Getting Out of a Dinner Rut

dinner rut pt 1I don’t really cook.  I mean, I don’t suck at it, necessarily, but I don’t relish it, either.  I know that these days, it seems like every mom is supposed to have infinite patience and DIY fancy decor and parties for the kids, plus look smokin’ hot in a pair of yoga pants while whipping up five-star-restaurant quality meals on a weeknight for the family.  I…haven’t mastered all that.  I’m working on the ones I think matter, have let go of the ones that don’t, and am pretty content being less than the currently-held-up-as-perfect Mommy Ideal.  However.

I’m bored.  With my meals.  We eat the same basic four meals over…and over…and over.  I used to have about 10 in rotation, pretty easy and quick things, but my husband is looking to limit his weekday carb intake, and that has knocked out about half of my usual stuff–no more stuffed shells, no more knishes from scratch.  Sigh.  So while I am happy with my mom identity, I am NOT happy with my dull-as-toast meals.

I’m looking for help.

The internet is a great place to dig for ideas, and heaven knows Pinterest is rife with sixty-five billion pins for scrumptious-looking meals that swear they cook themselves and leave no dirty dishes.  I want something else. I want recipes that I can rotate through that:

  • require ingredients I don’t have to visit a specialty store to obtain
  • my kids will eat
  • my husband will be impressed by (he’s impressed with good ingredients & solid flavor, just FYI)
  • contain vegetables (we never seem to eat enough)
  • take 45-minutes or less to prepare
  • store well and travel for leftovers (hubs takes his lunch to work, and it’s usually last night’s dinner)

If I were being extra picky, I’d also dream of recipes that:

  • go easy on the carbs or have the carbs primarily as a side dish
  • include meatless options, but don’t rely too heavily on soy
  • can be made ahead and frozen, for when we travel and the kids are with the grandparents

Is this the Holy Grail of home cooking?  Probably.  I don’t mind cooking from scratch–that’s my preference, so most “quick” meals and crock pot dishes are off the table, since they contain mixes and pouches and pre-packaged ingredients, and we’re really sincerely doing our best to stick to foods we can point at and identify.  I don’t mind shopping for ingredients the day of, so fresh is fine by us.  I don’t mind spending the hour between 5 and 6 cooking, although I am pretty much never ever going to spend more than an hour on a weeknight dinner.  I want something more than just a pin on Pinterest–something real people have actually made and served to other real people, and all those people ate it and said, “Yum!”  Ideally my kids will try it and eat the portions I serve them, and it sure would be lovely if my husband was impressed and thought I was even more awesome than usual because I prepared a yummy meal in the middle of the work week.

Tell me these recipes exist.  Not a whole zillion pages, just a dozen or so delicious meals with real ingredients that have been tested by actual families with young children and not thrown in the garbage disposal at the end of the meal.  Can you help me? Because I could really use the help.

If you’ve found one of these elusive recipes, hit me in the comments.  Links, images, your own blog, names of cookbooks, whatever you’ve got.  Our test kitchen over here, with five hungry and discriminating mouths, will cook them up and let you know how it goes.  I’m looking to build a stable of recipes to put into regular rotation and hopefully shake off the rut we’ve been in.

I’m ready, y’all.  Bring it on.


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  • Leigh Ann H.
    October 17, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    I’d offer tortilla soup. Depending on the recipe, you have celery, onion, corn, salsa, chicken, broth, cumin, salt, pepper and a bit of oil. Then add sour cream, cheese, avocado and/or tortillas (or tortilla chips) to your bowl. Makes excellent leftovers. I think the flavor gets better after a night in the fridge. And you can make it as spicy as you want with hot or medium salsa or peppers. I started with this recipe ( and just kinda adapted until I loved the flavor. (And I use

    • Deborah
      October 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      The one time I’ve had tortilla soup–I think they called it taco soup, but I suspect it’s in the same family–it was really (really) watery, and I did not love it at all. So since then, despite how frequently I see recipes pop up on Pinterest and how ardent people are about it, I’ve had a bit of PTSD and haven’t ever tried to make it myself. But hubs really loves Mexican, and I really want to get the kids to eat more vegetables, so I think it’s time to give it a shot, and maybe serve a grilled quesadilla on the side? Like, with cheese in it for dipping? I’ll have to do some experimenting and see if we can make it thick enough to be more “stew” than “soup” so the children can all “play” a little and scoop bits up with their quesadillas!

