Overwhelmed parents: get dinner on the table, on time. Here’s how.

Pinterest Hidden Image

When the Little King pulled on my pajamas, I knew something was wrong. He whimpered, stuffed his fist into his mouth, and then jumped onto his mattress as if it were a trampoline. I grabbed his bedtime books, Poke-A-Dot: First Colors and Llama Llama Red Pajama, and got into position. “We’ve waited too late,” Alex said, stating the obvious. Each time I picked him up, the Little King howled. Relaxing his shoulders to slip out of my grasp, he sobbed until his face puffed from exertion, eventually passing out. Ugh, another rookie parenting mistake. Could we have avoided this overtired hyperactivity? It turns out, looking back, yes, because dinner messed us up. Since we identified the root cause, we’ve embraced ramen as the solution—and you can too. Let’s see how we figured this all out.  

An illustration of a bowl of noodles next to a pair of chopsticks with tofu and a soft-boiled eggPin

What happened

Earlier that day, Alex returned home from Hmart, our go-to Korean grocery store. He bought bunches of Chinese broccoli, Napa cabbages, and an eye-brow raising assortment of noodles to stock up for his business trip. I had enough ramen to survive a week without him. As I put away the groceries, I glanced at the burgundy-green buds on the naked branches of our autumn blaze maple, parked in front of our kitchen window.

Inspired by the new signs of spring, I impulsively decided to make shrimp rice noodle rolls for dinner, an iconic dim sum dish, using the sheets of fresh rice noodles he just bought. Because, why wouldn’t this hasty last-minute decision end up as the awesomest dinner ever? Alex defrosted a bowl of wild shrimp. Over an hour later (you know how time warps when you’re trying to get a toddler out the door), we unfolded the stroller and soaked in the t-shirt weather. 

RELATED: Check out my rice noodle roll recipe for a 5-minute dish.

Cyclists flew by, and fluffy dogs sniffed in our direction. We stopped at the third playground we passed after the Little King made “ehhhh” sounds and pointed to a spaceship jungle gym. He ran up and down the incline to the slide, trying to keep up with a group of preschoolers. As the sun cast longer and longer shadows, and my stomach rumbled, we eventually carried him out when he refused to leave. I bribed him with coconut rolls to keep him from shrieking during the walk back.   

How cooking went astray

Getting home about 6:20 p.m, I got to work right away with the Little King strapped to me in a woven wrap while Alex squeezed in a 10-minute workout. 

TIP: I microwaved the refrigerated noodle sheets to soften them. When I’m lazy and skip this step, the cold rice sheets split at the creased edges, making them impossible to roll. 

Pinching the hot edges, I unraveled each sheet and laid the semi-thawed shrimp in the middle. I rolled the noodle sheet like a spring roll. I tried so hard to avoid tearing each translucent layer. Because I lowered the Little King to nurse in the wrap, my arms acted like stubby T-Rex limbs, straining to reach my mise en place while semi-supporting his weight. The smell of raw shrimp made me crinkle my nose. I wanted to quit but we had blown past my target dinner at 6 p.m., so I charged on. 

Oops, an unexpected visitor

Ding dong! I opened the front door to a tall stranger with strawberry blond hair and rosy cheeks. A few hours ago, Matthew responded to my Facebook Marketplace ad. He came with his roommate to buy our dining table. I interrupted Alex’s workout for his help. Over the next hour, the three of them disassembled the table. Matthew made two trips, hauling away the last legs around 7:30 p.m. I set up our new-to-us vintage dining table and 2 chairs. We didn’t have placemats, so I spread open a white tablecloth Alex inherited from his grandma, strategically covering a mold stain with the salt shaker

Dinner disaster

Desperate for dinner, I assembled the last shrimp rolls and steamed everything. The metal pans clanged as the bubbling water roiled underneath. I served the rolls once the shrimp turned pink and opaque, and the paper-white rice sheets plumped up. Everybody got a roll. Shiny dots of oil covered my roll like fat drops of spring rain stuck on a windshield. I made a soy dipping sauce by pouring 2 tablespoons of dark soy sauce and a few drops of sesame oil into a tiny ramekin with a heaping tablespoon of garlic chili sauce. The Little King dug his fingers into the heart of his roll to fish out the shrimp pieces. He popped them into his mouth and put his six front teeth to work, like a rabbit chewing on a carrot stick. I savored my hard work. 

