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Coping with the Working Mom’s Witching Hour: Dinner in 15 minutes

Categories: Frugal Living, Hacking Life, Making Time, Parenting, do more with less


I call it The Working Mom’s Witching Hour: 6 p.m. or so. The kids are ravenous, I’m cranky, we’ve all just gotten home from work and school and childcare. It’s tempting to hand them a snack just to keep them from gnawing on the furniture, but then they won’t eat dinner. The food-o-sphere is rife with meals that you can make in 30 minutes or less, but what if you don’t even have a half hour to spare?

In our family, take-out isn’t often an option. Aside from the fact that our budget is tight right now, three of our five kids have food intolerances or allergies, which means anything with gluten is a no-no. That rules out pretty much anything that’s ready-made.

So how does The 36-Hour Day household cope? Here are my five go-to meals that can be made in 15 minutes.

1.) I always keep rice noodles or cellophane noodles in the house, to make what my youngest kids call Slippery Noodles. They cook in boiling water in about 5 minutes; whisk together soy sauce, honey, and rice wine vinegar, drain the noodles, and dump them into the sauce while they’re piping hot, and let it sit while you stir-fry whatever vegetables are languishing in your cripser drawer. The noodles soak up the sauce, rendering them completely non-drippy, which is essential if you have a 3-year-old in the house, as I do.

2.) My preschoolers love frozen ravioli. I think they taste like paste, but they’re fast and fairy nutritious, and I can whip together a no-cook pasta sauce in no time. A can of pureed tomatoes (no-salt-added kinds are best), some herbs, a little garlic, a healthy grating of parmesan, and that’s it. You can freeze the surplus sauce in 1-cup containers; it’s great for homemade pizza as well. If you have a few extra minutes, you can layer the cooked ravioli, sauce, and grated mozarella to make a cheater’s lasagne.

3.) My husband calls keilbasa “meat candy,” and it’s kind of true, but the turkey versions taste good and are much lower in fat. Pair them with the frozen ravioli or perogies, or offset the fat by serving them with steamed veggies and fresh or frozen corn.

4.) When our big kids were little, and I was wiped out, I’d serve them “snacky dinner.” I thought I was totally slacking as a stepmom — until I discovered that it was one of their favorite meals. Anything goes with snacky dinner as long as a.) all items can be dipped into condiments or b.) all items can be eaten with ones hands or c.) all items count as appetizers. So… raw veggies and salad dressing, tater tots and BBQ sauce, samosas and mango chutney, cheese quesadillas and salsa, supermarket sushi, slices of salami, string cheese, chunks of ham, apple slices and peanut butter, pineapple rings, and even tortilla chips with salsa, guacamole, and refried beans all fit the bill. I’d put a huge assortment out on the kitchen table, give each child a very tiny plate, and let them graze until they were full.

5.) Breakfast for dinner is always a favorite. It can take more than 15 minutes to prepare if you have to make it all from scratch, but even so… if you let them snack on fruit while you’re making the sausage and a double batch of pancakes, that totally counts as a first course. (Why a double batch of pancakes? Wrapped individually, they freeze beautifully, and you can make breakfast for the week — or another installment of breakfast for dinner — with minimal extra effort.)

What’s your go-to meal when you barely have time to cook?

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10 comments so far...

  • Several variations of canned foods (served with fresh or frozen/boiled veggies); eggs with toast, cheese, and fruit; healthy cereal bars, individual apple/berrysauce cups, fresh veggies; pbj, fruit, fresh veggies; leftovers from an Indian restaurant. Like yours, my kids happen to love the least fancy offerings. My picky eater is in heaven if she can just dip “brown bread” in tomato sauce.

    SKL  |  April 9th, 2010 at 12:01 am

  • Fish sticks and some form of a frozen vegetable. Broccoli is her favorite followed by green beans but we do a variety of mixes too to introduce different vegetables.

    Bonus of course is that fish sticks are great dipped in mustard & catsup.

    Mich  |  April 9th, 2010 at 1:20 pm

  • ham steak with instant mashed potatos, frozen veggie and canned pineapple.

