In today’s crazy-busy world, it’s more important than ever to have some stable times in your day. One of them is the family dinner. Yes, we know, Susie has karate and Joey has swim lessons. Mom and Dad both work. 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). Here’s what I did.
On Friday night, I planned the menus for the following week. On a sheet of 8 ½-by-11-inch 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, so we’d have leftovers for Monday (or another) night. Maybe a roast beef or chicken. 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:
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.
Leftover night. Reserved chicken meat goes into a quick casserole, soup, enchiladas or burritos; or make a chicken salad in lettuce cups (summer). 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.
Taco night. 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.)
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.
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.
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).
Pizza night. 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.
Be sure to 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.
This method keeps you organized and saves you both time and money — I guarantee it. You aren’t tempted to buy expensive fast food or take-out. And best of all, you have 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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