Meal and Cooking Advice for Busy Parents! Plus, Advice On "Do You Eat Dinner as a Family? And How Do You Do It?"

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Includes meal planning tips, recipe ideas, and also suggestions for lunch and breakfast too!

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Original Poster:

"We have not been eating dinner as a family until recently. We eat breakfast together every morning at the table but I just love my dinners alone with my husband so for two years we have been cooking a separate dinner after the boys go to bed. But I'm starting to try more dinners together to free up more evening time. How do you do this???"

 

In this article:

Summary

Planning

Recipes and ingredients

Meal prep services

Breakfast and lunch ideas

Recommended appliances

Related reading and resources

 

Summary:

 

  • Use a slow cooker/crock pot so dinner is ready and you can just eat
  • Plan meals a week out and buy over the weekend on your once a week shop
  • Cook on the weekends and store for the week. Make extra that you can freeze and reheat in a few weeks.
  • Cook with leftovers in mind.
  • Come up with Meal Nights to cut down on your mental work—Taco Tuesdays, Fish Fridays, Take Out Thursdays, etc.
  • Let one night’s dish be another night’s leftovers with a twist. For example, a cooked chicken one night can become soup the next.
  • Cheat on the time consuming stuff.  For example, stop by your Chinese food restaurant and grab some rice to save you the 30 minutes of cooking time.
  • Don’t be ashamed to order in.  If it means you get to spend more quality time with the family then it’s worth it.
  • Take about an hour on the weekends to prep vegetables for the week, you are more likely to use what is ready.
  • Making dinners a few nights a week and then using leftovers works
  • Cook ahead one or two large meals on the weekend --> leftovers for dinner all week. 
  • Embrace the microwave to re-heat.
  • Buy lunch every day
  • Save even small portions of leftovers like plain cooked pasta or 1/2 serving of scrambled eggs

 

Planning:

 

Weekly planning:

  • Plan weekly menus:
    • "Plan a menu of dinners for coming week on Saturday. We usually plan to cook 4 dinners a week, 2 take-out and one that is based on leftovers, time, etc. Grocery shop on Sunday. Sunday dinner ideally big enough to have it for leftovers on Tuesday (eg pulled pork and collard greens in slow cooker). Monday is usually a fish dinner since we try not to keep fish past past day 2 without cooking it. The rest are usually fast week night meals like ciabatta with mozzarella tomatoes and pesto or chicken burgers with spinach and feta."And another parents suggests
    • "Plan out meals on Sunday and write them in a Google calendar to eliminate the 7pm "what's for dinner?" panic."
  • Make sure you cook enough leftovers: "We are really trying to do this too. On the days we eat together, it's usually because I've cooked the night before and saved it for the next night's dinner, or at least prepped the majority ahead of time. One thing that's helped us is this meal planning website: http://www.thefresh20.com It's basically a weekly menu with a shopping list, prep guide and recipes. You shop once a week with a list of 20 fresh ingredients, spend an hour or two prepping (chopping veggies, blanching, etc.), and then during the week you can just throw everything together pretty quickly. It's not fancy, but it is healthy, fast and usually good (sometimes Seth likes it, sometimes not so much). I'm attaching the menu we did last week which was surprisingly good, esp the tomato soup on the last day."
  • Cook everything at the weekend and stock up on dry goods: We make nearly everything (or do all the prep work) over the weekend for the week when we know we won't have time. Fast recipes we will leave til the day of. That said, veggies should be done right away becauses they can wilt fast depends on the veggie. We typically have stews in the freezer, various grains in the house (couscous quinoa wild rice sushi rice etc) and a box of dried mushrooms, dried chickpeas, just in case because these can be made into a meal quickly. Dried and frozen foods are so key to family meals in a pinch. and we also use the slow cooker if we just don't have the time. We have a recipe book for just slow cooker meals and I'm on a Facebook group that just shares good slow cooker ideas and recipes. Its great, in the AM toss the ingredients in, set it, go about your day, come home in the evening to a delicious meal."
  • 2 words: Slow. Cooker: We rely heavily on our Slow Cooker. I just want to say that it is great in the summer, too- no hot oven!  For example, this week I planned 5 meals, all in the slow cooker. We made chili on Sunday, I made a pork roast Monday, pork chops with mushroom gravy on Tuesday, I have a rice dish tomorrow night and a taco casserole on Friday. That being said, we now have so many leftovers, I don't know if I'll do Thursday & Friday. We invested in a nicer one a few months ago that browns, sautées, steams, and has a timer (I found this to be key- we were away from it 10+ hrs, and even on low some dishes dried out a little)."
    • In the crock pot: beef stew which is fairly healthy and hearty (but has flour to thicken the liquid), chili, chicken/sweet potato stew that doesn't require flour or dairy,  split pea soup (Whole foods recipe minus the ham), lentil stew (Tori Avey recipe). I'm pretty sure these can be adapted to the stovetop if you don't have a slow cooker.

