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Ask the Readers: How do I get dinner on the table if I work full-time?

On my last What I Spent, What We Ate post, reader Susan left the following question:

  Do you have many full time working mom who follow your blog? Are they cooking every night? By the time I get home, I’m exhausted. I do cook on the weekend, simple stuff like making hard boiled eggs to last for the week, making yogurt (thanks to Kristen!), making and freezing oatmeal in individual containers so I can take it to work during the week. I still do a lot of take out during the week, which I’d like to reduce. Am I the only mom out there who doesn’t make homemade food every night?

I have a few suggestions for Susan, but I can only be so helpful, given that I’m a work-at-home/homeschooling mom, and the challenges I face are different than the challenges a work-outside-the-home mom faces!

So, I’m going to throw my ideas out there, and then I’m going to ask you experienced working moms to leave your thoughts for Susan in the comments.

Buy some grocery store convenience foods.

Since takeout is pretty expensive per person, you can buy some convenience foods from the grocery store and still be money ahead.

For instance, you could buy a bag of Asian stir-fry with sauce (just throw it into a pan and you’ve got dinner).

You could buy a rotisserie chicken and add some super easy sides.

Or what about the pre-marinated pork tenderloins/chicken breasts that most grocery stores carry?   Those would cook up quickly once you get home.

Frozen pizza works too!

Buy some quick-to-cook foods.

Fish, shrimp, chicken breasts, kielbasa/bratwurst…all of those can be quickly cooked, and with the exception of the chicken breasts, they don’t need a lot of extra fancy-ing up.

If you want to add a sauce or marinade, buy some bottles at the grocery store.

(It’s not exactly hard to make marinades at home, but if you can just open a bottled one when you get home, you’ll be more likely to skip takeout.)

When you do cook, double it if it’s freezeable.

If you’re making something like pulled pork, taco meat, lasagna, or any other freezable food, make double and put one in the freezer.

Many foods aren’t very time-consuming to double, and the small extra effort would be worth it to have a backup in the freezer.

Think outside the dinner box.

As long as no one in your family is seriously opposed, you don’t have to serve a traditional meat, potatoes, and vegetable sort of meal.

If you’re pressed for time, try something like breakfast for dinner, sandwiches, or quesadillas.

Along the same lines, you can always opt to make something super-duper simple…pasta with jarred sauce, mac and cheese with veggies on the side, and so on.

Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy; it just needs to be done.

Try Dinnerly or PrepDish

I reviewed Dinnerly here, but Cliff’s Notes: it’s a much cheaper version of Blue Apron, and while it’s more expensive than from-scratch cooking, it’s cheaper than takeout.

Or maybe try PrepDish. It’s a service that gives you a make-ahead meal plan, so, you do pretty much all the prep on one weekend day, and then your dinners are mostly ready to go for the week.

I’ve never tried it myself, but I can so see the appeal for working parents.

Consider using your weekend time to plan/prep main dishes.

It’s awesome to prep some breakfasts and lunches ahead of time, but I do generally find that dinner is the most expensive meal to eat out.

So, if you have to choose between working ahead of just one meal, I’d always choose dinner you’re likely to save the most money that way.

Give yourself grace and a takeout budget.

Cooking at home doesn’t have to be all or none. Could you budget in money for a guilt-free takeout night once a week?   or twice?

It’s hard to keep making dinner each night, and knowing you can grab takeout one night might help you to hang in there with cooking on the other nights of the week.


Alrighty, readers. Share your advice/tips/commiseration with Susan. The floor is yours!

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Brandi Lang

Wednesday 11th of October 2017

This is a fascinating stream of comments! Most are very similar; plan, use your crockpot, prep on the weekend. But I would take it back a step or two further, asses the situation. Understand your skills as a cook, are you a cold cereal chef? or a main + 2 sides momma? Seriously! Know what you're capable of, or want to be capable of, and then decide if that is going to fulfill yours & your families expectations for dinner.

Just decide on what you can do, will do, and then get about 10 recipes/meals in your arsenal. Things you can make without the card. Get really really comfortable with them and then branch out. Some will be quick and some will be elaborate. But the first step is to gain confidence, and have FUN!


Monday 9th of October 2017

To all of you who recommend a Crock Pot: is it useful also for someone who eats mostly vegan? It seems to be mostly for meat-based meals?


Monday 16th of October 2017

I'm a vegan and I use my crockpot a lot. Beans are great cooked in the crockpot, which you can then use in recipes during the week. Hummus, for instance, tastes great using home cooked beans. Also, soups made with beans and vegetables are also tailor-made for the crockpot. There are so many recipes online that you can use. has some great crockpot recipes, for instance.


Monday 9th of October 2017

Hi, I am a working Mom, too. I leave the house at 8am and get back around 7pm 3x a week and 4pm 2x a week. It doesn´t make a big difference though, as the early days are spent on the playground with the kids. As we live in Italy our schedules are a bit later than in America, dinner hardly is before 7.30, most often around 8.30pm.

I do quick and easy pasta dishes (made from scratch though) which cost me around 20-30min. We hardly do meat+sides, partly because I do not eat meat, partly because the kids+Dad do not eat veggies (I have tried, believe me...). Risotto will not take a lot of time as well.

If I do a fancier dish, I do double portions and just reheat the next evening. And on really chaotic days it´s pasta with a bought sauce like pesto.


Sunday 8th of October 2017

I've read most of the comments, but one of my best money saving, easy meal things is to cook chicken breasts (bought on sale) in the crock pot and then use my kitchen aid to shred it. Then, I freeze it in snack size baggies so that I can grab as much as I need for soups, homemade pot pies, bbq shredded chicken,. tacos, etc. I label it and use it as needed. It really helps for meals where I need to cook chicken and don't want to. I don't add any spices and so I can also use it for my dog when she is having stomach issues.

Heidi Louise

Thursday 5th of October 2017

I scanned all these great idea and have one that might not have been mentioned, (other than Beckie saying she doesn't want to cook if the dishes from the day before are still soaking in the sink-- I agree!): Organize your kitchen for your use and convenience!

For instance, we used to keep the pizza pan, used a couple times a week, in the under-stove-oven drawer, because it is where odd-baking things go, and my mother probably did so. Has there ever been a stove made where that drawer doesn't stick? The pan is now in the lower cupboard leaning against the stand mixer and crock pot. We can reach in and grab it in a second, and also sometimes heat things up on it because it is more convenient than digging out a cookie sheet.

Likewise, move the kettles that you use most to the front, where you don't have to dig through the whole graduated stack for the one you want on the bottom. Maybe turn them upside down, smallest on the bottom. Be sure you have good and sharp knives; leave your chopping block sitting out if appropriate; get rid of decorative stuff on your counters; if your crock pot doesn't have a removable liner to be easy to wash, get a new one. Set up your pantry so what you need is most evident. If you don't bake often, stick the flour and sugar up on top and put the canned goods close. Choose how to arrange your refrigerator and freezer for ease of access. Stuff in front gets eaten first.

This time of your life won't last forever, so make it as easy as you can. Use cleaning up or washing dishes or chopping vegetables for tomorrow as a time to talk with your son or husband. Even five or ten minutes is a good contact with them. Make the kitchen and dining areas "no-phone zones." And I love the phrase "Give yourself grace."

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