Every time I watch any of those cooking-challenge-chef shows, I roll my eyes. Puh-leaaaase. Cook a delicious, creative dinner with seemingly random ingredients? Handle emotional, interpersonal blow-ups mid meal prep? Serve food you’ve worked hard to prepare to extremely harsh, blunt critics? This is more commonly known as…every night of my life. I am not on some fancy reality show, however, I’m cooking with young kids. I’m sure more than a few of you can relate.

How about a show that asks "Can you cook a delicious meal while someone clings to your leg and whines?". That show...I would watch.

How about a show that asks “Can you cook a delicious meal while someone clings to your leg and whines?”. That show…I would watch.

I have a lot of friends with children of similar ages to mine (4 and almost 2 years old), and we all seem to agree that something happens between about 5:00 and 6:45 each evening that causes our children to go completely insane. I am a firm believer in the importance of eating together, as a family, around the dinner table, and since my husband usually doesn’t arrive home from work until 6:45 or so, this means I’m on kid duty and dinner duty. I don’t go into this unprepared; I meal plan each week and grocery shop accordingly, I make sure my kids have a snack around 3:30 in the afternoon so they’re not starving and cranky while I’m cooking, and I try to save the really fun activities, such as play dough and blanket forts, for this time of day. Instead of these calm and engaging (re: safe) activities, my sons opt for “beanbag sled rides” (see photo below for explanation), brothers’ wrestling, or something my older son calls “baby trapping” which involves tossing blankets over my toddler’s head as he walks by. None of these end well very often.

A Beanbag Sled Race: It's all fun and games until someone needs an ice pack.

A Beanbag Sled Race: It’s all fun and games until someone needs an ice pack.

Needless to say, I’ve started streamlining dinners at our house. I’ve made a firm rule that our kitchen is closed at 5:00. Oddly enough, this has worked out extremely well and unintentionally led to some brotherly bonding. If the toddler wanders into the kitchen, I call in the preschooler to “help me enforce the closed kitchen rule” by leading him by the hand to go play in the other room. Since our toddler would probably jump through a flaming hoop if his older brother told him to (dear God, it’s going to be a long 20 or so years!), he listens, gleefully.

Additionally, I’ve begun to enlist help for the dinner-related chores. I set out everything that needs to go to the table on the counter, and call in the kids when it’s time to set the table. They love this! I only end up bringing in the heavy or hot items…they set out the plates, condiments, napkins, and glasses. Not only does this actually help me, it keeps them occupied and injury-free for a solid 15 minutes.

Finally, I cook ahead and plan ahead as much as possible. In the early morning hours, the boys are really well-behaved. For this reason, the crock pot has been a life saver. If I take 5-10 minutes and start some chicken with our favorite barbecue sauce in the morning, my only real “cooking” during the pre-dinner witching hour consists of putting out rolls and throwing a salad together. If I have the energy before bed or on the weekend, I can roll out a pizza crust and partially bake it. All that’s left to do during the dinner hour is top it with sauce, cheese and veggies and bake it. You get the idea.

Here are a few of my favorite (nearly) instant family dinners that you can make even if your children, like mine, turn into raving lunatics at the mere sight of you preheating the oven…

  • Crock Pot Tikka Masala: One jar of tikka masala sauce, half a jar of water, and two chicken breasts (or more, if desired) in the crock pot on low for 8 hours. Serve over rice (the only thing you’ll need to cook in the evening!).
  • Chicken Gorgonzola Salad: If you grill on the weekends, grill two extra chicken breasts brushed with balsamic dressing. Store them in the fridge. Put chicken over baby salad greens with walnuts, gorgonzola, pears, and balsamic dressing.
  • Homemade Pizza: I use this recipe . It’s easy, and takes only 30 minutes to rise. I bake it either really early in the morning, before the kids are up, or the night before, just until the dough is firm (not browned). You can even wrap it in foil and freeze it. Simply top with sauce, cheese, veggies, pepperoni, ham, pineapple…whatever…and bake at 400 for about 15 minutes. You can also swap half the white flour for wheat flour easily in this recipe.
  • Mexican Pizza: Make the same “do-ahead” crust as above, except top with fresh salsa (from the produce section at the grocery store), half a can of black beans, half a can of corn, and cheddar cheese. You can add chicken or steak if you have leftovers in the fridge. Bake at 400 until cheese is bubbly and serve with guacamole and sour cream.
  • Spicy Chicken Crockpot Soup: Easiest soup ever…and relatively healthy! Pour four cups of low sodium chicken broth into the crock pot. Add one chopped chicken breast, a can of tomatoes with jalapeno peppers, a teaspoon of cumin, and half a teaspoon of black pepper. Cook on low for 8 hours. About 30 minutes before serving, add one can of drained, rinsed black beans and one can of drained, rinsed corn (frozen corn works, too, if that’s what you have on hand!). Leave in the crock pot on warm until ready to eat. Serve with tortilla chips, guacamole and cheddar cheese.

Do you have any fast (but still kind-of-homemade) go-to dinners for those nights when your kids are melting? I’d love to hear your suggestions to add to our rotation!

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