  • 2 more words: Undressed. Salads: Make a big salad on Sunday and on Wednesday and keep it in a huge tupperware, not dressed, for daily salads

 

Long-term planning:

  • Make ahead:
    • "I try to do this when I can squeeze it in on an odd weekend, like make a huge thing of chicken in a slow cooker, and freeze half of it. Dinner that night, dinner another night."
    • One thing I try to do is create meal "components" over the weekend (e.g. chopped veggies, crumbled/ shredded cheeses, crumbled bacon, smoked salmon/trout, baked tofu, a cooked grain like farro, cooked beans, toasted nuts, etc.) that can be used in different ways. For example: omelettes, baked potatoes, pasta, salad, "fried" (sauteed) brown rice or farro. So you are basically taking a base and adding quick handfuls of handy components. I like this system because it avoids days of the same leftovers - sometimes I don't mind that with a soup/stew in the winter, but sometimes I just don't want leftovers!"
  • Freezer stash:
    • Cook for the freezer: Once a month make a freezer stash such as zucchini bread, mini frittatas, quinoa patties, or yogurt pancakes. These freeze well, and make a great lunch or snack.
    • Buy for the freezer: Every six weeks or so stock the freezer, so there are always turkey burgers, salmon, veg to microwave, something to grab, fast. Burger or fish on stove, veg in microwave, dinner in 20 minutes.
    • "I do a lot of batch cooking of various meats, which I then freeze in meal size containers.  I find that meats take the longest to prepare fresh and freeze well. That way when I come home I only have to cook a carbohydrate, and a fresh vegetable. I will take out a frozen container in the morning and put it in the fridge so that it is fairly soft when I get home.  Then I just heat it up and mix with the fresh food.  Meat stews that already have vegetables in them also freeze well."
    • I make meals on the weekends and freeze individual portions in 4 oz Ball jars: pasta, casserole-type meals, chicken congee. I freeze portions of veggies in a covered ice cube tray. It works out where I am really only cooking every other weekend or so. My husband and I eat dinner at 9/9:30 so often I'll feed our son leftovers. He's 10.5 months old and as soon as we get home from daycare he is ready to eat. There are never enough hours in the evening!
  • There's an app for that: Make a rough plan for the month one weekend day and put it on cozi.com, where it syncs with our weekly calendar. Aim to cook 4 times a week, eat out or order pizza once, and have leftovers twice. Order FreshDirect at the beginning of the week based on the meal plan for that week.

 

Day-to-day:

  • Find meals that take you 20 minutes to make: "I eat with the boys most nights. I serve leftovers or quick fix meals. I make a big batch of baked chicken twice a week and steam veggies throughout the week, then microwave to reheat. I scramble eggs and serve sardines for other protein ideas. Add fruit, avocado and/or cheese, and it's healthy although totally unexciting. I've been making frozen pizza a couple times a week - takes 20 mins. Maybe prep a baking dish the night before and just pop it in the oven at 4:30pm for a fresh dinner? A leftover curry with fresh hot rice could be an easy thing to throw together."
  • Make it easy for the kids: "Prep easy stuff separately for the kids. They get sandwiches, scrambled eggs, fish sticks, ravioli most nights. Throw in some sliced fruit and leftover veggies from the night before."
  • Keep it simple. Forget fancy: see below for simple recipe ideas.
  • Cook with leftovers in mind:
    • Double up! "the rule in our house is, whoever makes dinner has to double the recipe so we have leftovers for the next night, or for the freezer. Husband wanted to make veg lasagna tonight (have at it, dear). We will freeze half."
    • Cook a big meal 1-2x/week and eat for several nights and lunches

 

Night before:

  • "Looking at your fridge every night and spend five minutes thinking about to make with the stuff in there is better than spending time looking at cookbooks and shopping for an entire week."
  • "I try and plan in advance as best I can. Defrost meat the night before.