      • treen
        October 26, 2013 at 10:50 pm

        My version of taco soup is really easy and not watery at all because there’s no water in it. It’s like a really thick chili.
        1 can each of black beans, dark red kidney beans, pinto beans. (Add more beans depending on how many people you’re feeding, or how big of eaters they are.)
        1 lb hamburger browned, then add to the pot.
        1 or 2 cans of chopped tomatoes, with the juice.
        According to the balance that you’d like – corn, chopped bell pepper or jalapeno pepper (or both), chopped onion
        Add Tex-Mex spices how you like them – I use my regular taco seasoning mix in it.
        Cook all that together in a big pot until it’s hot all the way through.
        Serve over rice with cheese on it, or scoop it up with tortilla chips.

        • Deborah
          November 4, 2013 at 7:54 pm

          You’re right–this does sound like it has more of a chili consistency. In fact, it’s pretty close to my chili recipe, except for the corn & jalapenos! Which means it would be totally easy to add into our rotation. Hubs would love it–he adores anything Tex-Mex–and the kids would like either the rice or the chips option. I bet we could serve it with Fritos, like we do our chili!

          Thanks so much for the recipe!! 🙂

  • Janimal
    October 17, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I try to cook several meals on the weekends so we can have homecooked food during the week. I usually always have in my freezer homemade tomato soup (my mother in laws recipe – I can send you!), chili, meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, lasagna (with wholewheat noodles and spinach). I grill organic buffalo hotdogs which are at Publix, and pricey if you compare to cheapo dogs, but I feel better about them being eaten. I’ll saute fresh broccoli and mushrooms in a pan with garlic infused olive oil as a side.

    The challenge for me with the crockpot isn’t the processed ingredients, its that I don’t like when everything in the crockpot has the same flavor. One standby – I put a flat iron steak in (use a liner!) with our favorite marinade. Then wash and completely dry potatoes and wrap in foil and put on top. Hours later, moist tasty cooked steak and potatoes with no fuss.

    Every recipe I’ve followed by Nigella Lawson has been great. From making a light cake, fried chicken, bagels, etc — ALL good. Search and there are all kinds of great recipes. I make her pancetta with linguine for a treat and its terrific, or her one pan chicken.

    I’ll email you some of my recipes if you send me your homemade knish recipe!

    • Deborah
      October 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm

      See, I feel the same way about the crock pot: whenever I see someone use it, it’s always some kind of stew or simmered something, and it all melds together. But steak!! What a great idea! Then it’s like a little covered grill instead of an electric Dutch oven, right? And the kids will gobble up any potato we put in front of them, so I love the idea that I can make a meal that maybe they’re less likely to eat, but also have a build-in side dish that I know they’ll eat, and we can gradually introduce them to new flavors (the 7yo is an intrepid food adventurer, but the younger ones aren’t quite so brave).

      As much as I like the idea of cooking on the weekend, I just never do it. We tend to want to all be out together having adventures on the weekends, but on weekdays, the kids hit a wall around 5, and cooking dinner with them in the kitchen provides both a good distraction to keep them from rampaging, and a good indicator to them that yes, dinner WILL be served, and no, Mommy is NOT planning to starve you, despite what you might believe.

      I’ve only ever heard good things about Nigella, and I love a woman who isn’t afraid to use real butter and real cream–will have to finally check out her recipes and choose a couple that look “daily” enough to add to the rotation.

      And of course! Happy to share the knish recipe–they were always fun to make in a big batch, and they freeze up spectacularly for later, can even be reheated in the toaster oven for lunches. I started with the recipe from the first Moosewood cookbook and adapted from there! I’ll email it on over!

