How I Survived "What's for Dinner?" as a Busy Teacher

What's for dinner?

After taking care of everyone else all day, is your drive from school back home enough time for you to figure out what's for dinner? Are you snacking on saltine crackers and supplementing real dinners with bowls of Raisin Bran?

I don't know about you, but as exhausting as teaching is, realizing you will be home soon and don't know what you will eat {and you are starving} is one of the most draining, depressing feelings in the world for me! It was especially hard during the years when I didn't enjoy cooking and quite honestly, just didn't know enough about food preparation to know what to do. And in my first decade of teaching, figuring out what I was going to do in my classroom was about all I could handle.

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In 11 years of teaching, "What am I going to eat for dinner?!?!?!?" has crossed my mind approximately 1,980 times (that's 180 x 11 if you are curious--and that number's only accurate if I only asked myself that question once a day!) and if you are the one in your household that is responsible for cooking (or you are a single teacher and responsible for taking care of yourself) I'm sure your numbers are up there too!

But I'm here to help! I made ONE change last year that made my "What's for dinner" stress a little more bearable, and even EASY some weeks. This strategy does not rely on having 100 ideas for crockpot meals or spending all day cooking so you can freeze up a month's supply of dinner, so please keep reading!

Before I jump right into my tips, you need to know two things:

  1. If you are vegan or vegetarian, this strategy can still work for you, but you can go straight to the recipes and just think #meatless. Some of these recipes are already vegetarian and I've added the meat in my adaptation.

  2. I am NOT suggesting that you leave a crockpot on all day while you are at work. I did this ONE TIME this year and the stress and anxiety it caused was just not worth it.

(Maybe I have unwarranted anxiety and fear about an unattended crockpot, but all I could think about all day was when I'd get the call that my house was burning down. Since I can't live with that anxiety, I'll teach you how to NOT depend on the crockpot for your fast meals on a day you have to go to work #likeeverydaythatendsiny #savethecrockfortheweekends.)

Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, are you salivating thinking about what's for dinner? Unless you are uber lucky, your personal chef is not going to show up tonight, so let's roll!

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Here's what you need to do:

Step 1

Buy 3-4 pounds of chicken breasts. I buy organic boneless chicken breasts from Costco. One package is typically three pounds.

(If you are a more advanced cook, you can use a whole chicken, but I don't like the taste of the dark meat as much and #aintnobusyteachergottime for picking chicken off the bone on a week night. Seriously, I've cooked a whole chicken 3 times {ever} and made homemade chicken broth from them twice. And, I get it! I love the "free" and tastier chicken broth, but remember, this tip is #allaboutsavingyoutimeandsanity).

Step 2

Grab your crockpot (if you don't have one yet, run now. This post is NOT all about the crockpot, but you need one for the life-changing aspect of my easy-meals strategy!)

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Step 3

Cook the chicken using the "Best Whole Chicken in a Crockpot" recipe from Lisa Leake at 100 Days of Real Food. I bought her cookbook by the same name two years ago when I learned more about GMO's and whole-food, organic lifestyles. This cookbook is #lifechanging, and worth every penny, I promise!

But, the recipe is linked on her site for free. And yes, the recipe says for a "whole chicken" but it all works for chicken breasts too! In addition, I don't chop onions. Save yourself the time by buying dried onions and throwing in a tablespoon instead! #savemoretimeandnocrying

You will cook the chicken for 4-5 hours on high. I've found that closer to 5 hours makes the chicken so much easier to shred.

Now, here is where the magic happens!

Step 4

When the chicken has cooked for 4-5 hours, shred it in the crock pot and separate the 3 pounds of chicken into three bowls of around 2 cups each. I include broth and all in the bowls {nothing goes to waste kind of girl here}.

When it's time to use the chicken in the meal, I may or may not dump all of the broth in along with it, but it's tasty and there if I need it.

If you use a recipe that requires more chicken during your week, you can include another meal that week that allows you to use less chicken (like a soup where you are just throwing in some shredded chicken because your husband is a carnivore!)

