In today’s crazy-busy world, family dinner is especially important. Even though Susie has karate, Joey has swim lessons and Mom and Dad commute to work, you need time to connect as a family and eat a nutritious meal. Even better if that meal’s a home-cooked one.
The idea of cooking dinner every night and getting everyone to sit down together is a daunting one for many busy families. But there’s a solution, and it’s so easy, you’ll have no reason not to try it. I raised two active boys and my husband worked a second job for years. But we had family dinner on the table every night at six (or very close to it).
What’s my secret? Meal planning. Here’s what I did to get everyone together for a quick, cheap family dinner every night.
How to cook dinner every night
On Friday night, I planned the menus for the following week. On a sheet of paper folded in half, I wrote the menus on one side and the grocery list on the other. I always planned a “multiple meal” for Sunday dinner, such as roast beef or chicken, so we’d have leftovers for Monday (or another) night. Then I’d plan the rest of the meals so I could start the next night’s meal while heating up the current night’s meal.
It might go something like this:
Sunday: Roast chicken
Sunday night dinner might be roast chicken with onions and carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy, dinner rolls and dessert. Prepare for Monday night by removing remaining chicken from the carcass and storing it in a covered container.
Reserved chicken meat goes into a quick casserole, soup, enchiladas or burritos; in the summer, I might make a chicken salad in lettuce cups. Heat leftover vegetables or make a fresh one (like green beans). Serve leftover dessert. Start Tuesday night’s dinner by thawing two meals’ worth of ground beef or turkey.
Brown ground beef or turkey with seasonings and shred lettuce; chop tomatoes and other toppings. Use salsa from a jar, grated cheese, whatever you like. Heat refried beans for a side dish. Start Wednesday night’s dinner by making meatballs; cover them to refrigerate. (If you have time, you could even brown the meatballs and get a bigger start on Wednesday night.)
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Wednesday: Spaghetti and meatballs
Brown meatballs and pour a jar of your favorite marinara sauce over them. (Doctor it up to taste.) While heating, cook pasta and make a salad. Start Thursday’s dinner by thawing chicken thighs.
Thursday: Teriyaki chicken
Cut chicken thighs into strips and marinate in teriyaki sauce. Meanwhile, start brown or white rice and cook some snap peas. Grill chicken outdoors or indoors on skewers (cooks quickly that way). Start Friday night’s dinner by thawing fish.
Friday: Fish and chips
Keep it healthy by lightly breading the fish with panko crumbs and sautéing in a minimum of fat. Oven-bake the fries; frozen are easy but fresh-cut are cheaper and better. Spray with some olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt before putting in oven. Make coleslaw (easy and way cheaper than buying it pre-made).
Buy frozen or fresh pizza dough and put on your own toppings. Or give yourself a break and order a pizza. You’ve earned it. A nice salad rounds out the meal. If there are good leftovers from the week, Saturday night also can be potluck night, and everyone can have something different.
Remember, these are just some ideas. Change menus to reflect your own family’s tastes.
Family dinner tips
Always thaw meats in the refrigerator. Taking them out of the freezer the night before expedites the process. Don’t put meat in the coldest part of the fridge; it’ll thaw better on a top shelf. Be sure protein is well wrapped so it doesn’t drip juices on other foods.
Try to get everything you need for the week in one grocery outing. Extra trips to the store take time, put you off schedule and make you more prone to impulse buys. If you look at your menus, you’ll know exactly what you need for the week.
Check the grocery store flyers to see what’s on sale. If chuck roast is on sale, make roast beef (and enough for a second meal of, say, barbecued beef sandwiches). If chicken parts are on sale, roast them instead of a whole chicken. If you’re going to the trouble of making lasagna, make two and freeze one for another day. These family-dinner tips will have you stick to your budget.
This meal-planning method keeps you organized and saves you both time and money. You aren’t tempted to buy expensive fast food or take-out. And best of all, you are able to cook a nice dinner for your family, so you can sit down together every night — for a few minutes, anyway. What price can you put on that?
What are your tips and favorite recipes for quick, cheap family dinners?