    Sloppy joes (using manwich sauce), baked chips, baby carrots and canned fruit (sometimes gussied up with banana slices).

    Lindsey W.  |  April 9th, 2010 at 2:00 pm

  • I could swear by the noodles too~
    Other thing: Rice: Add veggies, the salt, any other spice you like, put the rice, bring to a boil, and may be add soy sauce while cooking for the lovely color and taste.
    Next: Panini with a twist: Whole Grain Bread or sour dough for the real thing, any and all veggies. Sperad some hummus/salsa/ranch: whatever you and the kiddo likes: Pu the veggies, cheese, Salt, Pepper, Flakes of Basil! Grill all set!

    GNSD  |  April 10th, 2010 at 11:01 am

  • Tacos! Brown some ground beef, chicken, or turkey (or cook chopped chicken or beef, or even just heat up some beans), add taco seasoning or a combination of spices, heat up some shells or tortillas, shred some cheese and lettuce, chop some onions and tomatoes, and serve with whatever condiments you like. If you have a little more time, make a spanish rice (from a box or from scratch) to go with.

    When I make meatballs and sauce, I always make a huge batch and freeze some. Pull them out, heat them up, and cook some pasta (or toast some rolls and make meatball subs.

    Grilled cheese and tomato soup with a salad is always a crowd-pleaser. Tomato soup from scratch is incredibly easy, takes about 15 minutes, and tastes so much better (and is healthier) than canned. The canned is fine, too, but once you try homemade, it’s hard to go back.

    Particularly when it’s too hot to cook, make a big salad, throw in whatever leftover meats, cheeses, and/or veggies are around the house.

    I also make a ‘pizza pasta salad’ with turkey pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, olives, fresh basil, and dressing made from roasted red peppers, oil, vinegar, and herbs, run through the food processor. It’s probably 20 minutes including bringing the water to a boil, but it’s close to 15. You can also use leftover (plain) cooked pasta if you have some on hand.

    It makes me sad to see how much unhealthy food people revert to in a hurry. With a little planning when you do your weekly shop, you can have quick, healthy options on hand that go together fast.

    akmom  |  April 11th, 2010 at 5:30 pm

  • One other thought - when everyone’s starving and I need more than 15 minutes to prepare what I have available, I hand the kids a bowl of baby carrots and some ranch dressing. If they then decide they don’t want to eat whatever vegetable I’ve prepared for dinner, I don’t mind - I know they had veggies already. They are also always allowed to have a piece of fruit. If it ’spoils’ their appetites, I don’t care - at least they’ve eaten something with nutritional value.

    akmom  |  April 12th, 2010 at 3:15 pm

  • Breakfast for dinner = Brinner = My favoritest. My #1 go-to though is amped up tomato soup (fresh dried oregano, pepper, basil and grated paramggiano) and grilled cheese on whole grain bread.

    But I think, given how I feel right now, Snacky Dinner is on the menu for tonight. I love it! Thank you!

    Phe  |  April 13th, 2010 at 8:16 am

  • Scrambled eggs, dr. praeggers fishies, broccoli bites or veggie burgers, or rice pilaf with lentils (although it requires 35 minute cook time).
    Having to think about dinner after a long day is TORTURE….I fight to stay up the night before and prepare dinner so I don’t dread coming home the next night. It’s a game changer that lets me enjoy the 2.5 hours I have with my son on weeknights.

    Karen  |  April 22nd, 2010 at 3:23 pm

  • A can of baked beans warmed up with sliced turkey dogs. Or, another cheap meal, I cook up some chicken thighs in a pan with a can of diced toms and a can of black beans, onions and garlic then serve it with rice. Sometimes I leave out the chicken and add more beans.

    Mandy Nelson  |  April 29th, 2010 at 2:54 pm

  • Turkey BLT’s! The turkey bacon is already cooked so I just heat it until crispy and wah-lah, my family loves it.

    Sara  |  May 19th, 2010 at 9:17 am