Getting dinner on the table for a busy family is no easy feat, contrary to what some sitcoms might have you believe. Instead of succumbing to takeout temptation or hitting up your favorite fast food joint, check out these mom-approved tips for making wholesome dinners fast. Nutritionists, bloggers, and personal trainers all spilled their secrets on how to pull off cooking for a family without spending hours in the kitchen or hundreds upon hundreds of dollars in the grocery store. Keep reading to learn their tricks and try some out the next time you’re in a food bind of your own.
Want to make sure you’re helping your family stay fit? Instead of overhauling your diet, consider checking out our list of 21 Eating Habits That Help You Shed Weight.
Sneak in Veggies
Your kids can’t reject what they don’t see. Maya Krampf, a mom and founder of the food blog Wholesome Yum, recommends fooling veggie-averse little ones into ingesting produce by disguising it. “Hiding veggies in comfort foods like casseroles or cheesy sauces is a sure way to get picky eaters to eat them,” she explains.
Set Some House Rules
Make sure your meals are nutritious by following some flexible guidelines. Leslie Forde, a blogger who writes Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs, likes to have a couple goals in mind before cooking in order to make sure her meals meet her and her family’s needs. One of her rules? “Every meal has 1 protein and 2 to 3 vegetables, typically 1 grain—but you choose your own adventure here, based on how you like to eat!”
You Can’t Please Everyone
While you might feel like you have to make 3 or 4 different meals to satisfy everyone in your household, you don’t. Instead, you can customize the same dish in multiple ways, in order to please each member of your family. Forde also recommends moving components around to accommodate children who are picky eaters and adults with certain allergies or dietary restrictions.
Repurpose What You Have
Instead of whipping up a new course every day get creative with the ingredients you have already prepared and reconfigure them to make new meals. Jennifer Blossom, a Doctor of Occupational Therapy and blogger at Blossoming Mommy, believes there are many ways to re-use dishes. “If you made spaghetti one night and have leftover marinara, use it to make a frozen lasagna dish, red dipping sauce for cauliflower mozzarella sticks, or as a spread for zucchini boat appetizers,” she explains.
Mason Jars Are A Must
Another one of Blossom’s secrets for quick meals? “Mason jars are an amazing way to stay organized, on track, and creative for the week,” she says. After preparing whatever produce your purchase, you can portion it out into mason jars and enjoy salads, smoothies, and light bites throughout the week.
Take a peek at this list of 20 Awesome Recipes for Mason Jar Salads for some meal prep inspiration.
Switch Up Your Sauces
Deena Brown, another busy mom and family chef, recommends changing up your sauces to make the same protein taste new and exciting. “My marinades are different so even if I cook chicken three times per week, it tastes different each time,” she explains. The next time you decide to grill poultry, consider making extra and saving some so that you can make a new dish with the same protein later in the week.
A Little Investing Goes A Long Way
One easy way to up the quality of your cooking? Invest in high-end herbs and spices. Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, a licensed acupuncturist and nutritionist, recommends using a good knife and top notch seasonings when cooking. “Plain French sea salt can make anything taste good,” she concludes.
Get Everyone Involved
Allison R. Jackson, a NASM-certified personal trainer, is an expert at encouraging children to make healthy decisions when it comes to food and fitness. “I let my kids plan the week’s dinners. The only stipulation is they have to include a vegetable,” she shares. By letting your entire family get involved in the meal preparation process, children will be more excited and willing to try new dishes and food combinations.
Stick to a Routine
You don’t need to invent a new culinary creation every night. One easy way to work variety into your meal plan is by dedicating meals to different days of the week. Rachel Bruzek of D’Amico Catering explains that in her family, they have several weekly culinary traditions. “Friday night is pizza and a movie night. We make our crust from scratch and everyone gets their own toppings,” Bruzek describes.
If you want to make sure your homemade pizza is diet-approved, check out our list of 20 Incredible, Healthy Pizza Recipes.
Have an Emergency Meal in Mind
It’s bound to happen once in a while: you’ll get caught up with work and before you know it, it’s 8 p.m. and you need to get food on the table, fast. Instead of throwing in the towel and ordering delivery, have a quick meal you can make during these food-emergency situations. Danai Balta, the co-founder of Family Stories, likes to make basmati rice, steamed veggies, and broiled steak or chicken whenever she’s crunched for time.
