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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.