RELATED: Learn about the difference between dark soy sauce and light soy sauce.

After a few bites, the rice skin collapsed into a mushy paste in my mouth. Of course, I felt lucky that Alex bought these rice noodle rolls for me, and some shrimp died so I could eat them. But disappointment tinged every bite. I wasted so much time unfolding, rolling, and steaming. For what? 

A plate of shrimp rice noodle rolls next to a tea pot and a small cup of teaPin
A plate of shrimp rice noodle rolls from the last yum cha restaurant I dined at (they call this dish shrimp rice crepes). This is what they’re support to look like…not the gooey abomination I made.

We finished dinner after 8 p.m. You’d think I would’ve rushed off to put the Little King to bed. Instead, I procrastinated giving him a bath by slicing oranges and savoring the burst of citrus on my tongue. You know when you’re so tired, you don’t have the energy to do your bedtime routine and go to sleep, which you desperately need, but you somehow have wild energy to clean the bathroom and eat a bunch of potato chips and dark chocolate chips afterward? I paid the price later, as you know. 

Post-mortem meeting

Fast-forward, after enduring the Little King’s heartbreaking sobs, Alex and I breathed. I don’t remember where I first learned about post-mortem discussions, but it recently came up with my neighbor friends who work at Google. They mentioned that when something goes wrong, the teams involved analyze what happened, what systems were faulty, and what needs to change to avoid the problem in the future. Most importantly, nobody gets blamed or fired. 

As nerds, Alex and I often discuss systems and processes at work in our lives.

TIP: The book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big gave us a convincing push towards system-based thinking.

After listening to my toddler scream for over half an hour, my throat tightened as I strained to control my voice’s volume. I picked my words carefully to even-handedly discuss the decisions that we (ahem, I) made that led to a bedtime battle. We determined the outcome hours in advance because:

  • We ignored the clock and walked farther than our usual distance, getting home past our usual dinner time.
  • I chose to start an unresearched cooking project. Usually, I talk Alex out of these spontaneous cooking adventures. Why would I start one? 
  • I agreed to transact furniture at 6:30 p.m., during our usual sacred dinner time. 

What if we had treated the Little King’s bedtime like the big deal that it is. If we had visited a friend, drove to Costco, or took the bus to downtown Boulder around 5 p.m., we never would’ve started a cooking project after getting home so late. Our evening would have looked like this instead: 

  • We make dinner earlier, say 3 p.m., so we could reheat and eat as soon as we arrived home.
  • Or, we make something quick and simple—maybe frozen—like flexible cabbage soup.
  • Or, we get home earlier, turning around at least half an hour earlier than we did.
  • We reschedule an unfamiliar cooking project for another day.
  • I ask Matthew to come after 7:30 p.m. to pick up the dining table, or I reschedule it to the next day.

Our system tweaks

We agreed to tweak our dinnertime system by including these changes: 

  • I set a daily alarm to ring at 5:45 p.m. to remind me to start cooking dinner, if I haven’t already.
  • I remember that anything involving the Little King takes two to four times as long, so we need to build in more margin.
  • If we’re home after 6 p.m., and dinner isn’t ready, we need to make instant noodles

How’s the system working? 

The next evening, we chose to have another packed day with Alex preparing for Washington, D.C. He spent most of his Sunday afternoon cooking beef bone broth, so I could easily reheat it for dinner. He rinsed and chopped cabbage, green beans, and Chinese broccoli, storing them in plastic containers. I had two containers full of peeled and chopped aromatics (garlic, ginger, and green onion). We both went to bed after 11:30 p.m., working hard to prepare for his departure. How did bedtime go with the Little King that night? I read Llama Llama Red Pajama and didn’t notice when he fell asleep. Why? We had ramen noodle soup for dinner, cleaned up by 7:30 p.m., and got him ready for bed by 8 p.m. 

That’s the power of following a system and having go-to meals that feeds the family faster than the drive-thru. 

Has something similar happened to you? Share your favorite emergency dinners with other parents in the comments below. 

READ NEXT: The reverse grocery list saves time & energy when shopping

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com 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