 

Make traditions:

  • Make meal time a family tradition. "We've also started doing family dinners at least 1-2 nights/week... usually Sundays and Fridays or Saturdays.  The meals are something we will all eat (spaghetti and meatballs, fish and rice or Bulgar wheat, chicken and rice and beans, flank steak and potatoes, always with broccoli b/c its the one veggie the girls will eat consistently).  While I agree that its nice to have a relaxing dinner when the kids are asleep, I do love our family dinners and think its really nice for the girls to see how we act and interact at the table.  I hope that when our kids are both in (real) school we start to do family dinners during the week but for now we've all been enjoying our weekend family dinners!"
  • Routinize it: Stick to a routine and pre-make a lot of staples and keep them all on one shelf in the fridge so you can look at them easily and plan around those items.

 

Don't stress yourself out too much:

  • "I remember those hectic daycare days. Very stressful. I would try not to stress out too much about not having family meals during the week while the kids are so young. I used to focus on eating together on the weekends and did what I could during the week. Sometimes I wasn't hungry when my son and I got home and I didn't want to force myself to eat. But I did sit with him to talk. Well, as much as I could with a two year-old."
  • "As to the point about family meal time - right now, I just don't sweat it.  The hours between leaving work and our daughter going to bed are so hectic.  One of us will sit down with her while she eats dinner and we'll talk (as much as you can with a toddler) and we'll read books to her, so we still view it as quality time.  Plus her bedtime is too early right now.  We'll worry about family dinners when her bedtime is late enough that we can spend 30 minutes getting dinner ready when we walk in the door.  Our solution has been family breakfast on weekends."
  • "We make family meals a priority on Fri-Sunday and then maybe one other night in the week. My 20 month old is also hungry when we walk in the door and he of course wants food NOW. I try to have a plan ahead of time and I serve him in courses if i need to but it all depends on what I have on hand that he can start with, maybe shredded cheese, apple sauce with a spoon to take up some extra time, veggies , turkey, or fruit while I prep the rest."

 

Get your partner and family to help:

  • "Have any of you considered just getting your husbands to cook delicious meals? That's what my wife did..."
  • Then the other thing is we get our four year old to help with prepping. She is really excited about that. She will often chop mushrooms (with a butter knife) or pull the broccoli into the right size chunks from the head. She even designed her own salad dressing which she now can make herself. 

 

Get nanny to help (but remember to compensate fairly if you are adding work to their load):

  • "The way we have found it to work is to ask our nanny to throw things into the oven which has the ability to turn itself on. We prep the cast iron skillet with whatever we are eating that night so she literally just has to put it in the oven at like 3 and forget about it. We also do the instapot and slow cooker for the same reason."

 

Recipes/ Ingredients:

 

Dinner:

  • Homemade pizza: Buy dough from Union Market or Russo's
  • Orange Lentils: Lentil curry with white rice, lentil soup
  • Thin-sliced chicken breasts: Amazing and cook super fast. Bake, broil, chop up, sautee with veggies and serve over orzo. Or serve with sauce and cheese.
  • One Pot Pasta: recipe via Martha Stewart
  • Homemade "sausages": Use the food processor to puree a pound of organic chicken breast, oats, an apple, an onion, and spices, coat them in gluten free flour and make bite sized "sausages" that last for about two weeks.
  • Rotisserie chicken: Another lifesaver. It's chicken for two days and tacos/chicken soup/or sandwiches the last day. And everyone can eat it.
  • Quiche: It's a good way to hide veggies. I throw in broccoli and cheese, or tomato and basil, or the fastest - ham and swiss - and we eat it for lunch or dinner a few times a week.
  • Crust-less quiche: Eggs, milk, salt, a veg, pop in oven for 30 minutes

 

Reliable, easy mains and sides. Be inspired! 

