How to cook dinner for kids everyday when your partner travels—you can do it!

Alex scoffed down his beef noodle soup knowing he still hadn’t looked through his packing checklist. He brushed his teeth while ordering a ride to the airport. The Little King saw the purple carry-on suitcase stuffed open with polo shirts and jeans. He ran to the garage and back to me multiple times. We escorted Alex to the white sedan that pulled up to the curb. I waved goodbye. Fat tears rolling down the Little King’s cheeks, his stiff arms reached out as if he could turn the car around. I stared down a week of solo-parenting while Alex left on a business trip.

An illustration of a purple suitcase thinking about a thick sandwichPin

The diaper changes, naps, and baths don’t frustrate me as much as the struggle to responsibly feed our opinionated one-year-old. Fortunately, I developed systems over the years since Alex travels 1-2 times per month. Because I prefer homemade meals over food delivery or restaurant take-out for speed, convenience, and health, I have a plan for making lunch and dinner everyday, giving me one less thing to worry about when I’m on my own.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, travel this summer has picked up back to the pre-pandemic levels of summer 2019. If you’re temporarily solo-parenting and want to cook most of your meals too, check out these hard-learned lessons to help your dinner unfold smoothly. Let’s jump into the most important actions I take every time I prepare for Alex’s departure.

A line chart from Bureau of Transportation Statistics on trips per dayPin
Chart from: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Line up a babysitter

For a long time, I believed I should be able to look after my kid on my own. I must have internalized this belief from people around me. I once heard a family member say that women have been stuck with looking after all their kids by themselves since “time immemorial”. I hate to repeat these fallacies and thereby perpetuate the same misconceptions I fell victim to.

The reality is that many people have no choice but to look after their kids all the time, without help, because they don’t financially have the option to hire a babysitter. But this isn’t how humans always lived. This study observed that in hunter-gatherer societies, many more people—”alloparents,” non-parental caregivers— pitch in to look after the young, especially older kids.

If you have the resources, consider getting a babysitter for 2 hours. It doesn’t take many hours to freshen you. Giving yourself a short break so you can make dinner or take a breather cuts down on any dread you may feel when dealing with your screaming child. If you need help finding a babysitter, check out my course Escape Your Cooking Nightmare: How to Hire a Babysitter so You Can Cook Dinner While Saving Your Sanity.

Make extra food for leftovers

The day before Alex leaves, I always cook extra food for dinner. I love reheating leftovers the next day. This morning, he departed in a frenzy of last-minute packing. Predictably, the Little King was a clingy mess for several hours, refusing to nap while pointing continuously at the garage door saying “da da…da da…da da”.

When my stomach clenched from hunger, I thanked my yesterday-self for working hard to prepare a green bean omelette, so I could focus on comforting my kid. Reheating leftovers for lunch and assembling a light dinner on Day 1 conserved my energy for Day 2 and 3 (Day 1 and Day 3 out of 5 are usually the hardest because Day 1 involves adapting to the shock of being alone and by Day 3, I’ve expended 80% of my energy).

Prepare ingredients

The Little King was 6 weeks old the first time Alex left on a business trip since we became parents. I still couldn’t stand for more than 20 minutes without pain. I constantly had to lie down. We both felt anxious about this trip because it was too soon after birth, and I needed so much help. But he had to go.

Alex had made a giant pot of soup for me. I reheated it and ate whenever hunger struck. When I opened the fridge in search of soup, I noticed bags of vegetables neatly stacked on top of each other. He had washed, chopped, and packaged lettuce, green beans, garlic, green onion, and soft-boiled eggs for me. Each day, I boiled a bowl of broth, added vegetables, and noodles. Voilà, dinner! I could make this meal in 10 minutes, eat for 10 minutes, then I had to lie down again. I remember boiling the soup and veggies in the microwave one day when my tailbone hurt too much to stand and cook on the stove.

Having prepped ingredients has become foundational in our routine every time Alex leaves on business trips. We make it a priority to have 1–3 vegetables rinsed and trimmed, 2 aromatics (garlic and green onions) peeled and chopped, and at least 1 protein cooked (usually boiled eggs). Planning ahead makes the emotional separation easier because I conserve my mental energy for challenging tasks, like getting to preschool, cleaning up after bedtime, and getting to bed on time.

These are the prepared ingredients sitting in my fridge we threw together ahead of this trip:

Keep a plan of low-effort meals

I typically cook simple meals that rely on boiling, such as pasta, noodle soups, soft-boiled eggs, and boiled broccoli. When I’m solo-parenting, I lean further into low-effort meals by focusing on minimal- and no-cook options, such as salads and sandwiches. I run through my list of low-effort meals and double check I have all the ingredients. The last thing I want to do is go grocery shopping with my toddler in tow.

Here’s my plan for this business trip:

  • quesadilla (I have flour tortillas and shredded mozzarella cheese in the fridge)
  • wheat noodles with “meat” sauce (I bought Japanese udon noodles and made the sauce)
  • coleslaw (I shredded the cabbage and made mayo yesterday)
  • creamy pasta (I got the Alfredo sauce and elbow macaroni in the pantry)
  • tofu salad (I have marinated tofu in the fridge, and there’s always dark soy sauce and sesame oil in the pantry)

Of course, fast food, restaurant take-out meals, and food delivery serve as back-up options (though I find instant noodles faster and more convenient than picking up takeout). This is survival mode. Some days, that means instant ramen, sandwiches, or pre-cooked cabbage soup a few times in a row. My emergency meals are a combination of:

Getting enough sleep

I’ve struggled my whole life with going to bed early. As I write this, I’m setting an alarm on my phone reminding me to wind down at 8:30 p.m. tonight. Last night at 11:30 p.m., I was in a cleaning frenzy washing the bath rug, wiping down the table, cleaning out the sink, and other unnecessary tasks. It’s tempting to get these projects done when the Little King is asleep because Alex enforces bedtime 💪, so I typically won’t get away with doing these tasks around bedtime. When he’s gone, I get to do whatever I want. Of course, I pay the price for this “productivity” the next day. Today, I must be disciplined about having dinner on the table by 6 p.m., bath time before 8 p.m., and then bedtime for our strong-willed kiddo. I hate living with these rules, but I know everything falls apart when I’m sleep deprived.

You can do it

cartoon illustration that says "we can do it" with two metal cansPin

Parenting on your own is really tough. I have no idea how single parents do it. Living for a few nights without Alex can’t compare to my friends who raise their kids as single parents. Respect and kudos 🙏. If you find yourself solo-parenting and want to cook dinner for yourself and your kids, it’s 100% doable. I promise you’ll have an easier time by planning ahead and taking action before departure day. Not everything will go perfectly, which is why it’s OK to stay flexible and reach for food delivery or pre-made food. The most important thing is to feel confident that you’ve got this. You may even have a great time on your own with your kids to entertain you.

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

Leave a Comment