Wrapping up the 30 Dinner Challenge (aka…we made it!)

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dinner cooking on the stove in a blue dutch oven with little girls playing in the background

(This is what every Saturday morning at our house looks like.)

Greetings from the other side of January! We put a nice little bow on the first month of the year and that means we survived our first ever 30 Dinner Challenge! Big congratulations to all of you who followed along, shared what you were making on Instagram, and made a few more (or all 30!!!) dinners at home this month.

I LOVED seeing what you all were making, and for the most part, it was so similar to how we eat. Stir-fries, slow cooker meals, pasta, and a few very tasty casseroles made an appearance on your (and our) dinner tables. We saw lots of homemade pizza, some healthier New Year meals like salads and grain bowls, and a few real-life acknowledgments that none of us can do it all. Sometimes a bowl of cereal or the drive-through is all that any of us can realistically manage.

And sometimes we get lucky and we have a helper or two to lend a hand….

little girl stirring sauce at a table

If I’m being honest, when I came up with this challenge for our family (and then shared it in a very public way on this blog), I thought it would be easy. Ha! Sure I cook for a living, but Frank and I still struggle to get dinner on the table sometimes as all busy people do. We forget to plan, forget to shop, or just get home too tired to cook at the end of the day. At least two days a week, my job as a recipe developer has me standing in the kitchen for 8 hours straight prepping, cooking, and washing dishes. On the other days, I sometimes don’t even want to go in there!

We also had a few colds, brief stomach bugs, and general January crud running through our house, so those days set us back. There were a few dinners of Trader Joe’s tomato soup and toast. One night Frank and I just had popcorn on the couch after the kids went to bed.

One night I technically didn’t eat dinner at home (although Frank and the kids did) because I ate this awesome graze board at a Grazing KC workshop. Yum.

cheese board

cheese board and wine

Other than that, we really did eat at home every night in January. It was tough, but we were so glad we did it!

What We Cooked

Our meals during the 30 dinner challenge were:

  • 60% Weeknight Favorites (meals we’ve made before + one or two easy new recipes added to the rotation)
  • 20% Work Leftovers (recipes I test during my work day for this site or for my job as a recipe developer at Cook Smarts)
  • 10% Semi-Homemade
  • 10% Celebratory Meals

Weeknight Favorites

We brought back some serious weeknight favorites all month long. These are the absolute best for our family because we know everyone likes them, they have short ingredient lists, and we know exactly how long it takes to make them. Major wins this month were…

Instant Pot Teriyaki Chicken and Rice (from this infographic)

teriyaki chicken with rice in a white bowl

(June LOVES this one)

little girl eating teriyaki chicken

Slow Cooker Mississippi Roast with Instant Pot Mashed Potatoes and roasted broccoli with lemon

slow cooker with mississippi roast

squeezing lemon on roasted broccoli

Taco Night (we’ve been making Instant Pot Chicken Burrito Bowls; we made this meal two times in January – see below for both!)

2 little girls at a table with burrito ingredients

little girl pointing to a bowl of lettuce on a table

Work Leftovers

We are super lucky because when I cook all day for work, we have great leftovers ready to go!

In February we do an entire month of Thai Food here on Inquiring Chef, so there was a LOT of Thai food in our kitchen. One night we had a “tasting” of three Thai curries after I shot photos of all of them that day. (The five-year olds were NOT feeling the curries.)

3 bowls of thai curries and rice on a table

Leftover Cook Smarts Turkey Meatball Lettuce Cups with Honey-Adobo Sauce (plus some crackers, hummus, and veggies from the fridge)

ingredients for turkey meatball lettuce cups on a white tray

Thai Chicken Pizza (a new Cook Smarts recipe scheduled for March!)

Thai chicken pizza on a piece of parchment paper


This was the category that really saved us when we’d normally fall back on eating out.

We did a couple of pizza nights where we didn’t make our own dough – used store-bought pizza dough from Trader Joe’s / Whole Foods or frozen cauliflower crust.

3 homemade pizzas

We always keep a few Trader Joe’s soups in the pantry too, so those came in handy this month when one or a few of us had a cold. This night I made homemade no-knead bread to serve with it and this meal hit the spot for all of us.

soup in a bowl with toast on a plate

Celebratory Meals

Sometimes this month we had fun making a bigger meal that took more time. Even though it felt a little “celebratory”, we didn’t always have an official thing to celebrate.

One cold night right after the New Year, we made homemade bread and Lasagna Bolognese just because.

plates of lasagna bolognese and salad

For Chinese New Year, we made Honey Garlic Chicken Fried Rice and Baked Crab Rangoon. The girls made mini chocolate cheesecakes for dessert!

mini chocolate cheesecakes covered in star shaped sprinkles

We had a fun birthday meal for my mother-in-law and she requested Spaghetti Salerno! It’s not super complicated, but feels a little bit special, so we had that twice this month too.

spaghetti salerno in a white bowl


  1. We CAN cook at home more than we do. (Duh.) We fall back on ordering dinner or grabbing pizza when we’re tired, busy, or when I’m simply just sick of working in the kitchen all day. Sometimes it’s a huge relief to take making dinner off our list, but other times, we need to just get a little creative and use what we have on-hand.
  2. We CAN better use our eating out dollars. Surprise, surprise, we saved a lot of money in January (we use YNAB, so it was easy to see). What we realized was that random nights of eating out add up fast. Instead of ordering not-so-great takeout a few times a month, we could save that money and have a really fun bigger dinner out (say…at Antler Room…hint, hint Frank).
  3. Eating out is more fun when we plan it. As mentioned above, sometimes it’s a huge relief to have someone else do the cooking for us, but it’s not all that much fun. The fun in eating out is when we have a new place we want to try, plan a date night, or make it something that we do as a family and can all look forward to.
  4. We should eat more lunches out! A couple times this month we went out to lunch as a family. It was more affordable than dinner, we got to try something new, and…let’s be real….the kids are in a much better mood in the middle of the day than at the end of it.

(At Parlor for lunch!)

two little girls out to eat lunch

Congrats again to all of you who took part! You are seriously the BEST!

We’ll see you back here again – same time, same place, January 2021!!!!

June says she’ll be ready!

baby eating in a high chair

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About Jess Smith

Jess is the recipe creator and photographer at InquiringChef.com. She spent nearly a decade as the Chief Recipe Developer for the award-winning meal planning app Cook Smarts. Her colorful, healthyish recipes have been featured in popular online publications including Parade, Hallmark, and HuffPost.

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  1. My favorite part of this post is your new family picture and the pictures of the girls! They are too cute. Great takeaways from the past month of eating dinners at home.

    We too managed to eat all our dinners at home (or at friends’ houses) in January, but we did go out for lunch a few times. You’re right that it’s a better time to be at a restaurant with young children.

    I’m hoping that in February the only time we go to a restaurant is for my birthday next week. As you said, when going out for dinner is a planned event, it’s much more fun! …Especially since this will be our first date night in what feels like forever!