What to Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking
Ideas, tips, and 20 recipes to get a meal on the table when you can’t even
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Quick and Easy Barbecue Chicken Naan Pizzas; photograph by Olga Ivanova
I’m a plan-ahead kind of person, especially when it comes to dinner. Heck, I used to write a whole newsletter dedicated to meal planning. Most days, I get a boost when I walk into my kitchen and see the whiteboard menu on the fridge. It reminds me that my shopping is done and I don’t have to come up with an easy dinner idea. Every so often, I’ll even indulge in a little weekend meal prep to make weeknight meals go more smoothly.
But despite the most well-thought-out meal plan, sometimes my dinner ideas just don’t work. I wind up more exhausted than expected, get caught up in work until it’s practically dinnertime, or — oops — find that the cheese I planned to use got eaten (hello, teenage son). And honestly, some nights I just can’t believe I have to make dinner again. I mean, why do we have to eat every night?
Takeout is always an option, of course, but that gets expensive, fast. Instead, I rely on a pantry full of basics and a handful of tricks to get a satisfying, crowd-pleasing meal on the table without needing to scream into a pillow. They fall into five main categories:
10-minute dinners have minimal ingredients and come together really, really fast. So fast I don’t even realize I’m cooking.
Freezer-based meals get their start with something ready-made, where all you need to do is doctor it up a bit.
One-pot meals come together quickly and have minimal cleanup. When I really don’t feel like cooking, I choose recipes that don’t require much prep, either.
Semi-homemade dinners combine one or more shelf-stable, precooked items into an actual meal.
Set it and forget it meals made in the slow cooker or Instant Pot need you to think ahead a little, but they eliminate that 6 p.m. what the heck do I do now feeling.
Jump ahead to:
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Easy meals that take 10 minutes or less
File each of these options under “can’t be bothered to cook.” Seriously, they’re basically effortless.
This one’s perfect for when you’re home alone and just want to eat already. All you need are frozen veggies, cooked rice (from the freezer or leftover), a handful of seasonings I guarantee you already have, and an egg. Oh, plus a mug and a microwave. FOUR minutes, people.
Rotisserie chicken is hardly a secret when you’re looking for a ready-to-go dinner, but it ain’t exactly exciting. This salad, on the other hand, gets my heart pounding. If you buy watermelon pre-cut, you don’t even need a knife — just shred the chicken, tear the mint, crumble the feta, and pull some arugula from the package.
Any mom can tell you about the wonders of quesadillas. They’re ridiculously easy — this basic how-to has just three ingredients: olive oil, tortillas, and cheese. They can accommodate all kinds of add-ins, like canned black beans or corn, leftover roasted vegetables like zucchini or sweet potato, chopped bell peppers, or shredded rotisserie chicken. Basically, whatever’s in the fridge that needs using can be tossed in with the cheese. Add some salsa for dunking (and an extra serving of vegetables) and dinner’s on.
Listen, I don’t know from TikTok (I’m old). But the ridiculous ease of this viral recipe won me over. It’s super-simple: Stir-fry ramen noodles and scrambled eggs in a mix of butter, garlic, soy sauce, brown sugar, and everything bagel spice. It sounds wacky, but holy cow. Add some frozen peas and it’s even got a vegetable.
Quick meals from the freezer
I love a good shortcut. Jazzing up something that’s halfway-ready takes a lot less out of me than thinking up a whole meal.
Ready-made frozen meatballs and pre-sliced mushrooms help you make a meal that feels fancy enough for company, on a night where you barely lift a finger. Cooking the noodles directly in the pan saves on clean up, too.
I grew up eating frozen pierogi, and I still love them — even after years of living in a Polish neighborhood, where I had access to fresh ones. Skipping the step where you boil the dumplings before frying makes this super-easy, and browning kielbasa and onions in the same pan gives you a fantastic weeknight dinner.
Another kind of frozen dumpling lends itself to an easy feast: Frozen ravioli and frozen spinach layer up with prepared marinara, ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan, then get baked until bubbly. It’s lasagna without all the work!
