How to Cook When You're Too Tired to Cook--5 Tips

Cooking after a long day at the office can sometimes seem impossible. I mean, I absolutely LOVE to cook, but there are still days when I'm so exhausted that the thought of stepping into the kitchen to prepare a meal sends me running straight for the take-out menus. But with a serious commitment to cooking more at home, I've had to find ways to push through the slump.

Here are 5 tips I've discovered make it much easier to get a home-cooked dinner on the table, on even the weariest of evenings.

1. Don't Starve Yourself: I often make the mistake of eating lunch too early or getting so caught up in work that by the time I realize I need dinner, I'm literally too hungry to cook. When you wait too long to eat, your blood sugar drops and you'll find that your abilities to focus, problem solve, and think creatively are weakened--the exact skills you need in order to look in the fridge or pantry and figure out a dish. Solution: Stop, breathe, and have a snack. Think things like: nuts, a tart apple and chunk of cheddar cheese, a slice of whole grain toast with peanut butter and a bit of honey, a small plain yogurt drizzled with maple syrup, or even a hard-boiled egg sprinkled with salt and pepper. These will regulate your blood sugar and give you the energy you need to prepare a proper meal.

2. Become Your Own Prep Cook: This is my number one tip for busy folks who want to make dinnertime easier. The day you bring home your groceries, go through your ingredients, and process and prep them right then and there. This means dice up a few onions and peppers, chop up carrot and celery sticks for cooking or snacking, rinse and spin salad greens, portion out chicken breasts and toss them in sealed baggies with quick marinades, whisk together a quick homemade vinaigrette, etc. Figure out anything that can be done in advance to make cooking quicker and easier, and do it. It'll probably only take you about 30 minutes or so to do on the spot, but that advanced planning will mean that you can then whip up dinner in mere minutes when you get home from work.

3. Plan Your Menu: There was a time when housewives regularly planned out weekly and even monthly menus in advance. They knew that, for example, Monday would be meatloaf night and Tuesday would be chicken. As old-fashioned as it may seem, even a loose version of menu planning can be just the thing to keep you on track when you're too exhausted to think. While I'm not suggesting that you plan out every single detail of what you will eat this month, it might be worth figuring out a loose plan of a few dishes you know for sure you will make this week, and then write them down on a pad near the fridge. When you get home from work, look at your list, pick something, and get to work. If you followed #2, this should be even easier.

4. Make a Big Batch of Something: About once a week, I like to make a big batch of soup or pasta or quinoa that I can quickly serve myself on those nights when I really don't have the energy, but don't want to rely on frozen food or take-out. I usually go with a simple, hearty recipe that will keep well for several days, and which can take multiple reheatings or just be eaten cold. In the summer this usually means egg or tuna salad, a cold pasta salad, or a large bowl of herbed quinoa with dried fruits and nuts. In the winter, I like hearty soups made with beans, spicy sausage, and plenty of diced veggies. Braised meat dishes like ropa vieja or pulled pork also work well, as do baked pasta dishes like lasagna.

5. Keep it Simple: Remember that home-cooking at its best is meant to be simple. When you start off with real, quality ingredients, there really isn't much more that you have to do to it. There is no need to make elaborate dishes or follow recipes with multiple steps. Just let the ingredients guide you.  Some easy ideas:
  • Steam some chopped broccoli, carrots, or zucchini (frozen is fine!) and toss with olive oil, black pepper, and a generous sprinkle of grated cheese. 
  • Grate lemon zest all over plain cooked pasta and toss with salted butter, black pepper, and a can of drained and rinsed tuna.
  • Chop up leftover grilled chicken or deli turkey, and mix with bagged salad greens, grapes or diced apples, a handful of nuts, and your favorite dressing for a quick and delicious salad. 
  • Toast some bread and top it with a whole smashed avocado and a sprinkle of kosher salt. 
  • Or (my favorite) scramble up a pile of cheesy eggs, top with chopped chives, and serve with a glass of wine and a good book. Refill wine as necessary. 
Figure out  2 or 3 easy meals like this that you can pull off in minutes without much thought, and you'll be well on your way to becoming a confident home cook.