  • Mrs_Sunshine
    October 18, 2013 at 6:53 am

    I don’t use it nearly enough, but my crockpot roast chicken is a favorite. Ball up some foil for a little nest in the bottom, place an onion inside the cavity of a whole chicken, and season to your preference. Put it in the crockpot on high for 3-4 hours, and you have a rotisserie chicken that’s not shriveled like the ones from the store.

    • Deborah
      October 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      Oh, I had never even thought of using the crock pot like a little oven!! I think I’ve seen so many people treat it like a big stew-maker that I didn’t think of it as warm walls all around, which I guess is really what happens for this chicken. It sounds completely delicious, and ALL of our kids love rotisserie chicken–I smell a contender! May I ask what size chicken you prefer? Are you basing the size on how big your crock pot is? Because I bet this would make excellent leftovers for sandwiches in hubs’ lunch. Thank you so much for sharing this with me!

  • Kay Stephenson
    October 18, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Oh dear. Where to start? I’ve been cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients for at least a decade and I don’t own a cockpot. I do, however, have a good set of pots and pans with lids that can go from stovetop to oven. Lots of recipes with minimal prep that cook slowly for a few hours and never fail to impress. How about eggplant parmesan instead of shells? Make two pans at once and pop one in the freezer. Pot roast braised in the oven with carrots, onions and celery that makes it’s own gravy? Oven braised pork chops? Oven fried chicken? Vegetarian lasagna? Chicken cacciatore? I also cook lots of greens and fresh veggies for sides. If any of that sounds appealing, let me know and I’ll send you recipes and/or cookbook suggestions.

    • Deborah
      October 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm

      Good heavens, Kay, these all sound amazing! And more importantly, they all sound like exactly the kinds of things that (1) I want to serve my family and (2) that they will cheerfully eat and enjoy. If you’re really willing, I’d love to test-drive any or all of these! That eggplant parm sounds lovely, and the pork chops are probably completely divine. I’ve actually never made a pot roast, and have only seen it prepared with Lipton’s as the main ingredient (and canned potatoes, which most people didn’t even know existed), so I’d love to try your version! Thanks for throwing me a life preserver! 🙂

  • Diana
    October 18, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. I feel the exact same way!!! I can’t wait to see what works for you – and try them out myself. In the past, I wasn’t a fan of the crock pot either and I have tried some recipes found on the interent that were EPIC failures. I do, however, have one of those little crock pots used for dips and I will frequently just put meat in it (it holds enough for the 4 of us). Usually pork chops since I find it’s a good way to keep them from drying out. Throw frozen chops in with some BBQ sauce (recently tried this recipe which was yummy ) and it cooks all day. Then I never forget to thaw something for dinner and can quickly make the sides (usually green beans steamed or a salald and rice/potatoes).

  • Amanda S.
    October 21, 2013 at 12:17 am

    I have the same problem — so easy to get stuck in a food rut! Some of my favorites are chicken stir fry (I do a healthy knockoff of Panda Express’ sweet fire chicken and serve it with steamed broccoli and brown rice on the side) and we also like doing fish — grilled with lemon, garlic and olive oil is a favorite. I have a few recipes on my blog if you are interested 🙂 good luck!!

  • Bobbie
    October 23, 2013 at 7:47 am

    Everyone gets into a rut when they have a lot of other things going on. Although my kids are now grown the two favorites were Grits and Grillades and Cassoulet. This is an over the top recipe that can be endlessly simplified. Just use any kind of lean sausage and pre-cut up chicken. For grillades which can be adapted for a long slow oven cook. Substitute rice for the grits if preferred. Both make a lot and are excellent leftovers. And my late mom was French.

    • Deborah
      October 23, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      These both look delicious, and SO different than anything else I’ve tried! Will have to give these a test next week, and see what the children think. The grits looks especially intriguing… Thanks so much for sharing the recipes and links!

