Easy Meals for Dinner: Ideas and Tips for Busy Families
If your life is anything like mine, you require easy meals for dinner that are fast, but simultaneously healthy. I enjoy cooking, I really do, but carting around three kids to sports, helping with homework, and carving out social time for all of us leaves me with a significant deficit in the amount of time I can spend in the kitchen. As my kids grew, along with their activities, I found I had to come up with an organized, pre-planned menu system in order to successfully balance the demands of life. Spontaneity had failed us in the past, too often time crunches had me grabbing convenience foods. I soon found even just a little planning goes a long way.
Planning is a Big Part of Making Easy Meals for Dinner!
Carve out time during the weekend, or whenever best suits your schedule and plan your healthy family meals for the week. If you aren’t able to plan for the entire week, plan for at least three days. If you’re not yet familiar with Harvard’s Healthy Eating Pyramid, you’re missing out on a succinct, easy to understand nutritional guide complete with a variety of simple recipes.
Consider the week ahead, and consider your schedule carefully. Is there one night, or a few nights you’d be best having leftovers available for a reheat? Or, is time going to be so tight most of your meals need to be ready in 30 minutes or less? Consider the time constraints for you and your family and plan accordingly. The USDA’s MyPyramid has a tool every family should be utilizing called the menu planner.
Cooking Light also has some excellent under 30 minute, healthy recipes.
One suggestion for making easy meals for dinner is to pre-cook the more time-consuming ingredients. For example, you might cook the chicken and rice ahead of time, whenever it’s convenient.
Using a slow cooker is another simple means for making simple, healthy meals with guaranteed leftovers. This method is also a great way to sneak in healthy foods without your discriminating family members knowing. It’s a pretty forgiving cooking method, too. If your crock pot has a removable inner lining/insert you’re golden since you can assemble the ingredients the night before and place it in the refrigerator overnight. Check out these 10 slow cooker recipes for some great ideas.
Fun Ideas Kids Love, Too
One of the best easy ideas for dinner is to assemble a food bar of some sort. We do taco bars, salad bars, baked potato bars and sandwich bars. Put the different ingredients on different plates and allow family members to assemble their own food creations. On a similar note, we also have make your own pizza nights. Yes, pizza can be healthy if you play your cards right.
Taco bar ideas: hard or soft tortillas, shredded lettuce, ground turkey or beef with taco seasoning, tomatoes, avocado, salsa and low fat sour cream.
Baked potato bars: baked potatoes, low fat chili, low fat cheese, low fat sour cream, reduced fat butter, turkey bacon bits.
Salad bars: variety of lettuce, garbanzo beans, sesame seeds, low fat cheese, a variety of veggies, reduced fat salad dressing, etc.. Obviously, you can use your imagination here.
Sandwich bars: whole wheat bread/hoagies, reduced fat mayonaise, mustard, low fat cheese, cold cuts, lettuce and other veggies, tomatoes. You get the drift, it's up to you!
Pizza night: whole wheat pizza crust (you can make your own or purchase pre-made crust), tomato sauce, tons of veggies, low fat mozzarella cheese, veggies like: broccoli, onions, yellow (or whatever color you like) peppers, turkey pepperoni (it's MUCH healthier than the beef type) and veggie or turkey sausage.
Assemble and Freeze for Homemade Convenience Foods
When my twins were infants, out of necessity, we found creative means for getting our own needs met. Multi-tasking became a way of life, one we continue to this day. I rarely make a meal that will feed us for only one night, that just doesn’t make sense for our family. The smallest meal I ever make is enough for a dinner and then for lunch the next day. The leftovers are then immediately packed away into individual Tupperware containers for the next day. Voila, the lunch boxes or tomorrow’s dinner is taken care of.
I spend a few hours every Sunday cooking healthy family meals for the week ahead. I know my life it too busy to carve out enough time every night to make healthy meals. As good as my intentions may be, life invariably gets in my way and I’m interrupted by some unforeseen issue that interrupts the time I’d set aside to cook. I need to make my own convenience foods. Of course not everything has to be frozen right away, whatever menu plan you’ve created will determine that. I make three to four double main courses every Sunday, it’s enough for at least a few dinner entrees and lunches. Bear in mind, not all foods work cook on the spot. I do as much preassembling of our vegetables as I can on Sundays, as well. Obviously, there are lots of fruits you don’t want to pre-cut since they turn brown and squishy, so choose carefully which ones will fare well over time. Berries, pineapple, most citrus and grapes are good candidates. Most vegetables can be cut beforehand, fortunately. At the very least you will be washing all your produce to save that extra step during the week when you’re making your fruit and vegetable salads. Grab your Tupperware and it’ll be all ready for you during the week. I set some aside in small baggies for ready grabbing, too.
Of course, your life differs from mine, so you’ll need to determine what pre-cooking schedule works best for you. Depending upon the size of your family and your available time, you may cook more of less food on your cooking day. You may find you need to vary which day you cook, or perhaps you’ll find it best to carve out 3 hours twice per week. Just experiment with a keen eye on your week ahead. I usually tag on one extra dinner for unforeseen issues like illness, impromptu plans, and scheduled events that end up running late. This goes a long way in avoiding any fast food or convenience food temptation.
Depending upon how you plan to bake, thaw or reheat your pre-made meals, you need to consider how you will store them. Some will do better being baked in the oven, in that case store them in glass casserole containers so they’re ready to be plopped into the oven. Trust me, every little bit of planning will cut down on the work you have later and you’ll thank yourself for less dishes to wash and food to transfer. To successfully pull off this, you need to take a inventory of your food storage containers. You can also use large freezer bags, but as someone who doesn’t like the impact of plastic on the environment, this isn’t my method of choice. Not to mention, it makes transferring food into appropriate baking dishes an unnecessarily difficult task. Bottom line, you will need a an ample supply of food storage containers, in a variety of sizes. well for the bake it now, serve it later routine. Most fish, some meats, stand-alone veggies, salads, and fruit salads aren’t candidates for this method. Since fish is an important part of our diet, this is something I do
Print Out Your Weekly Menu and Make it Visible
This is actually the fun part for me, I’ve gotten pretty creative when it comes to creating these little gems. If you have kids, you’ll enjoy not having to answer the daily 5:00 pm question: “What’s for dinner?” I’ve even begun writing dinner times on the menus depending upon what life has in store for us. Sometimes it says: “dinner will be served after baseball” or “dinner to be served following completion of homework”. I’ve found our children will more readily eat the foods we present them when they have this menu to consult. To some extent, it takes YOU out of the equation, with the menu seemingly dictating their meals instead. They look at the menu every Sunday night, they know what to expect, and we hear a lot less complaining and asking for alternatives. Try it! You can also have them help you design the menu, the more they’re involved, the better. My 10 year old loves designing menus on the computer. Of course, they can also be hand-written, the choice is yours.
The other advantage of the posted menu is you’ll find you actually stick to your plan this way. It’s all laid out, you’ve invested time and energy in cooking and creating the plan and gosh darn it, you’re going to use it!