Now, you have at least three nights worth of chicken ready to be matched with a recipe that will have your taste-buds and tummy feeling oh so happy and you feeling LESS stressed about meals! {Ummm, go you!}

Let's not forget about the goal of almost never driving home worrying about "what's for dinner" again! #andlessdrivethrus #letsbehealthier

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Now, for what you REALLY Want...the FOOD!

Here are 12+ of My {FAMILY's} Favorite Recipes that work with Shredded Chicken

Broccoli Quinoa Casserole from Chungah @Damn Delicious: Organic broccoli is another thing I buy in bulk at Costco, and since they have very few organic frozen veggies, we end up eating broccoli as a side or in a cheesy chicken recipe quite often. You can use rice or quinoa in this recipe.

Broccoli and Penne Pasta from Nealey Dozier @the kitchn: When we made this recipe, my husband took over and did all the work! It was Ahhh-MAzing! I think it's the butter and cream cheese. The ingredients are so simple, it's perfect to throw together after work. We are in love with the Simply Delicious organic penne pasta from target, so I always keep a bag or two in stock.

White Chicken Chili from Brooke @Skinny Mom: This recipe is just an easy throw in the pot! I use lots of different beans, just whatever I have on hand. The hubs loved this recipe, but I noted that it did not make leftovers the first time I made it, so I double all the ingredients now.

Chicken Cordon Bleu Casserole from Mitzi @writtenreality...mmm, look at those pictures...enough said, and notice how I'm substituting shredded chicken for something that traditionally uses chicken breasts. We can use chicken breasts on the weekend. There's just something about already cooked meat in the fridge waiting for a recipe. Maybe it's just a #mentaltimesaver, but at the end of a long day of teaching, our capacity for decision making is soooo dwindled.

Cheesy Enchilada Casserole from Jonna@Just Get off Your Butt and Bake. I found this recipe last summer and then proceeded to make it every other week for a long time! I made it with shredded chicken sometimes and beef other times. My husband and I would then eat the leftovers for lunch or a "leftover" dinner night. He got sick of it! {Oops! Don't tell me you like something!} But I never did!

I can still make this from time to time, but had-to-take-a-break! Because we {he} was getting tired of this meal. I started freezing half of it (wrapped in aluminum foil and put in a freezer bag) so that we wouldn't eat the leftovers for days on end. Good thing anyway because it's not the healthiest of meals with all the cheese and sour cream, but it is fairly easy to make and like I said, it's one of my most favorites!

Curry Chicken Casserole This is another recipe from Lisa Leake, seriously, grab her cookbookand search her website when you have time! We are fans of curry, but it can be hard {for me} to get it right. This Curry Chicken Casserole takes a little more time to make {for me}, but it is worth it.

I've prepared it all on a Sunday and popped it into the over when I got home from work Monday afternoon before. This is also a great meal to double-up on and freeze 1/2 of for a bad day. This recipe also includes broccoli. I told you that we eat A LOT of broccoli!

Lisa also has a recipe for Corn Chowder in her cookbook, but not online. It can have a little heat to it, which is nice from time to time. Here's a whole slew of recipes for corn chowder to fit your tastes.

Vegetable Soup from Jaclyn @Cooking Classy: Just think soup! In those chilly fall months {when we are not only cold, but WORN out from teaching and potentially getting congested and sick}, vegetable soup with shredded chicken thrown in is the perfect comfort food to warm you up!

Taco Shepherd's Pie from Sheena @Noshtastic: This recipe takes a little time with the mashing of potatoes, but everything else is EASY! If you want to speed up your after-work prep time, I suggest boiling and mashing the potatoes on Sunday and having them ready to top the Shepherd's pie when you make the meal. I guess you could use the boxed mashed potatoes, but my whole-food self cannot really suggest that for you....but if you already eat boxed mashed potatoes...well, go ahead and sub!