Editor’s meal planning tip
The best cooking tactic I ever learned was freezer cooking — cooking in advance, then freezing the extra portions so you can bring them out to cook quickly (or heat up) when you need them. Having a healthy meal ready to go in the freezer is the best way to avoid the takeout blues (and the cost of not planning).
I thought I was a master of freezer cooking until I met Erin Chase, who runs My FreezEasy. Erin takes freezer cooking and meal planning to a whole new level, and as the mother of four boys, she knows the challenges of pleasing a hungry family.
Erin has developed a system in which she can prepare 10 delicious meals and load them into the freezer in less than an hour. That’s TWO WEEKS’ worth of weeknight meals!!
And her system makes it all so easy. Every month, you get eight new freezer meal plans (you can tailor them to your taste), plus recipes, shopping lists and step-by-step instructions, including videos. Her system works whether you’re an experienced cook or you’re just starting out.
Don’t worry if your family is picky or has special dietary needs: You have a choice of a traditional plan, gluten-free, slow cooker, clean eats, 20 meals, all chicken, all ground beef or all pork chops — with gluten-free and dairy-free modifications for all recipes. Or, you can create your own customized plan using her recipe collection.
Here’s what one happy customer said about MyFreezEasy:
“So, I finally got round to giving this meal plan a try and I freaking loved it! I love that I have prepared meals sitting in the freezer that I can pull out (or — shock..horror, my hubby can!) and we will have good food cooking so easily. I really loved this concept and now I can let go of the “what’s for dinner” stumper every night!”
If you’re been wanting to try freezer cooking but aren’t sure where to start, this is a great way to learn. MyFreezEasy program start at just $8.25 per month when you sign up for a year. You will more than earn back the cost in the money you’ll save because you won’t waste food or turn to takeout. And that doesn’t even account for the time you’ll save once you’re not wracking your brain about what to make for dinner.
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I have making a menu plan for a long time, I just started doing a monthly menu plan! I do theme nights to make it easier, example, Sunday night is chicken night, monday night, soup/crock pot night, Tuesday is breakfast for dinner night. This saves me money in many ways, I dont buy three cans of beans when I only need two and I know that I have some in the pantry already. I also go online for new recipes! Sometimes my husband doesn’t like new stuff, oh well!
I shop at the grocery store either early in the day or around 5-6 p.m. Why? Because that’s when the departments mark down stuff – when they arrive and when they leave for the day. I buy most of my meat this way. Then I plan my meals around the meats (and bakery, dairy, etc. that I also get marked down).
I also purchase a large amount of ground beef and turkey (2:1 mix) at the warehouse store. Then I bring it right home and cook it all up in a stock pot. I season it with my base that I use on everything – seasoned salt, black pepper, and granulated garlic. Once it’s cooked, I drain it, cool it, then portion it into one- or two-pound containers and put it in the freezer.
I then have pre-cooked ground meat for many things and do not even have to thaw it. I can dump a package in a pan, and then add whatever else to make: tacos, sloppy joes, spaghetti, casseroles, chili…whatever. That leaves less mess for that night’s cooking also.
When I bring that ground meat home, I will also go ahead and make up some meatloaf, burger patties, and meatballs with the raw meat. I do that while cooking the other meat. I typically make enough for two sets of meals – so 2, one-pound meatloaves – one for the next night and one for the freezer, etc.
I also add whole oats to the ground meat at the end of cooking. It adds filler and fiber and my family doesn’t even know it’s in there.
Doug McNeill says
Beans, especially dried ones, are your friend. Canned beans are not terribly expensive, but dried ones are cheaper by about half. Dried beans will about double in volume when cooked.
For example, chickpeas can be used in a variety of meals:
— mashed and combined with mayo and celery to make a chunky sandwich
— thrown into soups
— blitzed into hummus
— mixed with tomato sauce and spaghetti
— roasted until crisp in the oven with a bit of oil and seasoning of your choice for snacks
Oh, and did I mention they are a good protein source?
Gigi Lehman says
Great comments and tips, Doug! Thanks!