Remember when you and your husband would come home from work, play your usual game of Let’s Make a Deal dinner version- What’s behind cabinet door number 2?! Maybe you’ll find dinner staring out at you from the refrigerator or freezer, but oh no! Wait!  Now you’ve resorted to schlepping over to your pantry to maybe find that last box of Hamburger Helper, and by god, you hope it’s not the Tuna Helper!  The two of you eventually decide on the quick and dirty because it’s already past 7:00 and your stomachs are telling you they’ve waited long enough.  Linguine and jarred pasta sauce it is!  As it boils you open up that half finished bottle of merlot from last night, and sip and chat about your days at the office until the pasta’s done, and you’re ready to sit in front of the television- pasta bowl in hand- to watch your pre-recorded Law and Order episodes from two weeks ago.

Fast forward to today and you find yourself at home in front of the sink (with your work clothes still on, and not those worn out yoga pants and 5k race tee shirt that is your after work uniform), with baby strapped in front of you in his baby bjorn while you’re washing out the bottles that came home with him from daycare, sterilizing them, and getting them filled for tomorrow, but not before you pop one in his mouth because it’s 6:30 and it’s dinner time, baby!  And you and your husband?  How’s that dinner coming along?! 

With nights even shorter now that the little guy is here, my husband and I have learned to get a lot done between 6:00 p.m. when we arrive home from work, baby in hand, until 8:00 when he’s ready for bed.  Trying to cram dinner (making it, let alone eating it) into those two hours can seem like a challenge, but if you are prepared, you can ensure that at least a few nights during the week you can simply reach into your fridge once, and find dinner ready to be heated up in the microwave.  I started making dinners for the week on Sunday nights when I was 8 months pregnant.  I figured after I had my son, the first weeks home from the hospital would be tiring, emotional, and crazy, so I began to prepare meals and freeze them for us to heat up.  I made lasagna, stews in the crock pot, tofu pad thai and several containers of meat sauce and put them all in the freezer.  After Jake arrived, I found it pretty convenient to crack open the freezer and have our pick of dinner choices, only minutes away from heating to eating! 

I have now carried this tradition over for the past few months, and every other Sunday I will make a pan of lasagna, a tray of stuffed peppers, eggplant parmesan, or we will marinate and grill up a couple pounds of chicken and zucchini to be eaten over the course of the week.  Once you have your main dish, you can supplement a salad or microwave frozen vegetables to round out your meal.  So, now while Jake is playing in his bouncer, jumperoo, or in the baby bjorn, I can prepare a weeks worth of dinner in one afternoon.  With Fall quickly approaching, I am quite sure I will be clocking in some major miles with the crock pot!  …and just to get you started, here are two of my all time favorite make ahead recipes, courtesy of Giada De Laurentiis.  Bon Appétit! 

Beef Stew with Cipollini Onions and Fennel

(adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

 Serves: 8 to 10

 Ingredients

 Herb rub:

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

5 pounds chopped stew beef

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup flour

3/4 pound (about 2 cups) cipollini, boiler, or pearl onions, peeled and halved

3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into 3/4-inch pieces

2 medium fennel bulbs, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 cup red wine

4 cups low-sodium beef broth, plus extra, as needed

2 dried bay leaves

Directions

In a small bowl, mix together the rosemary, thyme, oil, salt, and pepper until smooth.

Pat the beef dry with paper towels and rub with the herb rub. In a heavy 6-quart pot or Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Add the beef and cook until browned on all sides.  Transfer the browned beef into the crock pot, and sprinkle with flour to coat.

Add to the crock pot the remaining oil, onions, carrots, garlic, fennel, broth, bay leaves, and red wine. Season with salt and pepper, and stir.  Cover the crock pot and cook on low for up to 7-8 hours.  Remove the bay leaves before serving.

Italian Baked Chicken and Pastina

(Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

Serves: 8

 Ingredients

1 pound pastina pasta (or any small pasta: bowties, elbows, Barilla Piccolini)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1-2 cups cubed chicken breast (cut into 1-inch cubes)

1 diced onion

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 (14.5-ounce) cans diced tomatoes with juice

1 cup shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup bread crumbs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan

1 tablespoon butter, plus more for buttering the baking dish

 Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until just tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Drain pasta into a large mixing bowl.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a medium sauté pan, and add chicken, cooking 3 minutes. Add the onions and garlic, stirring to combine, and cook until the onions are soft and the chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes more. Put the chicken mixture into the bowl with the cooked pasta. Add the canned tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, parsley, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Place the mixture in a buttered 13” by 9” baking dish. In a small bowl mix together the bread crumbs and the Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle over the top of the pasta mixture. Dot the top with small bits of butter. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

-For other variations, mix in a cup of sautéed green peppers, a cup of steamed broccoli, or stir in a package of fresh baby spinach. 

And when all else fails, ice cream for dinner is always a smart move.

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