Tomato Bisque Soup another from Lisa Leake: We make this one heartier for a dinner meal by adding penne pasta and shredded chicken. If we have some, I cook french bread to go along with it. And, why not steam some broccoli as a green veggie side, too? (< 3 will you still love me if I keep saying "broccoli"?)

Chicken Quesadillas: No recipe here, just add a little butter to a frying pan, place a tortilla in it, throw on some shredded cheese and chicken. I like to have cheese on the top and bottom to hold the tortilla together #neattrick...#ipromiseihaventbeencookinglong. Then, top with another tortilla. Or you can use the fold method to make a 1/2 sized tortilla. I feel GUILTY making this meal for dinner with some beans and rice because it's WAY TOO EASY, but my husband was ecstatic the first time he came home to it, so I have the green light to consistently add it to our dinner rotation.

Buffalo Chicken Chili from Jennifer @slow cooker gourmet: Who doesn't love ALL THINGS BUFFALO CHICKEN? I throw this recipe in from time to time when I remember how much we love buffalo chicken. This recipe cooks it all in the slow cooker, but I've used all the ingredients to cook a pot on the stove and it still tastes delicious!

How else can you use your shredded chicken? 

You will find a million ways now that you know this dinner trick, but any chili recipe will work with shredded chicken. Any recipe that calls for beef {like my Cheesy Enchilada Casserole FAVORITE Mexican dish} should also be just as tasty with shredded chicken instead.

Any recipe that calls for sliced chunks of chicken (like the Broccoli and Penne Pasta recipe) or chicken breasts (like the Chicken Cordon Blue Casserole) works just as well with shredded chicken. And any recipe that is meatless but you think chicken would taste great in {and you want to "beef" up the protein-with chicken} works too, like our favorite

5 Ingredient Broccoli Cheese Soup Recipe from Sara at Budget Savvy Diva--I know, more broccoli, are YOU tired of it yet?? I'm not!

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Now, one last tip about my shredded chicken dinner strategy. I alternate between weeks where we have shredded chicken meals and weeks that we do not. We are an omnivorous family, so we have one ground beef meal, 2-3 chicken meals, and one other meat a week.

I inhumanly do not need much variety in my life, especially when it comes to eating and being hungry, but I have found that keeping things mixed up helps us continue to enjoy meal time. I've even learned to switch up our brands from time to time with simple staples like yogurt and bread just to keep our taste-buds alive and not bored!

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As I struggled to balance it all this past year, I had quite a few breakdowns over meal planning. 

A number of times, I told my poor husband that I was JUST SO TIRED of feeding him. He doesn't get home until 6:45, so it really is my role to put dinner on the table. I had a really bad week where I bought a rotisserie chicken from Harris Teeter one night and pizza and ice cream the next night {really, at my house}.

In these moments of exhaustion and desperation, when I finally calm down {and get over being so pissed that dinner is my responsibility}, I always come back to this: feeding my family healthy foods that nourish our bodies is REALLY and TRULY one of my top priorities. 

I want to save our eating-out adventures for the weekend when we can relax and enjoy it more. Most importantly, I want us all to live long, healthy lives. So, cooking--and I mean really cooking--is a priority. And because it's a priority, I have to have strategies for making it work for us!

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What should you do now?

  1. PIN this postso you don't lose it or forget about it.

  2. PRINT ALL of those recipes that look good to you.

  3. SEARCH your own pinterest boards for recipes that will work with shredded chicken and print those too (you can share those here too, I'd love some new ones!).

  4. ORGANIZE your recipe binder. Mine was OOC (out.of.control) this summer!

  5. PLAN your dinners for the week.

  6. And last, if you want more ideas, I'd love for you to FOLLOW my Food Pinterest Board. I'm always looking for quick, tasty, and mostly healthy meals to feed my family!

Have you found any superb dinner strategies that have helped you make it through the "What's for Dinner?" overwhelm? We'd all love to learn from you! Share in the comments!