  • Stuffed ravioli
  • Chili
  • Veggie burgers
  • Hot dogs
  • Chicken breast
  • Seafood (cooks fast!)
  • Stirfry
  • Tacos
  • Meatballs
  • Chicken soup
  • Frozen veggies
  • rice balls
  • tofu curry
  • Pasta with vegetables
  • Vegetable fritters
  • Pancakes
  • Fresh cheese
  • Chick peas and beans
  • Eggs, hard-boiled or scrambled
  • Whole wheat bagels and peanut butter
  • Baked potatoes
  • Ground beef with tomatoes
  • Sweet potatoes with rosemary over rice
  • Chicken and broccoli casserole
  • Mac and cheese
  • Burritos
  • Chicken with cous cous
  • Steam frozen veggies with olive oil or butter the night before for the next day lunch and dinner
  • Simple sides:
    • "brown rice that you can walk away from once it's going), frozen veggies or even prepped veggies that once again take a few minutes to prep but then you can walk away while they cook/bake."
  •  Make a meal out of sides: "cut fruit salad, salami, a nice cheese or two, baguette, and olives (or stuffed grape leaves, or maybe artichoke dip). No oven required, no prep really other than slicing bread and cheese!"
  • A lot of soups and stews.  Some of them I prep ahead of time and freeze and then cook the day of.
    • Similarly, "soups are also a big hit for us- another make ahead and quickly reheat in microwave or small saucepan. My son also likes drinking cream/purée soups with a straw while cold or room temp (cream of carrot, butternut squash, etc.)"
  • We have been doing a lot of chicken in teriyaki sauce over brown rice.
  • Big pots of dairy free soup, stews, beans and rice
  • Super tender pulled chicken for tacos/ salads/ etc. 
  • Big batches of lentil soup
  • Make ahead (although I haven't tried freezing it yet) is asopao, it's a chicken rice stew.
  • Vegetable enchiladas (Udi's tortillas; or use corn tortillas as layered casserole)
  • Quinoa and vegetable curries/chili and portioned them out in quart bags and froze them.
  • Turkey meatloaf freezes well
  • Chicken soup.
  • Breaded chicken cutletS
  • Keep some burgers in the frig to throw on the George Foreman grill in a pinch.
  • Grilling a chicken (or other slow cooker/pullable meat) for Sunday night dinner --> chicken salad/enchiladas. Carcass makes great chicken soup (to slow cook or freeze to cook later) - that can go with anything: gf noodles, rice, etc.
  • We do a lot of whole chicken in the oven with onions and carrots. And a ton of sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, etc. We do one meal of sausage a week since it is fast to cook. One of porkchops and then maybe a salmon. And then usually one leftovers meal. All of the meats can be thrown in a pan and cooked in like 15 mins. We usually do a quickly veggie like steamed broccoli or carrots. And then usually have a salad. The thing that we just started doing is cutting up veggies on Sunday for the week. Things like dicing a bunch of onions. Peeling a ton of garlic. Peeling carrots or just using the bagged baby carrots. Chopping pepper for salads.
  • We usually do some sort of large 9x13 frittata on Sunday eve that we pack for lunches and quickly heat up for our child's dinner. It's so easy. Throw in a carton of eggs, some milk, lots of water ever cheese you have on hand and what ever frozen veggies you have lying around - it's a great way for her to get spinach in. Broccoli and corn work well too. 
  • We keep lots of salad fixings around and have robust salads maybe 2x per week. We make a stock pot of soup every Sunday night and eat that too.
  • Pulled meat: "with the pulled meat you can make sandwiches, fajitas, or quesadillas, mix them into other things like pasta, or top a salad with them, but we also just serve it as is with a vegetable on the side. I usually put it in the crockpot in the evening before bed and do the shredding and clean up in the morning (which doesn't take long)."
  • We make pulled chicken in the crockpot and use it throughout the week for sandwiches, tacos, on salads, by itself, etc. So incredibly easy. Rub chicken thighs w a mix of salt and pepper, put in crockpot and turn on low for 8 hours. That is literally it. It makes the most moist, succulent chicken and it creates a delicious chicken broth which we use as well. You could also add some celery and carrots into the crockpot as well, and when it's done you just have to add noodles or rice for a great homemade chicken soup.