  • Susannah Kate
    October 23, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    Girl, I could have written this post!!! But I didn’t because, lets face it, I feel totally defeated in this area!
    Hope you get some good stuff to share!!!!
    xoxo SK

    • Deborah
      October 23, 2013 at 4:15 pm

      Haha! Yep, I feel the same way a lot of nights. Our local elementary school is doing a “spirit night” at a local burger joint, and I caught myself thinking, “Oh, hooray!! I don’t have to come up with dinner tonight!!” Tragic, I tell you.

  • Sarvi
    October 25, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    I don’t know how many of your marks these will hit, but these are my basic concepts for weeknight cooking when I don’t have a ton of prep time:

    Dinners based off a whole roasted chicken — made yourself the night before or store-bought: warm up the aromatics & veggies (I usually have some combo of garlic, celery, onion, tomato, carrots) in oil, deglaze with a little wine, add stock and boil, add chicken and/or grains (I find chicken and grains, like rice, get soggy/bland if cooked in the broth so I cook them in the oven separately and add at the end).

    Dinners based off steaming fish in a foil packet — works for any firm-fleshed fish like salmon, black cod, whatever looks good at the market: top fillets with olive oil, an acid like lemon juice, aromatics like thyme, garlic, onion, and some veggies like tomato. If you have any exotic salts (flavored with herbs? smoked?) they’re great in here. Bake on a tray because foil packets somehow always leak. Usually also add roasted broccoli/cauliflower or stir-fried green veg with sesame oil/soy.

    Dinners based off salad + bread or blitz dough (easy version of puff pastry) + egg/cheese/veggie topping. So a big bright salad with a little fruit in it (grapefruit/avocado, watermelon/feta, apple/mint/carrot) alongside the pastry or pizza crust topped with something a little salty (feta cheese, goat cheese, sausage) and something a little earthier (mushrooms, leeks, eggplants).

    Those three templates work pretty well for me and combine stuff from the freezer/pantry (grains, frozen doughs) with whatever’s in season & on sale at the supermarket. The Ralph’s 5 min from me is scary and abysmal and the other Ralph’s 10 min from me but requiring getting on the freeway sells Jeni’s ice cream and carries quince and ramps. I’m kidding about the ramps, but basically, it’s the same chain but a nicer market because it’s in a better neighborhood. And it’s still a supermarket — I can get everything in one trip.

    • Deborah
      November 4, 2013 at 7:57 pm

      Oh, I love this–particularly because we veer in the direction of “template” dinners*, too, and I really love being able to take whatever produce I have on hand/is in season and add that into the mix without having to learn/develop and entirely new recipe (or cooking skill). The salad + bread idea is genius: totally simple, totally within the realm of my existing skills, and totally something I have never even thought to try. You’re brilliant!! Thank you so much for sharing this with me!! I’ll take copious notes and let you know how it goes. 🙂

      *Speaking of which, have you ever read Amy Dacyzyn’s books? She has a similar mind-set when it comes to cooking, and has a whole chapter devoted to “template” breakfast muffins that is positively revolutionary. I think you can still find her stuff on Amazon, and I am stone-cold positive you can get it in the local library. Sounds like you’d enjoy her way of thinking about food!

  • Maria
    November 1, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    This brocolli chicken soup recipe is a great dish for the cold weather dinners and really easy. ( And your hubby will like the low carb aspect.) You start with sauteed boneless chicken cooked with a small onion (I cheat with dried minced onion.) Cut the chicken into small pieces and add about a pound of chopped brocolli. Saute a bit more and add into a pot with 4 cans of chicken broth and 2 blocks of cream cheese cut into squares and melted into the broth. Simmer slowly and mix as you please until you are happy with the thickness. Roll some can crescent rolls with cheese in the centers and bake for you and the kiddos, not for Mr no-carb.
    Haha enjoy!

    • Deborah
      November 4, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      Oooh, you’re right–this sounds like it’s totally up his alley! Thanks so much for the recipe–will have to add it into the “test” rotation and see how it goes!

  • Amy in VA
    November 23, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Check out the blog Dinner, a love story- and tthe cookbook Time for Dinner
    They have completely and totally restored my faith in dinner, picky small humans and all