One Skillet Meals Are a Must
One pot meals are a great way to reduce post-dinner clean up, which is arguably the worst part of the meal prep process. Erin, the blogger behind My Mommy World, loves having Taco Nights for this exact reason. Cook up some ground beef in a pot with plenty of seasoning and let your family assemble their own tacos by providing tortillas, veggies, sour cream, and garnishes.
Less Meat=Cheaper, Healthier Dinners
Everyone knows plant-based eating is a great way to stay healthy, but did you know it can also save you money? Katie Mulligan, a mother and registered dietitian at Well Family, explains that by focusing on beans, lentils, nuts, and quinoa, you’ll reduce the price of your weekly groceries. If you’re not ready to ditch meat entirely, trying using it as a garnish instead of the centerpiece of your meal.
Make a Week’s Worth of Meals in a Day
Instead of cooking and cleaning every single day, set aside an afternoon to spend in the kitchen and get all your meal prep done for the week. Anna Brockway, co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Chairish, likes to do all of her culinary grunt work on Sunday so that when she is busy during the week, she can quickly heat up healthy homemade meals. “We make a full range of entrees and veggies like soup, roasted chicken, grilled veggies, pasta sauce, and even ice cream,” she explains.
Work Beans into Your Meals
They may not be your kid’s favorite food, but beans are one of the cheapest ways to up the protein and fiber content of your dinners. Terra Wellington, a lifestyle media personality, has plenty of ideas when it comes to working them into your meals. Some of her favorite serving methods include refrying them, adding them to soup, serving them as a side with eggs, and rolling them into a burrito.
Their incredible versatility is one of the reasons why we named beans as one of the 8 Superfoods You Should Eat Every Day.
Don’t Overdo Grocery Shopping
While buying in bulk can save you some money, it is only cost-effective if your family actually consumes everything that you’ve purchased. Avoid wasting food (and money) by shopping for groceries just one week at a time. Stacey Freeman, founder and Managing Director of Write on Track, explains that focusing on reducing the amount of food you waste and cooking with what you have is one of the best ways to cut down on food-related expenses.
Stick to Seasonal
Organic produce doesn’t have to break the bank. Kenya Moses, the founder and CEO of Be A Fit Mama, recommends looking for produce that is in season. Generally, these items will be cheaper than out of season produce, which has to be shipped in from other regions.
Breakfast for Dinner
Who says eggs are an AM-only option? The next time you’re looking for a family-friendly dinner that is cheap and easy to prepare, consider cooking breakfast in the evening. Ginny Leavitt, coach and founder of Set-Point Wellness, recommends scrambling eggs or throwing them in a corn tortilla with cheese, bacon, and tomatoes for some breakfast tacos.
Let a Deli Do Some of the Grunt Work
Chicken is a dinnertime staple, but preparing a whole bird can be a huge time suck. The next time you’re in a rush, consider picking up a rotisserie chicken from your local grocery store or deli. Tangela Walker-Craft, a blogger who writes Simply Necessary, likes to use the meat from the drumsticks, thighs, and wings for casseroles, and save the breast pieces for another recipe.
Use a Crockpot
Crockpots and Instapots are a recurring favorite with meal-prepping moms, and with good reason! These nifty gadgets are an easy way to prepare stews, meats, and main courses with minimal work required. If you need some crock pot inspiration, check out Allison Jackson’s recipe for Crockpot Chicken Teriyaki, which is easy to prepare and requires only seven ingredients.
One way to make meal prepping more fun? Invite some friends over and do it together. Jamie Malone, a licensed professional counselor at Insight Counseling and Consulting, explains that she likes to spend Sundays meal prepping with some of her neighbors. Not only is this a great way to make cooking more fun, it is also the perfect opportunity to learn some tricks of the trade from other family chefs.
If dinner isn’t the only meal you need pointers on, be sure to check out our list of 35 Healthy Foods for if You Have a Busy Lifestyle so you’ll always have the right meal building blocks on hand to whip up a healthy dish even when you’re crunched for time.