These desperation dinners are for those nights when you really, really aren’t in the mood to cook. We all have those times, whether it’s due to a full schedule or perhaps a season of grief or just plain tiredness.
I write cookbooks and blog about food, 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.
But 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 Comedy Central 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 desperation dinners. I am not presenting these as perfect healthy meals, mind you.
These are emergency 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 to the pasta and stir until it melts, or a dollop of sour cream, plus a little milk. Then sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese….fresh grated if I have it, but the kind in the green can will do during desperate times.
If you have it you can add some chopped /cooked chicken, cooked frozen peas, or crumbled crisp bacon if you’re feeling motivated.
2. 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.
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 Frozen Penne Pasta with Chicken
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.
One 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.
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 and let it simmer for 20 minutes 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.
Make grilled cheese sandwiches with soup, or make simple tuna melts, BLTs, or egg salad sandwiches.
Or (my favorite idea): put out bread and the fixings, and let everyone make their own.
10. Frozen Meatballs
Whether you use store bought, or make and freeze your own Italian meatballs, having a stash on hand is a life saver.
You can heat the meatballs to serve over spaghetti, or use them in sandwiches or meatball sliders with Hawaiian rolls. You can serve meatballs with mac and cheese and some veggies, and actually have a fairly well balanced meal!
I always try to sell this idea to my children as a wacky good 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.
Scrambled eggs are especially good if you adding a few tiny cubes of cream cheese when you’re cooking them. They melt into the mixture and make the eggs extra creamy. You can add chopped ham or veggies or cheese, or whatever you have on hand.
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, so drop a comment below!
P.S. You might also enjoy reading about an interesting way to prepare frugal and thrifty meals ahead of time while saving money.
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