 

Breakfast Ideas

  • Oatmeal
  • Breakfast smoothie: Yogurt, banana, oatmeal and almond butter with a veggie or fruit thrown in
  • Simmer 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats, 1 cup water, 1 cup almond milk with a dash of salt for about 10-11 minutes, stirring frequently. Then mix in mashed bananas, canned pumpkin + cinnamon, a dash of brown sugar or honey... whatever other nutrients you can sneak in :) Keeps in the fridge for a day or two.
  • Cereals  
  • Make waffles or pancakes on weekends - make extras, freeze them and then just warm them in the toaster
  • Overnight oats (works great with gluten free oats and nut milk)
  • Scrambled eggs in a muffin tin (loaded mine with diced veggies)
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Healthy muffins (made several batches and froze them).
  • Baked oatmeal in a 9X13 and refrigerate or freeze. recipe: 3 C old fashioned oats,  1/2-3/4C brown sugar, 1/2 C butter melted and then cooled, 2 eggs, beaten before adding, 1 t salt, 1 t vanilla, 1 C milk or milk alternative,  1 C fresh berries added last after stirring all above together first. Add to greased 8x8 and bake in preheated oven (350°) for 35 ish mins. Highly recommend reheating with a pat of butter on top. ***Double recipe for 9X13***

 

Lunch Ideas:

 

Recommended Appliances:

 

  • Slow Cooker: " Everyone loves these!!!!!"
  • Pressure Cooker: " It's amazing for cooking meat (that might take an hour+ in the oven). I've also done whole chickens in there and then popped them in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp up the skin. I've done veal chops, lamb chops, steaks, etc. in the pressure cooker. I also cook lamb or goat curry in there. It REALLY cuts the time down.
  • Rice Cooker: " Indispensible."
  • Griddle: " I know a lot of people use them for pancakes, but they are AMAZING for fish like sole, swai or salmon! I also love to cook boneless chicken on there with peppers and onions and then put it over Uncle Ben's rice or basmati rice. Make a white sauce and you have street cart food that is so much healthier and tastier!"
  • Deep Freeze: " Cook meals in the slow cooker and then put them in the deep freeze - lots of meals stored up to just nuke."
  • With the pulled meat you can make sandwiches, fajitas, or quesadillas, mix them into other things like pasta, or top a salad with them, but we also just serve it as is with a vegetable on the side. I usually put it in the crockpot in the evening before bed and do the shredding and clean up in the morning (which doesn't take long).
  • "A favorite of ours is home canned meat sauce over polenta. With a pressure cooker both are pretty easy to make and dinner can be ready in 10 minutes start to finish. I'm a fan of the stovetop models over the electrics since you can quick release them in the sink and there's much less to maintain/break. Here's the one I use: http://amzn.to/2nE1ync."

 

Meal Prep Services:

  • "Seamless is popular in our house too so don't feel bad. 
  • "Blue Apron and Fresh Direct are convenient and easy though; not the cheapest options but certainly makes your life easier to not have to think about it."
  • "FreshDirect also has a nice variety of made or prepped gluten free meals. We've gone though periods of using these."

 

Related reading and resources:

 

From PSP:

 

From around the web:

  • Mark Bittman: "I love Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian cookbook. His recipes are mostly easy and quite adaptable. His easy bean burger is a great start. I just made Spicy Autumn Vegetable Burger for my 11 month old son. I subbed chili powder for the cayenne, but otherwise followed the recipe. As I was putting patties into the freezer, I realized that I was becoming more and more like my mom...."
  • "I just saw this thread growing on Metafilter - in case anyone is looking for more inspiration!"
  • Sesame Street Lets Cook: "This cookbook has been a game changer. Steps kids can do have an Elmo next to them. I have my three year old help me make a big batch of chicken soup, lasagna roll ups, etc and freeze when we have some down time on the weekends. The recipes are healthy and the characters get him to try new things."
  • "The Kitchn website"