Dinner: Thinking Ahead on Busy Days

For six weeks, my kids took an art class on Tuesday afternoons. I picked them up from school with a snack they could eat in the car, dropped them off at the museum, and then I used the two hours they were there to get some writing done at a nearby coffee shop. Because they finished at 5:45 p.m., the last thing I wanted to do was come home and cook something that took more than, oh, 15 minutes. Besides boiling up some noodles and tossing them with marinara sauce (or picking up food on the way home), I don’t have much in my repertoire that is super-quick. Because of that, I have to plan ahead.


Enter the slow cooker. The crock pot. It seems like the internet has two camps when it comes to these handy culinary workhorses – they’re either ride or die for their beloved, or they are completely baffled at how to make anything that doesn’t involve dumping cream-of-something over chicken. Me? I’m pretty devoted, but I’m not one of those people who uses it five-to-seven days per week. Around three to four times per month seems to be my average, especially when we have full afternoons.

Lentil Black Bean Chili - Photo by Tyson Habein
(Photo by Tyson Habein. You can tell it’s not my photo because it’s not awful. That chili, however? ALL ME.)

My family is a big fan of soups and stews made in the crock pot, as well as roasts or BBQ chicken, and I’m a big fan of anything that doesn’t involve precooking ingredients on the stove before adding to the mix. Brown that meat? Nope. Caramelize those onions? Not today. Sure, it can mean a taste difference, but if I’m slow cooking, I’m likely throwing everything together while still working on coffee. I don’t know about you, but there’s only so much thinking I do mid-coffee. Recipes that aren’t wholly dependent on these methods will be the ones that I use.

Recently, I decided to try out a brown lentil soup recipe I saw in a magazine. Filled with plenty of extras like tomatoes and bulgur wheat, and seasoned with cumin and chili flakes, it looked delicious. With the kids, I’ve had success with different lentil combinations, and I’ve also had success with an Indian-spiced version of crock pot lentil soup. I made sure to get it going by late morning, and by the time we got home, all we had to do was set the table.

As far as other planning ahead maneuvers go, I’d like to get better about making extra and freezing more dishes to have on busy evenings, but I need to get past my worry that it will take way longer to reheat than I think it will. I also need to get in the habit again of cutting up produce ahead of time, and keeping more salad on hand, both of which always assist in easier meals.

Tell me, in what ways do you plan ahead?

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Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

10 thoughts on “Dinner: Thinking Ahead on Busy Days”

  1. Sorry I’m coming to this conversation late…but I was never taught how to really cook and never tried to teach myself until I was out of college and married. Most of what I know comes from Mr. and he knows mostly americanized italian. The crock pot mystifies me!! I can make soups or stews in a crock pot just fine, but anything with large pieces of meat never turn out well. I’ve been told I’m not adding enough ‘liquid’, but if I want to make a roast or chicken breast I don’t want it covered in stock, cause then it would just be stew with one large piece of meat instead of many chunks….am I right? I would love to use my crock pot more, but I just don’t get it.

    1. With a roast, I find it’s best to cover it about 2/3 of the way with liquid, and then when you go to eat it, just pull it out and cut it up, so that way you’re not using the “stew liquid.” OR you can stir in some flour or cornstarch into the cooking liquid to make gravy.

      1. My favorite thing to make in there is pulled pork. It lasts for days! I either make it with beef stock, tomato paste, and taco seasoning and throw it in tortillas, or a wacky Pinterest recipe that’s just in bbq sauce and a can of Coke with a little seasoning salt; it’s to DIE for over baked potatoes.

  2. We are kindred spirits. I use my slow cooker about once a week, and hell-to-the no when it comes to doing anything more than dumping the ingredients. I’m using the slow cooker to save time- browning meat, etc, at any point, defeats that purpose!

    I usually use the slow cooker on nights like you describe. I also do quesadillas (just cheese for the kidds, I’ll throw in left over meat for me) which are quick, and pre-made burgers (beef or turkey) are actually pretty quick to grill. I am also a HUGE fan of breakfast for dinner, which is pretty quick.

    I also like to make two meatloaves at a time, and two pans of enchiladas at a time, so that I just have to put those things in the oven. Not quick, but no prep, which is handy on some nights.

    1. No prep is definitely handy. I like breakfast for dinner too, but the kids/mister get tetchy if there’s no bacon or sausage involved, and since I don’t eat pork, I have to think to buy it. And then I make the mister cook it. But I like eggs and grits for dinner. Only one of my kids will eat grits, but that’s all right. More for me. ;)

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