Meal planning is my jam. This process is essential for my family to function. Planning brings calmness and clarity to our typically over-scheduled weeks of homework, sports, lessons and meetings.
To start, I assign each weekday a generic cuisine, so all I have to do is plug in the meal and shop for necessary ingredients. For example, an average week of family meals might be: Pasta Monday, Taco Tuesday, On-the-Go Bowls Wednesday, Leftover Thursday and Pizza & Movie Night Friday.
Dinner with my family is one of my favorite times of the day. That said, it’s easy to get in a rut when it comes to changing up menus. Every mom has that go-to-dish (sometimes more assembled than cooked) that’s made from memory and on-hand refrigerator and pantry staples. These aren’t complex recipes — just family favorites using a can of this and pinch of that.
I turned to my village moms for some of these go-tos. Family members, neighbors, carpool moms and colleagues shared favorite dishes they can make with their eyes closed. These are quick meals you know everyone in the family will eat, where prep time is minimal. We hope you’ll share some of your favorite go-to family favorites with us as well, and we’ll include them online.
Here’s to a new year of easy, healthy family meals with a little more variety!
By the time our editor, Kara, leaves the office, she’s looking for a meal she can pull from the pantry. Her go-to is a chili-like soup with ingredients from Trader Joe’s: Brown some ground turkey (or beef), add spices (ground garlic, salt, pepper and chili powder), add packages of prepared creamy tomato and roasted red-pepper soups and one can each of (rinsed) black beans, pinto beans and kidney beans. It’s even better topped with grated cheddar.
Spaghetti squash and meatballs
RAK’s art director Michelle makes a healthier version of spaghetti and meatballs by microwaving a halved spaghetti squash in 5-minute increments until done and adding the squash to a prepared red sauce with cooked meatballs from the freezer. When she brings this dish to the office, we want to swap lunches!
My sister-in-law Julie turns to her trusty Crock-Pot for this gem. Combine 3-4 chicken breasts, 1 can of golden mushroom soup and 1 package of dry onion soup mix into the crock pot and cook on low for about 6 hours. Shred and serve over rice or roasted potatoes.
Families who like a little spice will enjoy this recipe from Michelle. She sautes sliced onion with sliced yellow, orange and red peppers, then adds a can or two of coconut cream (or milk), sugar and curry seasoning to taste. Add in chunks of pre-cooked chicken. Once the chicken is heated, add fresh basil until it wilts, then pour the mixture over rice.
My best friend Lily, a mom of four, lives in her minivan, driving kiddos to and from school and activities. Her easiest meal calls for any and all unused veggies and cheese in her refrigerator, sprinkled on a giant lavash cracker. Pop it in the oven and broil until the cheese is melted and — faster than putting a 2-year-old in a five-point harness — dinner is served! No lavash? You can make personal “pizzas” the same way using flour tortillas.
Karen, our publisher and founder, is a huge fan of stir-fry — but not of the chopping and prep work since she and her husband tend to get home late. She sautes pre-chopped fresh veggies (like mushrooms, broccoli florets, onion, shredded carrots and cabbage) in a little oil with a quick squeeze on a tube of minced garlic, then stirs in Trader Joe’s Soyaki sauce. Add chunks of rotisserie chicken (or another protein) and serve over hot brown rice from a microwaveable packet. Top with peanuts or cashews.
Chicken sausage with broccoli over rice
My own go-to meal can be placed in a to-go container and eaten on the way to baseball practice. I heat up already cooked chicken sausage from Costco and broccoli, add it to rice (made in my Instant Pot) and pray we don’t hit too much traffic.
Time-saving dinner tips for busy moms
1. Make meal planning a priority. Having a plan means you won’t end up at fast-food drive-throughs multiple times in a week. Resolve to jot down a theme or main course for each weeknight, and you’ll be amazed how much easier it is to shop and prepare quick meals. Need help with ideas? A Harvard nonprofit studying the benefits of families dining together offers week-by-week meal plans at thefamilydinnerproject.org.
2. Try grocery delivery or pick-up. Once you get the hang of it, online grocery shopping can be a real time saver. Fry’s Pickup (formerly called ClickList), Safeway and Amazon Prime Now offer these services. Read about our experience with grocery delivery here.
3. Prep your veggies. Chopping fruits and veggies is time-consuming, so set aside 30 minutes on the weekend to prep them, or buy pre-chopped veggies. At Uptown Farmer’s Market in central Phoenix, you can buy fresh produce from local growers and have it chopped, sliced and diced onsite by student chefs at the Veggie Valet — for free (donations accepted).
4. Try meal-prep services. If shopping, prepping and cooking feels overwhelming, try a local meal-prep service like Dream Dinners, which lets you select favorites from monthly menus. In their commercial kitchen, you can prep all the ingredients and bring home dinners that feel gourmet when heated and assembled. dreamdinners.com
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