Yes, it really is possible to get this on the table in 10 minutes. Here’s how: Use frozen shrimp, frozen broccoli, and frozen rice — and to make it even easier, grab a jar of prepared teriyaki sauce instead of the (admittedly easy) homemade version in the recipe.
Throwing stuff in a pan and cooking it all together streamlines the work into a manageable situation. Check out these one-pan and sheet pan dinner ideas.
See the first two words in this recipe’s name? Imagine how easy clean up will be when all you do is put chicken thighs, itty-bitty potatoes, and baby carrots on a sheet pan, season them, and pop the pan in the oven. Not a cutting board in sight!
Look how pretty that is! I know, it looks like a lot of chopping — but most of the ingredients you see on that enticing pan of crunchy, cheesy goodness need very little attention. You’ve got tortilla chips and melty cheese, of course, and also roasted red peppers, sliced olives, and marinated artichoke hearts, with hummus dolloped on at the end. Pluck some parsley or cilantro leaves and drizzle with tahini for a flavor boost.
Tacos aren’t exactly hard, but they have a lot of moving parts. Some nights, it feels like a lot of work! It’s much less fuss to just cook everything together in a big skillet: ground beef, taco seasoning and taco sauce, green chilis, black beans, tortillas, and cheese. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and pico de gallo, and grab a fork.
A lot of the time when I don’t feel like cooking, it’s because I’m overwhelmed. One thing that always cheers me up: macaroni and cheese. This version gives major comfort-food vibes but in the simplest way possible. I’m pretty sure it’s easier than using the boxed kind.
Grocery store dinners
Each of these recipes comes together in minutes, using ready-to-use items you find at the supermarket.
If you’ve got a little rotisserie chicken left from yesterday (aka the last time you didn’t feel like cooking), this easy dinner is right up your alley. Store-bought naan (or pita bread) serves as the crust, topped with barbecue sauce, red onion slices, chicken, and shredded cheese. Garnish with chopped fresh tomato and cilantro at the end.
All you need here is a package of gnocchi, a little garlic, a jar of marinara sauce, a few slices of fresh mozz, and a single skillet. The pillowy potato dumplings cook right in the sauce, so you’re eating in less than 20 minutes.
Seriously, this only requires a can opener and a pot. Canned black beans + a jar of salsa + vegetable broth + cumin + chili powder = a bowl of soup that tastes way better than it should, considering how easy it is.
Here’s the kind of meal I turn to when I can’t fathom doing anything: It’s nothing more than a bunch of nibbly stuff, assembled on a plate. You can use whatever cheese you like, whatever meat you like, fruit, carbs, you get the idea. If you feel inspired, take the time to make it pretty. If you just can’t, I feel you. Go ahead and eat that cheese straight from the block.
Set it and forget it: slow cooker and Instant Pot recipes
I admit, these recipes take a teeny bit of forethought — but little effort at the end of a busy day! And each recipe serves at least six, so you should have leftovers.
How’s this for a clever idea: Measure canned chickpeas, corn kernels, salsa, and seasoning into a freezer bag and stow it until you can’t bear the thought of figuring out dinner. Thaw the bag overnight, pop it in the slow cooker, and a filling, spicy soup will be ready and waiting for you.
Toss some chunked potatoes in the slow cooker with evaporated milk, broth, and a little butter. Let it do its thing for most of the day, then puree and serve with bacon bits, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chives. A bowl of this will soothe even the foulest mood.
Here’s a recipe to try when you don’t want to think about dinner all week — you get three different meals out of it! First you make a traditional pot roast, which in the Instant Pot could not be easier. Eat half of it as a, y’know, pot roast, and split the rest between Quick Beef and Vegetable Ramen and French Dip Sandwiches.
Store-bought stir-fry sauce helps this recipe pretty much cook itself — you don’t even have to brown the meat. An hour in the Instant Pot is all it takes to tenderize a pork shoulder into submission. It’s so good, you’ll find yourself reaching for just one more piece, then one more …
More low-effort dinner ideas
Check out more great meal suggestions for those nights when you need a break.