same time, we are trying to be thoughtful about finances and not over-spend.

Here are some ideas, beginning with the very toughest group:  teenagers. Some teens really only want one of two things — gift cards or cash.

How in the world do we apply frugality and creativity to cash or gift cards? For either of these options, it pays to plan ahead.

Cash. Try the $5 Bill Savings Plan for a couple months. Or throw your change in a jar, and cash it in for currency at the bank. You could also give your favorite teen the whole jar of coins.

Gift cards. Buy a discounted gift card on eBay. (Look for a seller with a feedback score of at least 100 and a good rating.) Or check out one of the online gift card exchanges like CardHub, CardCash, or GiftCards.com. Costco and Sam’s Club often sell gift cards for less than face value. If you’re patient, you can also earn gift cards by using a site like SwagBucks for searching.

An outing. Make a memory instead of giving a physical gift. Visit the art museum, or the zoo, or a historic home, or take a factory tour. For the past several years, my parents and I have celebrated their anniversary by doing something fun. Last week we spent a relaxing afternoon at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and had such a good time.

A special book. My friend Mindy bought her entire family’s Christmas presents at her library’s used book sale. As an author I may be a little prejudiced, but most people love receiving a book — especially if you find one aligned to your friend’s interests.

Consumables. My sister once gave me a huge, extravagant bag of Ghiradelli chocolate chips for my birthday, and I made treats all year. Anything that’s a splurge-y version of something your friend uses on a regular basis will be appreciated,  from a good bottle of olive oil to a generous bag of Arborio rice or a box of citronella candles or some new art supplies or organic potting soil and flower seeds.

Artisan food. I love receiving homemade food gifts, don’t you? Use the produce from your garden to make homemade preserves or pesto. Cook up a batch of roasted almondscheese crackers or homemade honey graham crackers. Bake an apple cake or butterscotch brownies.

Something growing. Grow herbs from seed and give a potted herb garden. Force spring bulbs in a pot. Root a cutting from a plant you already have. Look for cool pots at thrift stores and garage sales, and give a potted flowering plant like geraniums or pansies. My friend Gail gave me seeds that she gathered from the lupine growing in her mountain garden, and I think of her each year when the pretty flowers come up.

A photo or family memory. Have a vintage family photo copied and put it in a simple frame. Make a scrapbook. Take your loved one’s portrait. Print out the family genealogy.

A donation. For the person who has everything, give a gift to a worthy charity like Heifer International, Water.org or Mercy Corps.

A party. Invite your loved one’s friends over, make a birthday cake, and celebrate. When people offer to bring something, let them!

How About You?

We’d love to hear your gift-giving ideas and suggestions in the Comments section of this page.

Hugs,

The signature for Eliza Cross

P.S. Don’t forget to enter to win a copy of my new cookbook Berries: Sweet and Savory Recipes, published by Gibbs Smith. You can win a special signed advance copy. Just visit this post from last week for full details. Enter between now and midnight MST on Friday, February 24.